When Michelle Obama slipped recently and described herself as a “busy single mother,” I — and thousands of other women — nodded in knowing agreement. When you have a husband who travels extensively and who, even when home, works extremely long days, it is very easy to feel as if you are a single mother.
My husband traveled to cover the Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City and in 2004 in Athens. Each time, for the three weeks he was away, I felt very much like a single mother. I have friends whose husbands travel more days a week than they are home and they often confide that they feel like single mothers.
So I am not about to castigate Obama for her slip of the tongue. In fact, in misspeaking, the first lady probably allowed herself a rare moment of candor about the difficulties of being married to the most powerful man in the world.
But feeling like a single mother is different from being a single mother. The difference is that one is a temporary condition and the other is not.
When the president is in the Middle East and the first lady is trying to help Sasha and Malia with homework, plan a spring break trip and manage her own schedule of appearances, it is like being a single parent. But the president comes home.
Even while he was away, she could talk to him about whatever crisis had occurred with the girls, or consult with him about whether they should go skiing or snorkeling on break. (Please don’t write in to say that she has people to help her do all this; of course, she does. But if she’s worth her salt as a Mom — and I believe she is — she worries about the same things that all mothers do.)
But for true single mothers — those who are without a partner because of divorce, death or decision — the person to bounce ideas off of is absent. The conversations that happen after the kids have been tucked into bed — about school choice, summer camps, bad friend choices — are monologues instead of dialogues.
For divorced mothers, it’s difficult to try to ensure your child has a relationship with someone you cannot (or will not). How much do you subjugate your own feelings in order to let your child maintain parental ties?
For widowed parents, like myself, the story line is often cleaner and more sympathetic. No one thinks you are somehow to blame for the fact that your child doesn’t have a dad. The downside, of course, is that there is no one to visit on alternate weekends. No matter how rocky the relationships may be as a result of divorce, there is always the hope of renewal and redemption. That is inexorably absent for children of widowhood.
As for single parents by choice, all I can say is “God love you.” It is a statement of faith and hope and belief in the impossible that is breathtaking. At some point, I hope your kids understand the unique pronouncement of love that their existence represents.
So being a single mother is very different from being like a single mother. I have no doubt that the first lady understands that. Mother’s Day is just around the corner. I would like to suggest that any of us who has ever felt “like a single mother” imagine for just a few moments what it would be like if that feeling never ended. And then do something to ease, for even an hour, the weight that real single mothers feel.
Grant writes about parenting issues every other week. Find her previous columns at washingtonpost.com/parenting .