Recently, a high profile married woman with children described herself as a “busy single mother”. It was Michelle Obama. Her comments caused a backlash in the US with single parents groups and media commentators reacting with disdain.
Michelle Obama’s life in the White House cannot be compared with the life of most single parents. We know that single parents are strong, determined and resilient and work incredibly hard to ensure their kids have the best possible life. This is not about comparing the life and the challenges of a single parent with the life of a 'married single parent'.
But Michelle Obama’s description of her life is a growing phenomenon. Look around you and there are many parents – principally, but not always women - who have partners, but who are parenting alone most of the time. The other partner is absent for most of the day-to-day parenting duties.
These women tend not to go out at night because they have nobody at home to care for their children. If they attend a school function, or a child’s birthday party, or a weekend sporting game, it’s generally alone.
In the year 2 class I teach of 22 children, seven of them are in this situation. Another four live with just one parent. This means that only 50% of the class know what it’s like to have both mum and dad home all the time.
Not all the absent parents are the expected ‘fly in fly out’ worker at a mine either. One is a ship’s captain who has six weeks travel and then three weeks at home; another is a marketing executive with a Tokyo based company who spends four-to-five days a month at home; one of the mum’s is a partner in a law firm and she travels to Sydney every Monday morning and returns on Friday night, with dad looking after the kids; one is serving in the military overseas; three of them have dad’s working in mines elsewhere in Queensland or Western Australia.
I’ve talked to a few of the mums and asked them if they’ve thought about moving but they have all said ‘no’ – because they like living where they do, their and the childrens’ friends are close, they mostly have family support networks and “he’d probably still work on the weekend anyway”.
It’s a different life. They do not have the financial issues faced by most single parents, but they also don’t have the same capacity to socialise or build a ‘new’ life as single parents learn to do. Of those who work, they have either had to have an understanding boss in terms of reducing their hours or flexibility; or, in the case of the dad, work from home. He told me recently that the worst bit is he can go all day without speaking to another adult if he’s immersed in a project. I have noticed also that the mums in this situation tend to gravitate towards one another, even if their children are not naturally friends.
There isn’t a magic answer to this. It is something I am mindful of as a teacher of young children; in some cases, the arrival of a usually absent dad on the scene can be disruptive and tough on all concerned. It is also why I would like to see more men in teaching so children have some positive male role models (but that’s a whole other topic for discussion). I believe it is also a situation that will continue to increase, rather than contract; and rather than criticise Michelle Obama for her comment, we should recognise the frustration of a parent left to parent alone, but not alone.