When the first lady slipped up and called herself a single mother in an interview recently, it made a small news story bigger. Well, a little bigger. It was covered in a small blurb on Huffington Post, tweeted and Facebooked a bit, and then wrapped up in a paragraph on vegetable gardens for school kids and presidential fundraising.
But if the statement was made a bit louder, I suspect a good portion of the country would be nodding along in understanding as Michelle Obama stated, “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,” in a television interview with a CBS affiliate in Vermont.
Obama clarified, “But as a busy working mom, and before coming to the White House, I was in that position, you know, as well. Working, driving kids to practice, not having enough time to shop or cook, not having the energy, you know, the resources weren’t the issue but time and energy is key.”
Single parents, particular those who are primary parents in the deal, get this. And so do many married parents who have a spouse with a demanding job, who live in separate cities, who have tensions or are working on big family issues, is absent or inattentive, is serving in the military or one of the many, many reasons a mother or father is not or cannot be there during the critical hours of after-school activities, dinner rush, hours in the ER waiting room, during sick and sleepless nights.
I used to cringe when I’d read a status update or hear a married friend exclaim that she’d be a single mom for the weekend while her husband was out of town. I’d feel frustrated at the blanket statement when (the assumption is) that the husband-father will return home with hugs and kisses and five minutes to take out the garbage and help with homework, no matter how weary or tired-eyed or crabby or wishing he was still in an office conference room or with his guy friends or tending to business in another city. I’d feel defensive about dads I know who complained about handling all the details while their wives were working or traveling or whatever, even knowing all might not be fabulous or secure or peaceful in that family situation.
You don’t get to call yourself a single parent, I’d think, if the other parent comes back and participates.
We use this term “single parenting” as short-hand for managing the raising of children and activity in a home alone. We throw it around to express our exhaustion and self-reliance and unhappiness and isolation and frustration at being the one and only adult in charge, for however long. My guess is that all parents, whether married or divorced or single or partnered, feel this way at some point. All of us can identify with that feeling, that achy need to pass the baton so we can work out, sleep, cry, pay bills, get back to our own work, have a drink, call a friend or numb-out in front of Real Housewives for a little while.
All of us have felt like we were the solo pilot at some point, even if there has been a capable, willing, supportive and loving partner in the passenger seat next to us. And many of us have probably had to scoop up a nasty-diapered, barfing, tantrumy, sass-talking, afraid, bleeding, slippery, teary, snuggly kid all by ourselves when the other parent was nowhere in site.
But not all of us do that every (single) day. Those folks who have committed partners and spouses who come back, their single-parent feelings are temporary. There are big crowds of single parents who don’t get that relief. Even those who have help from family or babysitters or friends who get it, they don’t get to think, “If I can only make it through the weekend…” or “Single mom until next Tuesday! UGH!”
Temporarily single — single-ish parenting — is not the same as single parenting.
But that’s not to say we don’t have connections to our married friends who feel the same way I do. Finding those commonalities is actually what got me past my irritation and eye-rolly-ness in hearing married moms and dads rage about their own moments of single parenthood.
When I really, truly, deep-conversation connected with parents who have a husband or wife who have been deployed for long periods of time and many times, I heard them express many of the same emotions I’ve felt in the five years I’ve been a single mother.
When I had a hours-long Facebook chat with a high-school friend who was ignored by her husband for more than a decade, I related to her life and priorities and questions and intentions.
When a mom I know sent out an email blast frantically asking other moms at the school if they could pick up her child when she was stuck in a massive traffic jam and couldn’t count on her husband to answer his phone or texts, even in an emergency, I felt her panic. I knew her panic.
But what made the biggest difference in no longer being bothered by the term “single parent” being claimed and tossed away after a few days, was in digging deep into my pre-divorce past. Once I was really on my own, in an apartment away from my parents and my former husband, I quickly realized that I was doing no more parenting on my own than I was when I was married. I had been doing the work of a single parent all along.
This rattled me, mostly because I had been in denial about my ex and I being true partners all those years. But the revelations didn’t stop there. As the years of single parenting have stretched on and my son has become old enough to reminisce about his early days, I’ve told him stories about the 20-hour days we spent alone a good part of his baby- and toddlerhood. I frame it as adventures — me pushing the stroller for miles from neighborhood to neighborhood because we didn’t have a car, or finding fun stuff to do for less than five bucks because we didn’t have money, or calling Grandma and Grandpa to rescue us if we were locked out or sick or stranded somewhere in the rain because Daddy was far away.
My ex-husband worked long hours, often at two jobs, almost always in the suburbs. He came home wiped out. He went to bed right away, many nights without asking a single question, and left before we woke. When he was there on days off, he cuddled and loved the baby. But he didn’t have the skills or energy to parent and partner beyond that. There was much more going on, but the circumstances summed up with me at the steering the parenting and household wheel at all times. Even the day after I had an appendectomy. Even when I desperately needed a break. Even when I went back to work. I was alone in a marriage and parenting. I just didn’t see that fully until I left it.
When my son asks now, “But Daddy was there, too, right?” (and he does ask this regularly as we reminisce), I can honestly and neutrally say, “No, he was work and it was you and me most of the time.” It’s just how it was, how we were.
Was I single married mother then? Perhaps. But it was in setting up a home on my own, figuring out how to get ahold of a locksmith while in my pajamas on my front stoop at 7 am on a February school morning, in managing a budget, rebuilding my credit score, changing a tire, tending to a growing boy, learning to ask for and accept help over and over and over again — all while working far more than full time, immersing in therapy and dating, eking out exercise — that defined me as a single mother.
I get it now — it’s not a competition about who is more single, more alone, more wanting of help. It’s a spectrum of parenting that ranges from collaborative to autonomous, and very few of us find and sit in one spot all of the days of our family life.
Michelle Obama, who admits that she has all the resources she needs but has often lacked the time and energy she wants to raise her daughters in the way she sees best, gets to feel like a single mama just as much as I, who will probably never even shake hands with her husband the president and may never have another husband of my own.
You, with your husband who works late or wife who has getting ready to serve overseas or co-parent who is battling depression or partner who is taking off to Vegas and leaving you with a nutty schedule for crazy kids, also get to feel what single parenting is like — and say it out loud.
I’m not here to stop you or even huff and puff at you for saying it. I’m not here to incur pity or say one way or the other is harder/better/more tiring/extra awesome. I’m saying that we should think about how we define single parenting, what it means to us and how those feelings can pull us together rather than isolating us even more.
I might be up in the middle of the night alone with a child who has night terrors. But somewhere out there is a mom, maybe married and maybe not, who gets exactly where I am and how I am and who I am, even if we are not exactly the same.
That mom might be you. It might be Mrs. Obama. We might, for 20 rough minutes, all be single mothers together. And that might actually be a relief rather than a frustration.
- How to find an excellent divorce attorney
- 16 great non-drinking date ideas
- Single moms: It’s OK to want to be protected
MORE ON BABBLE
10 things a mother should NEVER say to her daughter
11 mistakes all parents make (even the perfect ones!)
14 ways our kids drive us majorly crazy
Why I absolutely HATE kiddie parties
What’s your mom type? Take the quiz to find out!