The Obama Presidency and the Triumph of the Single Parent

02/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Eight hours after the nation inaugurated its 44th president, a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus driver made her way through one Boston's lightly traveled and lightly served routes with her young daughter by her side.

The girl, roughly five or six years old, passed the time by greeting riders and keeping count of them as the bus wound its way between the city's Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods. It was nearly 8 p.m., and the driver and her child were heading into their last run of the day.

"Only 45 minutes more, then we can go home and have dinner," the driver told her daughter, who had been playing with the beaded elastic ties and the ends of her pigtails.

"We can get something to eat?" the girl replied.

"Yes we can."

There was an undercurrent to their interaction that had nothing to do with an absent father, an overburdened mother or a child left behind. It's about a family making it work and facing the same challenges Ann Dunham did in raising her son: Barack Obama. His elimination of racial barriers to the nation's highest office are most noteworthy, but eliminating the stigma of a "broken home" is a feat that shouldn't be overlooked.

Though Obama seems to agree with the previous administration that "healthy" marriages offer the most beneficial environment for a child, he was brought up through two unhappy marriages and he, his mother and his grandparents made the most of their situation. Yes, it is a more difficult approach, but millions of families take it by choice or circumstance and make it work.

According to the U.S. Census, there were nearly 13 million single-parent families in 2006. Of those, more than 10 million were headed by single mothers. Roughly a third of all children in the U.S. lived with single or unmarried parents. When those figures were adjusted in 2007 to account for non-married couples living together, the number of single-parent families was still about 26 percent.

Traditionalists often cite these families as a drain on public programs and impetus to pursue such marriage-as-income solutions as the "Healthy Marriage Initiative," ignoring the fact that two-thirds of all single parents shun public assistance and only six percent receive Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF). In fact, among single parents, more than two thirds of single mothers and their children live above the poverty line, while nearly 90 percent percent of single fathers and their kids escape poverty.

There is no evidence of anyone claiming that being a single parent is easy. Obama and his mother benefited not only from their own unique gifts, but from the willingness of Dunham's parents to assist in the process. While there are parents who lack such support, many single parents put together a fragile patchwork of family life consisting of babysitters, family members and a flexible employer or three.

My sister and I were both young when my mother and father divorced and remember her taking us home from her first job as a teacher at our Catholic elementary school, fixing us dinner and then leaving us with a sitter while she worked her second job at a local supermarket. Lunches consisted of cheese or peanut butter on white bread; dinner was "ham steak" or 3 for $1 boxes of macaroni and cheese. When she couldn't get or afford a sitter, we would stay with our grandparents or our aunt. Our mother became adept at sewing patches in school uniforms, begrudgingly accepting my grandmother's offerings from her Newark welfare office and teaching us how to handle our own laundry and lunches before we turned 10.

The Notte children got the idea that we were poor, but our mother and the rest of our family never let us feel impoverished or deprived. Our grandmother encouraged us to read and play, and my mother bristled at nuns' accusations that our misbehavior or occasional slipping grades were a result of our "broken home." If asked about this subject today, she eagerly tell you about mine and my sisters' college diplomas, career accomplishments and how she'd like to cram them right up those nuns' habits.

I would think of the text message she'd sent me earlier in the day as I slipped past mother and daughter and off the bus. My mother had been watching the inauguration with her class and found the crowd in Washington reminiscent, if several times larger, than one she'd seen more than a decade before.

"I know how I felt when you graduated Syracuse. I can't imagine how his family feels."

Yes she can.