By Susan R. Benda
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Barack Obama is many things to many people. Among the groups claiming a special resonance with him are mothers like me. Who has not seen The Photo (can it be that there is only one?) of toddler Barack and his young mother? His memoir may be titled "Dreams From My Father," but in the preface, Obama says that his mother "was the single constant in my life" and that "what is best in me I owe to her." She brought him up largely on her own.
This is significant for me as an unmarried mother of a preteen son, and it surely resonates for other mothers raising their children without dads. Growing up without a father, my son has at times struggled to feel "normal." All children struggle with that; of course, some struggle more than others. My son, who is white, was startled a few years ago to learn that his best buddy felt that he didn't belong anywhere because his dad was a black African and his mom a white American. My son didn't see the issue of race as a problem -- to him, they were a perfect family.
For my son, the issue is fatherlessness. Not having a father has been an impediment to "fitting in." He yearns for an adult man to call his very own and is uncomfortable when other children talk about their fathers or ask about his. This discomfort has affected his sense of security about his future, about measuring up and "making it" (whatever that means). You wouldn't notice it if you met my cheerful, outgoing boy, but in some intangible way he carries an invisible burden on his little shoulders.
It is hard to watch him do this, even though thousands upon thousands of households today are headed by women who don't have partners. I know, however, that it takes time for the world around us to catch up to where society already is. For example, my son's tae kwon do teacher had the habit of talking to the students about their "moms and dads." I took him aside one day and suggested that the term "parents" might do the trick, with no child left behind. But there is a limit to how much a mother can protect her son from the word "dad." A mother can repeat to her child that there is no model "normal" family, but the world reflected and projected by television tells another story. My son and others like him are a silent and almost invisible minority, but they know who they are.
For these young people, the election to the presidency of a man who grew up without a dad signifies a seismic shift. The mere candidacy of Barack Obama has spoken eloquent volumes to my son where my words had failed. I know this because my son now walks a bolder walk and talks a more confident talk. The doors of his imagination have swung open, and his sense of his place in the world has changed. He is proud to share this identity with the new president. For my son, Obama's inauguration this week felt like a personal embrace. For him and for the growing number of children being raised by their mothers alone, all of the ceremony showed something, in a concrete way, that our words alone cannot: Yes, you can.
The writer is a lawyer living in Washington.