Nadya Suleman, Kate Gosselin, & Media Portrayals of the Single Mother

nadya-suleman-octomomkate-gosselinShanman’s recent guest post about Nadya Suleman, “the Octomom,” got me thinking about media portrayals of single mothers. Kate Gosselin, of “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” has recently joined the ranks of single moms. She, too, has a passel of children to take care of – and I wonder if she, like Suleman, will be seen as exploiting her children if she continues to allow her family’s life to be broadcast on “reality TV” in order to pay the bills.

As pro-choice advocates, I think we need to seriously consider what choices Gosselin and Suleman really have. Mrs. M recently blogged about the high levels of poverty amongst single moms. She brought up the fact that 28.3% of families that live in poverty are headed by single mothers, while 13.6% of families in poverty are headed by single fathers. Clearly, women’s choices are constrained by the economic realities of their lives.

Although Nadya Suleman is currently unemployed, she was a medical student when she became pregnant with her first child. She dropped out of med school so that she could become a mom. Suleman has garnered a lot of criticism for choosing to become a single mother when she doesn’t have a job. All of her children have been conceived via in vetro fertilization – it’s not like she got knocked up on accident. Going back to med school is obviously out of the picture for Suleman. So what other options does she have in terms of employment? Child care for 14 kids would bankrupt her. So who can blame Suleman for capitalizing on the media’s coverage of her case in order to buy diapers and pay rent?

Kate Gosselin‘s story is surprisingly similar to Nadya Suleman’s. Gosselin is a registered nurse, although she doesn’t currently practice. Gosselin has one set of twins, and a set of sextuplets. The Gosselins didn’t utilize IVF to get pregnant, but they did use fertility drugs both times in order to conceive. Although she was married when she got pregnant, she and her husband Jon are in the process of getting divorced. Jon Gosselin has pissed away his earnings from the reality show by wining and dining younger women and buying a Porche, while Kate has put all of the money into a college savings fund for the kids. She has been criticized for milking her family’s unique situation for fame and fortune, but what other options does she have at this point?

Both cases bring up the issue of affordable child care. Every parent that I know has had to grapple with this dilemma. Quality child care is hard to find, the spaces are usually limited, and it’s often very expensive when it is available. Many couples opt to have one partner stay home, because it’s often more cost effective to lose a salary than it is to pay for day care. But single parents do not have this option. The single moms I know have had to make tough choices in order to finish school to be able to better support their children in the long term. However, these choices shouldn’t be so difficult. As a society, we need to make sure that all mothers are supported, whether they choose to stay home or not.

Unfortunately, single mothers who choose to stay home are dubbed as “welfare queens.” They’re vilified in the press and in politics, and they’re usually depicted as women of color. But the criticism isn’t limited to conservatives who just want to eliminate welfare. I recently had lunch with a friend who is a confirmed liberal and a die-hard Hillary supporter. She was complaining about women who just sit at home all day while she busts her ass at two jobs just to pay the rent. She doesn’t have health care, and she’s angry that she makes too much money for public assistance. “It would be so much easier if I just sat at home all day,” she told me. “Then I could get a government check.” While I understand her frustration, I think it’s a little unfair to say that women who stay home with their kids are just sitting around. All mothers are working mothers – being a mom is a hard job, and it needs to be fairly compensated.

France has its act together where child care is concerned. According to a new study by the French-American Foundation:

France is ”a country at a level of economic development similar to that of the United States, but far ahead of us in insuring that its young children are well and safely cared for.”

The report describes a system largely financed by tax revenue: a blend of child care, education and health services based on free full-day preschool programs, subsidized day-care centers and licensed care in private homes for infants and toddlers. The noncompulsory preschool programs, which serve nearly 90 percent of French children 3 to 5 years old, offer language arts, exercise, crafts and play.

The report says the system also features intensive training and fair compensation for preschool teachers and others who take care of younger children, a free preventive health program for all young children, and attention to the architecture and safety of day-care centers . . .

Nearly 80 percent of the cost of French child-care services are covered by public funds. Parents provide the rest. The French manage to finance their child-care system ”because of their priorities and political leadership,” said Barbara R. Bergmann, a panel member who is Distinguished Professor of Economics at American University in Washington.

If you take a purely capitalistic view of the issue, it’s in the government’s best interest to provide subsidized childcare, because more mothers in the paid workforce means that the government can collect more income taxes. From the point of view of an employer, child care benefits make sense for the same reasons – mothers (and fathers, for that matter) are valuable members of the workforce. Is it really that radical of an idea that parents should be able to afford child care?

I know that the examples of single mothers that I’ve chosen for this article will stir up controversy – but that controversy is exactly what makes the images of Nadya Suleman and Kate Gosselin worth discussing. They’ve been criticized for choosing to have so many children. And they’d been criticized for exploiting the media hype surrounding their situations. But honestly, I think that when we don’t make affordable child care available so that it’s easier for women to balance their work and family responsibilities (because let’s face it, men very seldom have to face this issue), then Suleman and Gosselin wouldn’t be such vilified figures.

(A big thank you to Firecracker over at for helping me with the research on this story, as well as for the photos of Gosselin & Suleman!)


  1. great post.

    its interesting that your friend thinks that people get a government check for sitting at home. welfare programs are incredibly complicated, difficult to deal with, and demeaning. also the welfare system makes it difficult to access free or low cost quality childcare. mother must work and be home with their kids at the same time. it is a lose-lose situation.

    also i think your friend’s frustrations speaks to the need for accessible health care, the crappy US economy, and a billion other things that do not place the blame on single mothers.

