I have insomnia. If I didn't, I might not be bothering with this, but tea+biscuits+ranting on the internet is my way of dealing with 2.30am, and that pernicious terminology creep just sidled up over here.
I don't much like pointing out these things, because it makes me feel like I am being Issues, and I'd kinda like to be a brain and a voice and stuff rather than just a wangsty backstory. It's not just on the internet - I've been in this position at the London Socialist Feminists discussion group too. I either speak up and feel like a whiny little discussion-derailer or let it pass and have my head esplode of logic failure and unexpected invisibility. So please, say it with me:
single parents =/= single mothers.
All Bs are A, but not all As are B. You follow?
It is true that the vast majority (I've heard it quoted as 90%) of single parents are women. This is not a good reason to use the terms as if they were interchangeable. Firstly it renders single fathers and their children invisible and conceals the places where their needs differ from the needs of single mothers. Secondly, it's pure fucking misogyny. Yeah, it's just reflecting the misogyny that generally exists in family structures - the bulk of single parent families are formed from the breakdown of two-[heterosexual]-parent families, and of course mummy always has to keep the kids, because human beings are just designed that way, so calling single mother families 'single parent families' is just the natural way of things, m?
It's using a neutral word to cover up an un-neutral problem. It's saying that we don't have to question why mummy takes the kids. It cuts both ways; she has to have that parental responsibility, while he cannot have it. Or alternatively; she is permitted to hog that position, while he is permitted to neglect.
It disguises the differences between single mother families and single father families. I'm not made of bullshit statistics, but every single father family I've known of is the result of either bereavement or imprisonment; the absolute imperative for mummy to take the kids means that the place where daddy takes the kids is a pretty confined and inaccessible terrain. On the other hand there's this whole jumble of problems many single mother families experience - getting child support, coping with the emotional fallout of family breakdown, access (sometimes referred to as 'pay-per-view parenting', by which we mean 'pay-per-view paternity'), and dealing with the lousy stereotypes (foolish, pathetic welfare mum and incapable, irresponsible deadbeat dad. I don't know any single father family stereotypes. Maybe they wouldn't work so well on TV or something.) There's always going to be some overlaps and some reversals of the norm, but on the whole assuming that a single parent family is a single mother family means assuming that some problems are everyone's problems (and that my problems were/are not really there).
I'd like to live in a world where there were parents. It's a role I wouldn't run away screaming from myself. In that world the term 'single parent' would have substance. I just haven't personally experienced this world - I've seen only single mothers and single fathers, and conflating the gender roles that prescribe their fates into a nice, neutral term is not a great idea.