Last week, the charming first lady Michelle Obama was talking on a morning TV show in Vermont when she slipped up and called herself a "single mother."
For the past five years, with aplomb and a decent amount of tasteful fashion, Michelle Obama has balanced her role as a professional public figure and her private affairs as a mom.
"Believe me, as a busy single mother," she told the CBS interviewer, before quickly correcting herself, "or, I shouldn't say single, as a busy mother. Sometimes, you know, when you've got a husband who is president, it can feel a little single. But he's there."
Since moving into the White House, Michelle Obama has navigated her two daughters through adolescence, and also pushed forward a wide-reaching agenda for school gardens and healthy eating.
"But as a busy working mom," she continued, "and before coming to the White House, I was in that position, you know, as well. Working, driving kids to practice, not having enough time to shop or cook, not having the energy, you know, the resources weren't the issue but time and energy is key," she added.
Her comment briefly sparked murmuring comments over the role and responsibility and burdens of single motherhood—after all, it shouldn't be forgotten that her husband, Barack Obama, was raised part of his life by a young, single mom.
But none of what was said last week is a new debate.
In 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle lambasted the fictional character Murphy Brown for a being a single mom. Played by Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown was a fictional TV journalist for CBS' long-running sitcom of the same name. A tough-as-nails, I-can-hang-with-the-big-boys investigative journalist, Murphy anchored an equally fictional TV show, "FYI."
But, the show's producers frequently and gleefully smudged that line between reality and fiction, setting the character in very real-life situations, like White House press conferences, and also pairing the character in the company of other powerful TV female anchors of the era, like Connie Chung.
At the height of the TV show's popularity, Murphy became pregnant and, in the show, declared that she would continue to plod away at her high-level, high-visibility job, a decision that enraged Quayle, a former Indiana senator, who criticized the fictional Brown for "ignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone" when speaking on the campaign trail in San Francisco.
His comments brought "family values" into mainstream discussion and into that year's presidential debate with candidate Bill Clinton, who, not coincidentally, was largely raised by a single mom.
Twenty years later, with an increasing number of working moms—and a representative number doing so as single moms—that debate may seem as distant as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Or, it may seem as recent as last month when Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, rolled back work-at-home privileges and set in place a new restrictive maternity leave policy.
Only a few months earlier, in July 2012, Mayer had become the youngest female CEO in history to lead a Fortune 500 company—and she also did so while five months' pregnant. Many believed that her lofty position would quiet the naysayers against working moms and serve as a model for a new generation. But in April, she declared that Yahoo's liberal work policies would be limited by a two-week maternity leave and eliminating stay-at-home work options. (Under intense criticism, though, last week Mayer partially revoked that decision and increased paid maternity leave to eight weeks, and provided a $500 stipend for employees to buy groceries and toys for their newborns.)
Yet Mayer's initial decision once again split open the debate about working moms, a discussion that is not going anywhere in the near future. Certainly, with more women than men in both medical and law schools across the country, and with a growing number of women in CEO and highly placed political positions (of the past six secretaries of state since Clinton took office, three have been women), the balance between holding together the homefront while also holding down a superpower job will continue to be a riddle to solve for the next generation.
We are dedicating the Modern Mom issue to single moms. Just because American culture increasingly has accepted and "permits" these moms to be both high-functioning professionals and kickass parents does not mean that it is any easier.