Michelle Obama and the Great Debate About When to Call Yourself a ‘Single Mom.’

On NPR’s Tell Me More this Tuesday, I participated in a segment designed to offer married mothers tips on how to manage their temporary solo parenting experiences. The idea for the segment came from a clever piece in Working Mother magazine by author and family therapist, Lori Gottlieb, who also participated in the conversation.

During the talk, host Michel Martin mentioned a recent comment by First Lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this month, FLOTUS referred to herself as a “busy single mom,” then immediately self-edited:

“Believe me, as a busy single mother — or, I shouldn’t say single, as a busy mother. Sometimes, you know, when you’ve got a husband who is president, it can feel a little single. But he’s there.”

The Huffington Post, in reporting the comment, quipped: “It’s OK, Mrs. Obama, we got what you meant.”

Or did we? One of the most curious phenomena I’ve experienced since founding BBM last year has been the various baggage around referring to oneself as a “single mom.” We’ve tackled it various times here at our blog and I suppose we’ll continue tackling the term and what it means for years to come. Officially, our stance is that single motherhood takes a multitude of forms. It is not tied solely to relationship status, but relationship status certainly factors into it, most of the time. Instead, single parenthood should be defined with the level of social, financial, and custodial responsibility one assumes for the child.

In short: just because a partner is physically present doesn’t mean a parent cannot feel that she (or he) is taking on the lion’s share of kid responsibility alone. Indeed, community blogger k l moore wrote for us back in November of last year:

i am a mother without a partner.

i am unmarried; marriage does not denote partnership.

i know married women without partners.

i feel as though all women, despite matrimony status, are single mothers.

you are the only mother your child has. [this statement is non-respective of same sex partnerships and extended families by virtue of divorce and re-marriage.]

But not everyone shares this inclusive view. We recently confronted an internet meme circulating on Facebook that took issue with mothers referring to themselves as single if they were co-parenting:

BHp4ZIfCcAAXkn2.jpg large

While some Twitter respondents to our discussion of this idea dismissed it as the rant of a frustrated co-parent, others were genuinely perplexed and/or offended by it. At best, it’s a short-sighted and underinformed idea. At worst, it’s insulting to co-parents, especially mothers. (No one ever scoffs at a non-custodial father’s reference to himself as a “single parent,” after all.)

When asked why he shared the above graphic on his Facebook feed, an anonymous married father explained:

I think a lot of people want to pretend they’re going through the struggle. You have successful people who pretend they grew up rough. Well-off suburban kids who pretend they’re in the same position as poor kids from the hood. Mothers with good fathers to their children who pretend they’re in the same position as women who do it alone.

People try to create an underdog scenario for themselves. I know women who struggled to take care of their children because the father didn’t do his part. They paid everything (without the help of government assistance), had their kids 7 days per week most of the time, kept up with educational events and extracurricular activities.

I think it’s a slap in the face to them to claim you’re a single parent when you get help from the other parent…. Don’t claim single parenthood just for sympathy.

I think mothers who “do it all alone” (read: maintain sole custody with zero involvement or visitation from the fathers of their children) are given too little credit if we assume they’re going to take umbrage with someone else identifying as a single parent, when he/she “receives help.”

The fact is: if we’ve ever cared for our children at length either alone or with unequal investment/participation from the other parent, we can empathize with a single parent’s experience.

In essence, this is what the First Lady’s comment was really about: sometimes, I feel like I’m doing this alone.

And sometimes, to be certain, during the course of her husbands meteoric career, she has.

Fellow NPR panelist Aracely Panameno affirmed this point:

Single parenting sometimes doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re single. You can have a spouse in the military, and if that military personnel has been deployed multiple times, lengthy periods of time, even if you’re married, you’re still single parenting and you can be also be a father single parenting your children.

And some prefer to ditch the labeling altogether. Early on, in our very first Conversation with Single Mothers of Color, community member Vik VarWoo said:

I don’t classify myself as a single mom. I’m a mom. And we’re whole. We’re whole.

Indeed, during the short months I’ve spent curating a space for minority mothers and fathers, I’ve met people from a wide range of personal histories and experiences — and they all have their own ideas about how best to ID themselves. As they should.

We own our stories. And we have the right to title them in whatever ways we wish.

But more importantly, we have a responsibility not to create a false “us” vs. “them” binary. We’ve always been against “othering” among mothers here at Beyond Baby Mamas. Mothering is mothering is mothering — and it’s all hard. Who has time to compete about who’s got it worst?

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One thought on “Michelle Obama and the Great Debate About When to Call Yourself a ‘Single Mom.’

  1. I can see both sides but I feel more a long the lines of Ms Obama. I’m married as well BUT no matter how much money or time a man spends with their child, wed or not wed, the mother will ALWAYS hv more responsibility (in most cases). Mother’s hv to be ahead of the curve while the father barely scratches the surface….

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