Many female clients whose ex-husbands take only a slight role or no role at all in raising a couple’s children often anguish over what that absence will mean as their boys become adults. Oddly enough, many sons, especially those raised by single moms and/or grandmothers, are shaped in positive ways from that type of upbringing, in many ways.
Interestingly, in doing research for this two-part series on how President Obama’s presidency has been impacted by his being raised mostly by women (his mother and grandmother), I came to learn that many other great leaders were raised by single mothers. For example, I learned that 25% of U.S. presidents lost their fathers through death, divorce or abandonment, some at a young age, others in their teens — 11 in all — and many of them relied on the wisdom and care of single mothers and grandparents.
President Grover Cleveland’s father died when he was 16; President Ford’s mother left her abusive husband when Ford was only 16 days old. President Rutherford Hayes’s father died approximately two months before this president’s birth; Hoover’s father died when Hoover was six; Andrew Jackson, portrayed as one of the most formidable of all the presidents, lost his father a few weeks before Andrew Jackson’s birth. Thomas Jefferson was 14 when he lost his father, Andrew Johnson was three years old, and America’s first president, George Washington, lost his father when his father was 49 years of age and Washington was only 11. James Monroe lost both parents at the age of 16 (and left shortly after their deaths to attend college), and Bill Clinton’s father (Clinton’s birth surname was Blythe) died in a traffic accident three months prior to his son’s birth. Clinton, too, was raised for several years by his grandparents. President Barack Obama’s parents split when he was two and he first lived with his mother and stepfather, but when he was 10 he went to live with his grandparents, his grandmother taking the reins in the tween’s upbringing.
If you study the behaviors of each of the aforementioned and read up on their backgrounds, you will learn that many in this group did not have stepfathers or that they had ones that participated marginally in their respective childrearing. That means that single mothers and/or grandparents — often the grandmother — were heavily influential in shaping the behaviors, character, values and attitudes of these American leaders.
Each president who commented on the subject of being raised without a father stated unequivocally that it was the strength and dedication of their respective mothers that left the imprint that would forge their approach to all matters, large and small.
As a result of my study, and as I continue to observe President Obama, I begin to notice certain traits, all admirable, that I am not so sure he would have acquired if not for his mother’s (Ann) strong influence and that of his grandmother’s (Madelyn). Both women held Barack Obama accountable for his actions and deeds; both tried to steer him in directions that would force him to explore his independence, build self-esteem and reach beyond what he considered his potential to be; both left him alone at intervals to figure out his fate and to single handedly face consequences for his choices as a teenager. Both also taught him that a true sense of responsibility to oneself and others was at the core of one’s character.
Moreover, these two women also made President Obama keenly aware of women’s rights — the importance of having compassion for the obstacles women face in the business and political arenas — and both showed him it was completely appropriate to have immeasurable respect for the challenges it took to raise children in the absence of a strong male figure and male role model.
In examining what influence I thought this may have had on Obama and his presidency — trying to balance more than a full time job along with parental duties — I counted the many pluses that I believe may have resulted in Obama’s success, despite his father taking virtually no part in shaping his life.
If you are a single mother struggling to do it all in terms of parenting, take pride in your efforts because the following positives are how many sons of single mothers have benefited for what their mothers wholeheartedly deserve respect and admiration for having shown them:
Better time management skills: Sons share that as a result of being raised by single mothers, they are far more intent on making every minute count throughout any given day. This is as a result of having watched her take on two jobs: that of handling her workplace duties and “moonlighting” as Mother-in-Chief after hours and on weekends. How does this show up for President Obama? He juggles the overwhelming demands of his job every single day and night (including weekends), yet he still makes his daughters a priority. It is not unusual for him to drop them off at school or sit patiently beside them while they do their homework. He’s also been reported to have picked them up from a friend’s slumber party.
The idea that intellect and sensitivity go hand-in-hand when choosing potential candidates for positions in the workplace: Though I do not know this first hand, I suspect that the reason Obama has surrounded himself with intelligent, capable and compassionate women is that he was raised by two such personalities. Consider just a few of those with whom he has chosen to surround himself. For instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a delicate job trying to keep or make peace around the world. Good mothers are great negotiators in making peace and tremendously sensitive to hearing and addressing all ideas. Janet Napolitano heads the Homeland Security detail — this job requires some real mothering as we know. She is safeguarding 330 million people and no one is more fierce to protect her own than a mother. Nancy Pelosi sits just two heartbeats away from running the country and she has shown the President that she can lean on instincts and intuition to get the job done. And, Obama’s choice to replace Supreme Court Justices was that of selecting Judge Sonia Sotomayor and former Harvard Law dean, Elena Kagan. Could it be that Obama has placed some of the most important care of America’s most pressing needs in the hands of those who not only have the skill set to do the job, but those who possess acute “motherly instinct?”
