Single Moms Make It Work

In this week's segment on parenting, host Michel Martin talks to three single moms to find out what they've learned by raising children alone. Martin is joined by Lori Gottlieb who wrote about single parenting for Working Mother magazine, Stacia Brown, blogger at Beyond Baby Mamas, and regular 'Moms' contributor Aracely Panameno.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, that savvy advice is coming from a panel of single moms. And I don't think it's a stretch to say that the image many people have of single moms - of the life of a single mom - is that it's tough. But our guests say that the demands of single motherhood offer invaluable lessons that every parent should hear.

So, joining us now, writer Lori Gottlieb - we'll be honest. She gave us the idea for this piece. She's the single mom to one son. She wrote about her experience in this month's issue of Working Mother magazine. The piece is called "Single Moms: The One and Only." Lori, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LORI GOTTLIEB: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Stacia Brown. She's founder of the support group and blog called Beyond Baby Mamas. She's a single mom to a daughter. Stacia, welcome to you.

STACIA BROWN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And back with us, Aracely Panameno. She is one of our regular contributors, and she raised her daughter, for the most part, as a single mom. Aracely, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

ARACELY PANAMENO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Lori, you tell us that you were inspired to write this piece after a funny experience with a coworker - at least, it seemed to be funny. You were saying that one of your colleagues was venting about, you know - why don't you pick up the story from here?

GOTTLIEB: Yeah. That's right. So one of my colleagues was venting about the fact that her husband was going to be out of town, and she really didn't know how she was going to manage. And the other moms were commiserating with her, and I kind of looked at them and said, you know, this is pretty much my life every single day.

MARTIN: How did they respond to that?

GOTTLIEB: Well, you know, I think that people tend to feel bad for single moms, because they think that we're very stressed out and that it's really hard. And what they learned was that, actually, because we have to manage our time differently, we have a lot of tips that were very useful to them. So, all of a sudden, I was sort of queen of, you know, near the water cooler, and everybody wanted to hear, you know, what are some of my tips and how do I - how am I so relaxed when, you know, the stereotype is the opposite?

MARTIN: I want to hear some of those tips in a minute, but first, I want to hear from Stacia. When you heard that, you know - that welcome-to-my-life moment, have you had one of those moments?

BROWN: I have, actually. I've had quite a few of those. Yeah. I think that people just tend to think that single mothers - you know, we are beleaguered and we're - you know, we're very stressed and harried all the time, and that we don't really - I don't think - I think they take for granted the fact that what we do every day is certainly something that married mothers only have to do when their spouse is out of town or when he's working overtime or something like that, in some cases.

MARTIN: I'm tempted to confess that I have been one of those people complaining, and that I've looked around at the single moms who are my colleagues and they'll look at me like, really? So, Stacia, before we move on to Aracely, though, why did you name your blog that, Beyond Baby Mamas? Kind of in-your-face, a little bit, there. What made you give it that title?

BROWN: Baby mamas are certainly a stigmatized group, I guess, when women identify as baby mamas. And, interestingly, some married mothers do. I know that Claire Danes did when she accepted some award recently. She called herself her husband, Hugh Dancy's, baby mama as a joke. And sometimes, it's certainly a stigmatized term, and it's something that, you know, immediately conjures these kinds of representations of this woman who has been abandoned and is bitter and lots of different things, needs government assistance and things like that.

So in order to distinguish between different kinds of single mothers, different types of families, I wanted to look beyond the stereotype and not let everyone just slap that label on every single parent that she's a baby mama, that she's someone who's been discarded by her partner entirely. And then she's just over her fitting some sort of caricature that everyone has for her.

MARTIN: Kind of want to reclaim it in the way that people have reclaimed...

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...some other phrases, which we won't share at the moment. We'll just keep those to ourselves. Aracely, what about you? I mean, is this inspiring to you? I mean, do - have you found yourself saying to people who have felt life is a struggle that you've had things to share, that you - and have you? Do you share those things routinely?

PANAMENO: So, yes. Oftentimes. My daughter is 24 years old, as you know, and so I have had, for many years, many moments when I have said, welcome to my world. And I think that all of us here today can share that. And so they're laughable moments. And, yes, there is quite a bit of stress in being the CEO and manager of your household and having to, you know, control and organize all of the things that go around.

But it was definitely doable. It has taught me lots and lots of lessons - even for myself personally and professionally and as a student, etc. - that have become very useful advice.

MARTIN: Well, bring it on. Bring it on. Let's hear some. Aracely, bring it on. Share some wisdom. Break it down. What's the most important one?

