Madeleine Albright and the Guilt We Pile on Single Mothers


Farewell to a Mother “Lion”

The world laid Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright to rest on April 27, 2022. The former United States Secretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations died at 84 on March 23. The Washington Post, calling her a “lion,” was among the many newspapers to celebrate Albright’s life and career of diplomacy as she stood in the vanguard of the fight for human rights around the world.

Some 1,400 people paid their respects to Albright at Washington National Cathedral. In President Joe Biden’s eulogy, he spoke of her “goodness and grace,” as well as her “humanity and her intellect.” These qualities, he said, fortified and sustained Albright as she “turned the tide of history” during the crucial years of the 1990s. She faced off, as Biden put it, against some of the world’s “toughest dictators.”

Hillary Clinton, who got to know Albright well when Albright served in the cabinet of President Bill Clinton, remembered her as not only a personal friend, but also a national hero. The two women spent cherished moments together sharing, among other things, pride in their grandchildren.

But for Albright, the years spent scaling the heights of power and fame was time spent living a life unknown to her male counterparts. As a mother largely responsible for her daughters’ wellbeing even before her divorce, the future first-ever female U.S. Secretary of State juggled family responsibilities with a series of increasingly demanding government jobs.

Unconditional Love, Gnawing Guilt

At her funeral service, her daughter Anne Korbel Albright, now a judge, remembered her and her sisters’ childhood. Their mother, she said, would get up hours before she needed to be at work, prepare the girls’ breakfasts and school backpacks, and work on her doctoral dissertation. The attention and care continued through years of taking her daughters on skiing trips, helping them sell Girl Scout cookies, writing them notes when they were at summer camp, and always answering the phone when they called. Even when they had grown up and had children of their own, Albright called them regularly.

Albright and her husband, journalist Joseph Albright, were divorced in 1982. This woman who squared off against Vladimir Putin in 2000 always felt sadness about not being able to save her marriage, saying that she would have given up her career in return. This woman who stood up for the rights of people in the Balkans to be free from the threat of murder, rape, and genocide confessed to feeling “guilty” about being a single mother who couldn’t stay home with her daughters.

Yet, as her daughter Anne remembered at her memorial service, she was “the best mom ever.”

Empathy and Solidarity

Madeleine Albright also never forgot her status as a child refugee, one whose family escaped, first, the Nazis who invaded Czechoslovakia, then the Communists who came to power there in the 1940s. Her tough-minded, focused empathy for victims of societal upheaval, particularly women and children, is as much a part of her legacy as the diplomatic agreements she concluded. She “never forgot where she came from,” said her daughter Alice Patterson Albright at the memorial service.

Madeleine Albright shared the experience of single motherhood with many women of color whom she never met, but with whom she would surely have empathized. The privileges afforded her by her position still could not have insulated her entirely from the anxieties known to single mothers everywhere.

The Special Burden of Black Single Motherhood

While life in any two-parent family doesn’t guarantee security, success, or even access to basic necessities, life in a lower-income single-parent family – particularly for children of color – is fraught with distinct obstacles to overcome.

Today, more than 4 million U.S. households are led by Black single women, and 40 percent of these households with working mothers and children under 18 live in poverty. Even though Black women as a group statistically attend college at a rate greater than any other demographic of women, they also consistently earn less in the workplace. Statistically, Black women make less than 90 cents for every dollar earned by Black men.

Many mothers of all backgrounds who raise their children alone face problems that include not only finding good-paying jobs, but also securing affordable, high-quality childcare and housing.

Yet, as a society, we ask a lot of Black single mothers, perhaps more than of any other group. As their families’ primary breadwinners often working low-wage jobs, these women also have to cope with the stresses of supporting their children’s educational goals while sometimes fearing for their safety in a world that often directs egregious hatred and violence their way. On top of that, we negatively stigmatize and stereotype Black single mothers, maybe more than any other group, then expect them to do the heavy lifting of proving those stigmas and stereotypes wrong.

Today’s African-American single mothers may often feel they can never measure up to media-driven ideals, especially those that one recent scholarly report summed up as “the Superstrong Black Mother.” Madeleine Albright could surely relate to that.

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