  2. Nadya Suleman was not a medical student when she became pregnant with her first child. You are repeating a fiction that was prompted by the gossip site Radar Online. Nadya Suleman has never attended, nor was she ever accepted to, any medical school. She spun a little daydream about what she might have LIKED to do and Radar Onine ran with it. In fact, Nadya Suleman has been receiving welfare and disability as her only source of income for the past ten years. Prior to that, her only employment was an 18 month as a psychiatric technician at a state hospital where she claimed to have been injured. And, despite her claim of a back injury so severe that she was unable to work (resulting in a payout of $165,000 over ten years), she managed to stay pregnant for the past eight out of ten years and attend a local college, earning a BS degree in chidlhood education. All the while collecting food stamps and SSI for the children she continued to produce on top of her “disability” payments. Not a bad return on that 18 month investment.

    If you’re looking for a pro-single mom poster girl, you might want to look elsewhere.

  3. Indigo – all interesting facts. I got the bit about Suleman attending med school from the documentary that was on Fox 2 weeks ago. I mean – sure, it’s Faux News and they’re not all about the fact checking – but still . . . you would think that a documentary would be at least somewhat factually correct.

    My point in bringing up Suleman and Gosselin is not that I think they deserve to be “poster children” for any campaign – My argument is that they represent the media image of the single mother on total steroids. Your points about welfare and food stamps speak to the overwhelming assumption we have in this country that all single moms are siphoning off money from the public coffers and that they keep having babies to collect a bigger check. My point is this – whose interest does this image serve? It’s certainly not the working class. This image serves the interests of the wealthy, who like to say that the poor deserve to be poor. It’s such an old trope that you would think it would have gone out of style by now, but it hasn’t.

  4. Mrs. Mastro says:

    Like all forms of motherhood, single motherhood is deemed OK by the media if you are wealthy (Angelina Jolie, pre-Brad), and not OK if you are poor (Ms. S is only one example). For an excellent discussion of this and related topics, check out “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and how it has Undermined all Women” by Susan Douglas and Meridith Micheals.

    The Welfare Queen was invented by the Regan Administration–a myth that continues despite all evidence to the contrary.

    All of the “reforms” to the U.S. welfare system are based on one faulty premise: raising children isn’t work. Staying home and being there for your kids–cooking, cleaning, waiting for the school bus, laundry, etc. are all luxuries enjoyed by lazy parents sucking off of the State. Oh, hey, lets make these lazy sots work at minimum wage jobs, let their kids be raised by a day-care center and then call ourselves righteous because we don’t let those stupid poor people suck our tax dollars–that is obviously better than letting the poor actually be parents and giving them the support they need to raise healthy, productive adults.

  5. Good post. I recently was in a debate with my Mormon father about this subject. I was asking him to tell me the difference between Ms. S and the Duggers. They have 18 kids, now expecting 19, also exploit the children’s for their TV show. But people do not have a problem with them. My dad says it’s because she has help (I am guess he means because she has a husband- although 1 husband is really not enough help for all those kids!). I think this is really about the fact that she is married, so it is ok, but the single mom – who is also poor (because apparently if you are single and have money it is less bad) – is the root of all that is wrong in the world.

    Interesting note, men who are single parents are not blamed or degraded…they actually get more help from family and are praised for being fathers.

  6. It appears the problem has been grossly misrepresented based upon two individual case studies. Let’s go back to the fact that IVF costs THOUSANDS of dollars. If the argument is that health-care simply isn’t affordable for single mothers, then where, exactly, did the money for the IVF come from in the first place?
    I have to side with your friend – not necessarily that stay-at-home mothers have the easy life but rather that it’s easy to say they have no other options. My mother raised two children while working full-time. It is possible to do so and, in my opinion, blaming the system is an easy way out rather than targeting the root of the problem: women, like Kate and Nadya, who have broods of children without forming a sound financial plan for providing for those children. It is nonsensical and the rest of society shouldn’t be paying for it.

  7. Priya,
    1.Your mom, like Kate and Nadia is an individual case study. Just because she managed without state aid does not mean that everyone can. My mom was also a single mother. She often worked two jobs. Even with two jobs we were sometimes on food stamps.

    2.The idea of the welfare queen who has a brood of children is a myth; It is complete crap.

    3. We are not paying for Nadia’s or Kate’s children. They found a way to manage their finances.

    4. The idea that welfare is easily obtained is also a myth. It is not easy to get state aid and it is not easy to stay on it. Recipients lose their aid if they stay home; they have to be in job programs or searching for a job on their own. They have to report and document their efforts on a regular basis to a social worker.

    5. The problem is not single mother’s on welfare with large broods of children. There is no one problem, rather there are several problems. A. disparity of wage earning between women and men. B. People who are born into poverty have a reduced access to education and thus are not likely to get out of poverty. C. abstinence only education. You can’t wrap it up if you don’t know what a condom is or how to use it. D. Access to reproductive health choices including birth control pills. E.Difficulty in obtaining preventative health care or any kind of health care.

  8. I realize the ability to plan for a sound financial future is a real luxury for ppl who get a financial education. NOt to brag, but as a studnet economist, plenty of ppl dont know even half of what I know about the financial system. ITs not build to give anyone , let alone a single parent, a fair shot.

  9. Wow, when I clicked on the website name and started reading this opinion piece I thought it would be a stand-up article, not more yap about why I owe yet more money to women who CHOSE to make kids, so they can march around as if they are a parent while somebody else does the work and pays their bills. Your website title needs to change. Stop telling other women why they owe you and other knockups for your choice to make kids and for your daycare bills

Speak Your Mind