PANAMENO: So I would say you have to be disciplined, committed and organized. And those are things that, you know, I have an appreciation for in every aspect of my life. I have been a student - an adult student, and one of the things that I've done, when my daughter was very little, is I would take her with me. I had not finished my college, my Bachelor's degree and I would pack her up and take her with me to night school. And she would sit in the seat right behind mine, and I would take her little activities and she'd be busy doing her own stuff. Later on, when I was a professional and she was just a little bit older, I would pack her up and take her with me on the road. I was, you know, financially able to do that - not everybody can do it, but I could do that as well and I would organize and plan accordingly - whether it was for the trip on the plane or the destination, the conference, whatever. There have been plenty of speeches that I've given when she was on a basket sitting next to the podium as I was actually delivering a speech to thousands of people in an audience.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It gets a little harder when they're mobile, but I'll - but I take your point of it. Lori, one of the points that you made in your piece is that you've got to create other members of the team, that the kids have to be part of the team. And you think you perhaps demand more of your son than - by way of helping to run the household than perhaps married or partnered people do. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

GOTTLIEB: Well, that's right. So, you know, I think a lot of people say, you know, you really have to outsource. And what they mean is outsource to other adults. And I'm saying, you know what, we've got kids in the house and these are valuable skills for them to learn. Why can't kids sort the laundry? Why can't kids, you know, set the table? Why can't they do these things? And a lot of working moms feel really guilty asking their kids to do these things because they feel like, well, you know, I'm so busy working, I don't have a lot of time with my kid, I don't want to give them all these chores. But these chores, not only do they help us, but they're really beneficial to our kids and, you know, we need to be able to, you know, let go of the guilt and do what's right for our families.

MARTIN: Stacia Brown, what about you?

BROWN: I agree with Lori. My daughter is only two and half, but certainly narrating things that you're doing is important to your kids at any age, and telling them that you're going through this process, this is how to be resourceful, this is how to be resilient, you know, this is how to be independent, I'm paying for this right now, they're giving me my change. You know, things like that are important for kids to know and they are things that you wouldn't necessarily think to teach them or to rely on them for - take the change back from the lady, carry this bag for me, things like that.

MARTIN: What about the idea of creating a village? One of the things that Lori talks about too is just - is not being too proud to ask for help. Stacia, what about that? I mean I could see where that might be a double-edged sword, where you might be reluctant to ask for help because people might think, well, see, you know, that's the whole thing here. But what about you? How do you navigate that?

BROWN: You know, it's really easy to ask for help for me. Actually, I have a lot of help. I live with - I live like a multigenerational household. I live with my mother and my grandmother, so I have live-in help and I know that a lot of single mothers are not as fortunate. So I have help most of the time and if I need to go outside of the household and get more help, I'm certainly willing to do that. I don't feel the stigma that maybe a tiger mom might feel, you know, she wants to do everything by yourself or she feels like that pressure and you have to be perfect and everybody has to, you know, see me as this wonderful person. Single mothers are stigmatized already a lot of the time. And, you know, we're expected to ask for help and sometimes that's where the resistance comes in. You don't want people to feel like you're asking them for a handout or something like that, but you have to. I mean it's essential as a single parent to ask someone to do something for you at some point, and practicing that is something that extends into your life as, you know, at work and school and things like that. Becoming more comfortable with asking for help is, you know, a skill that everyone needs and it's something that, you know, all parents need - married and single.

MARTIN: Yeah, Lori, to that end, one of the points that you make in your piece is - well, two points and they were kind of related. You say reach for the not so gold standard and broaden your idea of right and wrong. Talk a little bit more about that. I mean, I know you...

GOTTLIEB: Right.

MARTIN: ...don't mean robbing banks by that. I mean I think we all agree - to get help to pay for daycare, I know you didn't mean that.

(LAUGHTER)

GOTTLIEB: I know I make my kids do chores, but no, I'm not about that. No. I mean I think that it's really important to not worry about what other people think because I think that this goes, you know, for single moms or married moms, I think that what a lot of the people around the water cooler that day were really interested in was how, you know, even they can benefit from asking for help, even they can benefit from the community and it doesn't mean that they've failed as a parent, it doesn't mean that they're incompetent. It means that it's really hard sometimes to balance work and parenting, and so it's OK to ask for help. It's also OK to do things the way that works for your family. So some people, you know, they're going to, when the school project comes up, they don't happen to have glitter in the emergency kit with the Neosporin. And so, you know, you improvise a little bit and your kid's project might not be exactly what, you know, it might not look like the project where the mom had a lot of time to spend on that project, but, you know, it's still fun and you still get to do it with your kid and nobody really cares.

MARTIN: I know. I love that letter that you said you sent to one of your children's teachers where you said, I'm sorry that I didn't happen to have green glitter at, you know, 2:00 in the morning and my kit with Neosporin.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And you said that the mom got it - that the teacher, who was also a working parent, you know, thought, you know, maybe I shouldn't be giving assignments that the kids can't do by themselves. Maybe I shouldn't be giving assignments that require a teacher to actually participate, particularly in - or rather a parent to participate, actually, in third grade.

Aracely, what about you? What are some of the other tips that you have for people - that everybody should learn?

