Yesterday I posted about the term, “single mothers” and how being raised by a single mother has replaced the American political custom of my childhood – namely, growing up in a log cabin. (OK, maybe Lincoln was a little before my time.) My posting was prompted by an Express-News article on media darling Julian Castro. As I was thinking further about this issue today, I was reminded that the “child of a single mother” qualification was previously claimed, dubiously, by Presidents Obama and Clinton, and is now being claimed by Dem gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis.
A recent column by local journalist Peggy Fikac summarized Davis’s self-described Horatio Alger story as follows:
- It’s a pulled-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps story that starts with being raised by a single mom, finds her in a trailer park as a divorced single mother herself, then triumphantly fast-forwards from community college to Texas Christian University to Harvard Law School.
But Fikac’s column indicated that Davis’s story is more complicated than her shorthand version and that a harsh spotlight awaits her. Although Fikac seems more interested in Davis’s story as a single mother, I have previously suggested to her that Davis’s story as the child of a single mother is also complicated. According to previous reports, her father was a local, highly-acclaimed man in the arts community and his role in Davis’s upbringing has not been thoroughly reported.
All of which brings me back to my earlier posting. It seems that the media should be careful about using the term “single mother” because it is freighted with so much ambiguity. Does it apply to unmarried mothers only or to divorced women? Does it apply only to women who have been abandoned by their child’s father or also to those who share custody and receive child support from the father?
And regardless of how you define the term, it should always be preceded by a wealth-indicating modifier – e.g., a low-income single mother. Otherwise, it might be technically accurate to describe Ivanka Trump as being raised by a single mother, Ivana.
The public would be served best by journalists who decline to use such a misleading and ambiguous term. I remember in college writing classes we were instructed to stay away from clichés and instead use words that were alive with meaning. That same guidance seems applicable here.