Compassion for the feelings of others: Obama demonstrated this was not just a “female” thing when he invited the Harvard professor and the cop to his “house” to throw back a few beers and munch on pretzels in an attempt to mend fences. Although many may argue these efforts were nothing more than a photo op, I disagree. I think it was a “teachable” moment for us all. I am convinced that his mother and grandmother taught the President to tactfully hash “it”out; not duke it out (verbally or physically), or stuff it and build resentment. Think about it: as a single mom how did you handle the last squabble between your warring offspring or disputes with your kids and others like them in the neighborhood? Did you start a war? No. I am sure you brought both sides together for either a “summit” to clear the air or you ruled hard and fast on what you perceived to be the best and most equitable resolution.
The art of perseverance: Many single mothers are forced to get to the finish line on matters large and small in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Daily, without any thought at all, they show their sons that there is no giving up. Watching a single mother figure out how to open the garage when the garage door opener will not work (as she is rushing to get the kids to school on time and on to work before she is late) or going to night school to get her college degree, the steadfast acts of single mothers do make indelible impressions on their sons. Notice that Obama perseveres in all matters whether it is in taking part with his wife in finding the perfect non-allergenic dog for his daughters to the pushing through of a health care bill that seemed near impossible to pass. In nearly everything President Obama undertakes he lets others know he will forge ahead and never give up on a goal he has set.
Pride in handling any task, large or small: Whether making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or running for a seat on the board of the PTA, most single mothers give it their all. Many youngsters of single moms will model the behavior they see at home. Surely, there was a lot of pride when Obama’s mother chose to return to Hawaii from Indonesia for a PhD in anthropology and when his grandmother turned out her work on a bomber assembly (with a baby at home and a husband overseas in the war). It is not surprising that Obama handles any task with verve and dedication whether it is on a Supreme Court choice or a choice on the basketball court.
Being organized and neat: Many sons of single mothers stood by (and also helped) while mom did the laundry, cooked, cleaned up after dinner and kept up the house. It does not take schooling at a military academy to teach sons to be orderly, neat, organized and clean. Perhaps it’s genetic, but moms seem to be the ones who wipe the dirty mouths of children, stack the playthings back in the cupboard at the end of the day, and help their boys wipe their feet before entering the house. They also demonstrate that keeping track of everything from family member’s birthdays to how many eggs remain in the fridge requires constant attention to detail. From all accounts, it appears that President Obama can jam a good many activities into one day and not find it stressful. He also can put great emphasis on even the little details, such as the way he affixes his signature to a bill; the way he nonchalantly brushes away many a fleck off the shoulder of his suit coat or organizes his speech materials on the lectern before he begins to talk, all without conscious thought.
Manners and hospitality: Moms are best known for throwing open their arms to greet visitors when guests enter the home, conducting themselves with proper deportment at the Thanksgiving table (by serving others first), and reminding their children to say please and thank you, always. Single moms tend to over-emphasize admonishments when it comes to manners and protocol lest their sons grow up to be crass or rude. If you watch Obama closely, you will note that he has no qualms about giving a loving hug to one of his male colleagues spontaneously as he greets one of them or bending almost chivalrously as he makes way for another to enter a door before him.
The importance of values: Obama has repeatedly stated that his family is his number one priority. Many men may also assert the same belief yet they do not live that principle. Obama makes no bones about his regular date night with his wife; fawns over his two girls and has commented frequently on his respect for the role of the mother. Obama also flew to the side of his dying grandmother (“Toot,” short for Tutu — Hawaiian for grandmother) in the last critical days of his campaign for the presidency) and has shown that the disaster in Haiti took precedence over everything that was on his calendar the fateful day the earthquake struck. He also canceled engagements to console the families of the recent coal miners in West Virginia. When other statesmen may have sent an emissary, Obama chose to go himself, citing these events as “must-dos.” During his upbringing he may have noted that single mothers, and often grandmothers, drop everything to shuttle cupcakes to the schools of their sons, even from a last minute request; they always put family first. Values, I believe, are learned behaviors. Single mothers show by example what a value system looks like.
Ability to show emotions without embarrassment and shame: If you make a study out of noting President Obama’s behaviors, habits, approaches and customs it suddenly becomes apparent that his major role models were the women who raised him. He displays an air of strength but also one of graciousness and sensitivity. Such was the case when he spoke before a crowd of thousands shortly after he learned of his grandmother’s death. As tears rolled down his cheeks he never apologized for the tearful display. Instead, he remained stoic and controlled — not missing a beat — as he kept on speaking. I am betting that the sensitivity and ability to display emotions, yet continue to function admirably in the midst of tears, was something Obama must have picked up from both of the women who raised him.
I often tell my female clients who express dread at the long road ahead of them as a single parent to enjoy and appreciate what it is they will teach their children, especially their male offspring. “Enjoy the journey,” I tell them. I also tell them that by being their natural selves they will accidentally and inadvertently teach their sons well.
Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Blank Rome LLP, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.