PANAMENO: So I mean I think I want to go back to the point that many single parents do not grow up saying I want to grow up to be a single parent. You know, sometimes life just happens. And the other thing is that that I wanted to mention is that single parenting sometimes doesn't necessarily mean that you're single. You can have a spouse in the military, and if that military personnel has been deployed multiple times, lengthy periods of time, even if you're married, you're still single parenting and you can be also be a father single parenting your children, and you...

MARTIN: To that end, Michelle Obama recently made this point in an interview, that she said sometimes she feels like a single parent.

PANAMENO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Obviously she's a single parent with a lot of help with her mom and a dual income - or at least her husband's income. But she made that point, that she feels that way sometimes.

PANAMENO: People with very demanding careers or demanding jobs that have to be away, you know, a very lengthy period of the day, and then when they come home they're like crashing and not seeing their kids because they have to get up early in the morning and be gone. You know, laborers and workers, immigrants that have two jobs, you know, 16 hour days and so they hardly ever get to have family time.

MARTIN: And engineers trying to move a huge media organization into a new building, understand that they spent a lot of time not sleeping.

(LAUGHTER)

PANAMENO: So most definitely, the sense of team, this is a team effort and everybody has to like chime in is most definitely part of the mantra. Learning to live with imperfection, most definitely. Getting the kids to be part of that team as early as they can actually identify themselves as being part of, you know, a little, a contributor. My daughter was very young. I have an injured spine and so every so often I'm like laid up in bed with a lot of pain. And she was very tiny, maybe like a year and a half, two years old, barely could walk. She would push one of my kitchen chairs to the refrigerator, which was actually very tiny. The refrigerator was small but of course it was towering for her.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PANAMENO: She would push a chair up against the refrigerator. She knew that I kept, I never told her this, but she knew I kept an ice pack in the freezer. She would lean it up against the door and go over there and fetch me the ice pack and come back into the bedroom and say, Mommy, I know you're in pain, here is your ice pack. You know, so they themselves also learn to know that they're part of the team and that they can actually contribute.

MARTIN: Lori, what was the most, or was there a piece, a part of your piece that was particularly controversial that you got a lot of response to or pushback on? Was there?

GOTTLIEB: You know, I think that the part that people don't realize is just, you know, I think the counterintuitive part may be - maybe not controversial, but people don't know that actually when you are a single mom you have, there are so many things going on and so many balls in the air that just like married moms have that, we actually triage a little bit better, we make choices. So, you know, all of these things that sound like imperfection or chaos or whatever it looks like from the outside, these are actually things that make, that are good for our kids and good for our families. And so - and what some of these married moms realize was that they could do these things in their own families too. And one even realized that by doing the things that I was doing to manage my time with my child, she actually created date night with her husband, so, you know, ironically enough. So she found more time by doing the single mom things to have a relationship with her husband.

MARTIN: You have a number of tips in your piece that I mean like make me-time a must do.

GOTTLIEB: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Make it, keep it simple. Have lots of rituals: pizza night, movie night, babysitter night, knowing what's happening, you know, keeping some order. Keeping order doesn't have to mean like you're being, you know, a martinet about it. I mean you can keep it fun. I do have to ask you though, you know, Lori, I'm just going to ask you this, because you started it with this piece. There are those who would argue you're sugarcoating it, you know, that it just - it is just tougher. It's just tougher.

GOTTLIEB: Oh, it absolutely is tougher. I'm not saying it's not tougher. You know, it's like my house is not the Obama's house, so let me just clarify that. It is tougher. You know, but I do think that there are certain things that we do to make it easier on ourselves. Like, I know a lot of moms, because we're in this sort of helicopter culture of parenting, who, you know, when they're giving their kid a bath, they're so involved. And when I'm giving my kid a bath it's like I, you know, my kid's old enough now that he's not, you know, a hazard in the bathtub - I'm actually, you know, reading a book and I'm calm and I'm actually having some me-time. And other moms feel like they have to be engaged every second that their child. And I think we realize that we need that balance. So it is tougher but in some ways we try to make it easier on ourselves.

MARTIN: Stacia, final thought from you? Any particular - and any one word of wisdom you want to leave us with, briefly.

BROWN: I think that if you're an ally to a single parent it's important to understand their experience. Don't make assumptions about what their single parenting experience is and don't make assumptions about what they need. Let them tell you what they need.

MARTIN: All right.

BROWN: So if they need time away from their kids, then give it, and if they need time with their kids, make that, facilitate that for them.

MARTIN: All right. I think that's, again, something anybody could benefit from.

Stacia Brown is founder of the online community and blog Beyond Baby Mamas, with us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Aracely Panameno, one of our regular moms contributors, with us here in Washington, D.C. Lori Gottlieb wrote the piece "Single Moms: The One and Only" for this month's Working Mother magazine. She was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Thank you all, moms.

BROWN: Thank you.

PANAMENO: Thank you.

GOTTLIEB: Thank you.

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