An American Single Mother In The Middle East

Donna Stefano, a divorced single mother raising a son in the Middle East, shares her experiences dealing with cultural differences, disapproval, and finding her strength in a foreign country.

As any expectant, first-time mother, I looked forward to parenting with that wonderful mix of glorious anticipation and trepidation. When I became a single mother through divorce when my son was just 9 months old, I felt like I had been stripped of many of the joys of parenting. I never imagined myself as a single mother. It took many years, and only through living it, to believe that this title would only have the limits that I decided to put on it.

When I became a single mother, I had a career that I absolutely loved in international development. Yet, I could not imagine how I would be able to continue this life of travel and international experiences with a child in tow…alone. I had the good fortune of landing a job with an international development and humanitarian organization in 2004, where I still work today. I was offered a job working on one of their largest and most complex programs in the Middle East for which travel would be limited due to security issues. More importantly, their leadership and senior staff consist of a cadre of family-friendly individuals who didn’t blink an eye when I laid out the facts of single motherhood, and the limits it would potentially put on my hours and travel. To them, being an excellent, dedicated employee was not mutually exclusive to being an excellent, dedicated parent.  

Through those initial, difficult years of single parenting, when I remember the sick days, both mine and my son’s, far better than the days spent meeting with Congress people on the Hill about Iraq funding levels, I grew confident that single motherhood would be a gift that I would give to myself and my son by sharing what I learned through my work around the world with him.

In 2008, I decided to take up a position abroad, mainly to work more directly on the development issues that felt at arm’s-length when working at headquarters. By that time, I had accepted two different four-month stints abroad in Jordan, and after gathering as much information about schooling and child care in Ramallah, I decided that I could make the mix work. I thought I had anticipated everything.

What I had not anticipated was the cultural mores of single mothers in the culture for which I was about to be fully immersed. It first hit me when I went to register my son at a local Palestinian school in Ramallah. The registrar insisted I fill out the space, “Father’s name.” I was asked this question each time I made a tuition payment or picked up a report card. I tried to explain that I thought my son’s father should be invisible and irrelevant to the school since he was 5,000 miles away, and I would be looking after all educational matters myself. But still they insisted. The message it was sending was that a mother’s name was not good enough. 

And yet, single mothering is not so uncommon in Palestine. Female-headed households are common due to extremely high unemployment, which causes men to seek employment abroad for several months and years at time. Men disappear overnight to be held under administrative detention by the Israeli military prisons, and women who may have never worked outside the home a day in their lives will scramble to continue to provide a stable home for their children. And, just as common as in other countries, early and arranged marriages or mismatched expectations of a marriage relationship end in divorce.   

Male-female relationships in the Middle East are no less complex than in the West, but are regulated by firm, conservative, and long-standing views of what is right and wrong. A single mother who comes to that status through divorce is viewed through lenses of shame—the in-laws will almost certainly have little or no connection to the mother, and the woman’s prospects of remarriage may remain quite limited due to issues surrounding child custody in the case of re-marriage, or general cultural taboos against building Brady Bunch-like step-families.

Due to these complexities and the fact that all my actions as a woman and a foreigner would be watched closely by curious on-lookers, including colleagues, friends, and strangers, I quickly realized that I needed to understand the expectations of a divorcee and a single mother—which expectations I could boldly stand against, and to which I should conform in order to maintain respect among my professional networks, which I attentively built.

One of the first things that became obvious is the expectation that a divorced, single mother should not have expectations of a romantic life, and that re-marriage was generally regarded with disdain. I befriended a young woman who was abandoned by her husband when she was just 24 years old with two young children under the age of four. She moved back to live with her parents (as most divorced women are expected to do in order to be under her family’s protection, or I suspect, watchful eye) and was quickly told over and over again by all friends and family, “Just make the most of your life, give yourself to your children, for there is no man who will ever want to marry you and take your two children under his care.” She was expected to get used to the idea that her emotional life and love prospects were over. This friend, with the grace and wonderful odds that I believe true love engenders, did meet a wonderful, caring man who not only fell adoringly in love with her, but also agreed to care for her two sons. 

Another colleague of mine had been married and divorced twice. She lived on her own, provided financially for her three grown children and one young child, and was pursuing a career from her heart. When she befriended a man who was a mutual acquaintance of her ex-husband, and who obviously adored her, she became engaged hoping it would “end the talk” of her lifestyle. Many of my male colleagues criticized her decision openly, believing that she was setting a poor example for her grown daughters by taking on a new husband.

I could certainly try to claim exemption from this standard, but any potential cracks in a moral life would spill over to my reputation as a professional among my Palestinian colleagues. I learned to pursue my romantic life quietly and with integrity, which came easily anyways when I kept in mind what I wanted to model to my son. Still, I would get very little sympathy if I spoke to my Palestinian friends of the loneliness inherent in single parenting, and my desires for a rich and fulfilling love relationship. I also learned the hard way that a romantic relationship with a Palestinian man would have little future if he had deep beliefs that his non-conformance to a marriage relationship with a “respectable” woman (i.e. not previously married with children) would cause him problems in society as well.  

However, there were several other areas where I learned I could be a role model for the single mothers that I did meet, as well as a symbol for breaking the mold. Simply through my decision to work and travel abroad I was breaking through the “shoulds” and “should nots.” By being financially independent, dedicated to my work, and keenly attentive to my son’s emotional, physical, and academic needs, I was breaking through stereotypes that limit men’s views of a woman’s role and capacity inside and outside the house. Most importantly, I never let myself be seen or tell my story as one in which I was a victim, which is a very common narrative that women in the Middle East share with women all over the world. 

One day while training a group of bankers, I was asked the question by a trainee of when they should sell a fixed rate versus an adjustable rate mortgage to a client. I decided to illustrate the answer by telling the entire group of 25 men the story of my divorce as it related to me having to re-finance my home, being sold an adjustable rate mortgage, managing to continue to pay that mortgage on a single-income, and ultimately benefiting from the dropping interest rates in the ensuing years. Sure, I could have answered their question without telling my story, but I decided that no geographic or cultural boundaries can stop me from sharing my successes in single motherhood.

Donna Stefano is a single American mother raising her young son in the West Bank while serving as Project Director for CHF International’s Palestinian Homebuyer Education Program. She has worked in the field of international development since 1994, managing complex humanitarian and development assistance programs.

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