It’s Time to Turn the Spotlight on Single Mothers
6 mins read

It’s Time to Turn the Spotlight on Single Mothers

At just 16, Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas is the first African-American since Dominique Dawes to represent Team USA on the Olympic gymnastics team.

However, in my mind, her mom, Natalie Hawkins, also deserves a medal. A lifetime achievement award of a different stripe.

Natalie Hawkins has spent the past two decades working the hardest kind of mom-job, left to fend for herself at work and on the home front, a stereotype whose realities often are ignored, scapegoated, and denigrated by the media, politicians, teachers, and other parents: the American single mother.

Lots of married moms – and a few dads – at times feel like they are single parents. Their partners are away at work or dealing with personal issues or inexplicably unavailable to share the burdens and joys of childrearing.  But there is nothing quite as tough as truly being a single mom. There is no one else to call when the school nurse tells you your child has a broken arm but your boss says you cannot leave work; there is no second opinion on the hardest parenting calls; no one to help shoulder the economic burden of supporting children financially.  Single motherhood is the distilled essence of parenthood’s endless responsibilities, pressures and stresses.

Which is why it is gratifying, for me and hopefully all parents, to see the presidential campaign focus on winning the votes of single moms. Single women make up one quarter of the voting-age population.  They constitute one of our country’s fastest-growing demographic groups.  Lots of these voters are moms, and most lean Democratic.  Their votes will matter mightily this November.

But it is also disturbing what the candidates are NOT talking about: access to contraception and abortion, equal pay for women, workplace gender bias (which studies show is far worse for single mothers than other women), and affordable childcare. Republicans dismiss these “social  issues” as unimportant compared to our current lousy economy.  “Rome is burning – our country’s burning,” Maureen Karas, southern director for the Nevada Federation of Republican Women told the New York Times.  “And you’re concerned about these issues?  Birth control pills are like nine bucks.  That’s like two lattes.”

Good God.  This woman equates risking an unwanted pregnancy with buying Starbucks coffee?

Having another child, watching a raise go to a male colleague at work, getting notice that your local daycare center is closing due to an arbitrary change in state licensing laws – all immediately rock a family’s economic stability, especially when the family is headed by a single mom.

At the top of the list is our nation’s lack of affordable childcare. Six million American infants and toddlers require daycare so their parents can work and put food on their highchairs.  Parents cannot work without childcare; I’ve tried, and it’s awfully hard to run a business meeting, meet with a customer, or conduct an interview in the bathroom, even with a door that locks and your kids stuck on the other side.  I know many single moms who face Draconian choices:  risk losing their jobs vs. leaving kids home alone or with unqualified caregivers.

A big part of the problem is the stubborn and outdated concept that good moms stay home with their kids.   Stay-at-home moms may be a wonderful choice for many families, but it’s the most expensive form of childcare going.  Any politician who assumes all moms want to stay home  — or even CAN stay home — is out of touch with economic realities and the psychological dangers (to both women and children) of a mom forced to stay with her kids when she doesn’t want to, or can’t afford to, be there.  By promulgating the prejudice that the only way to be a good mother is to forgo your economic independence and stay home with kids, politicians ignore the hard realities facing single moms and all working parents.

Our presidential candidates rarely discuss the subject of childcare or single motherhood, unless of course they are lauding their own mothers several decades in the past – both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had mothers who were, at least for some time period, single parents.  The realities facing single mothers raising children alone today are strikingly absent from all political image-making and campaign speeches. Candidate beauty shots seem always to feature the smiling wife and well-scrubbed children, happily in the background.  Mitt Romney has five kids and a famously stay-at-home wife; his new VP pick, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has a smiling blonde stay-at-home wife and three giddy blonde kids.

According to Politico, an acquaintance describes Janna Ryan as follows: “She’s a very soft spoken, elegant, and lady-like. Very family-oriented. Always with her kids, always here picking up food for her family. Just warm, easygoing, not upfront in the public arena. You can see her on the TV, she really stays back and doesn’t attract much attention to herself. Just an amazing lady-like figure.”

Yep, the ideal woman, wife and mother!  But I bet sometimes she feels like a single mother too, as her husband travels the country furthering his own political ambitions – after she gave up her career as a lawyer with PricewaterhouseCoopers to raise their children.  How often do you think her husband is home to fix the kids dinner, help with homework, or change a diaper?

None of the Ryan, Romney or Obama campaign portraits include the nannies, babysitters, housekeepers, mothers-in-law and daycare providers who make all that relentless politicking and smiling, by candidates, spouses and kids, possible for months on end. A new brand of political candor about the challenges facing all moms, and attention to the pragmatic support single mothers and other working moms need to triumph as parents, would win a lot of women’s votes come November.

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