Every single mom story is unique. I became a single parent through divorce. My daughter was three years old, and I was pregnant with my son. They are now twelve and nearly nine. While at first my ex-husband had some visitation, I have had sole custody — 24/7/365, for several years. Some of my divorced friends share 50/50 custody with their ex. Their kids at least trade houses every other weekend. Other single mom friends I know are without a partner due to death. Others chose to adopt or have in vitro to become single parents. So, it is far from true that the “single mom experience” is a uniform one. With that in mind, I share with you some of what I’ve learned from A to Z about being a single mom (and emphasize that the perspective is mine alone).
ANXIETY – I have worked through periods of worry or anxiety my entire life. But these feelings reached a new level over the past several years. Mostly, I worry about something happening to me. What would happen to my kids? (OK, I know some of what would happen because I have good friends written into my will to take custody of my children if I die. I’m sure they are anxious for me to stay healthy as well!) My children already experienced one sense of parental loss through my divorce. I don’t want them to experience the loss of me as well. The rational part of me realizes that being anxious is unproductive and actually hurts my health instead of protecting it. But there are times that the emotional side wins.
BALANCE – I (almost) have come to accept that I do not have this. The “experts” will tell you that you need to make room in your life for quality kid time, work, sleep, housekeeping, exercise, hobbies, self-care, and a social life. I’ve concluded that, at this stage in my life, some of those components have to take a back seat to others. I do go out to dinner with my girlfriends several times a year. Occasionally, I do go for a run. I have even read a few books.
But right now, I am working full-time and going back to school, so my kids deserve most of the remaining waking hours that I’ve got. I know my schedule looks a bit out of whack. I also know that in only a few years, my daily work as a single parent with kids under my roof will be over. And that new season will afford more flexibility.
CRY – I find the shower is a great place to do this. Or maybe in bed around midnight. In a pinch, do it right at the kitchen table after you’ve told both kids to leave the room because they couldn’t stop fighting over dinner. There are times when single parenting can be too much, and a good cry can prove to be quite cleansing. I’m not advocating that anyone walk around in tears all the time, but give yourself permission to release the stress once in a while!
DATING – I have fond memories of doing a lot of this during the Clinton administration.
ENOUGH – I am not enough. I’m not supposed to be. Sometimes I hear other single moms say, “I have to be the mother AND the father.” Stop. You are asking too much of yourself. Just strive to be the best mom you can every day. You will fall short. That’s OK. Try again tomorrow. And invite other adults into your life who will invest in your kids and offer them lessons and a perspective that you cannot (see “Village“).
FAMILY – We are one. I make sure my kids know that families look many different ways and ours is as loving and real as the ones found in homes with a mom and a dad and 2.5 kids. My son’s friend who has two moms? Family. My friends who get remarried and each spouse brings kids from previous relationships into their new home? Family.
GUILT – Single moms hardly have the market cornered on feeling guilty. I think it comes as a package deal with a uterus. But it can be multiplied for a single parent. Am I stretched too thin to be the parent that my kids need (see “Enough”)? How do I protect my kids’ hearts when another child from the neighborhood says, “You and your mom couldn’t even get your dad to stick around!”? Will my kids remember their childhood home as a loving and safe place or one that was frantic and chaotic? How can I find more time and resources to “pay forward” the kindness that so many show our family on a regular basis (see “Help”)?
HELP – From the early moments of my single parent journey, I have accepted (with eagerness) help from friends and family who want to be a part of our family’s lives. When my son was first born, friends took my daughter all day so that she could play. They came over at night and rocked my infant son so that I could shower and sleep for an hour. Since then, friends have driven my kids to countless practices and parties. They have made us dinner. They have given us hugs and words of encouragement. People are good. Most of them want to help. And in turn, we single moms should extend our hands and help at every opportunity to model that example for our kids.
INDEPENDENT – I moved from my parents’ house to a dorm room to various apartments with roommates to marrying my former husband. Until my divorce, I had never lived as the only adult in the home. I now pay the bills, fix the toilets, mow the lawn, and make all decisions for my kids’ educational and medical needs. When I lock the door at night, I am the one (along with my barking dogs) who must be ready to protect against any intruder. It’s a great feeling to know that I am able to take care of myself and my children.
JUGGLE – When I imagine what I would draw to capture how my life feels on most days, I picture a hamster who is scurrying on her wheel while juggling several balls. From 5:30am until usually 10:00pm or 11:00pm, I am in constant motion with work deadlines and school paperwork and grocery shopping and laundry and kids’ activities. I know some of this frenzy could be lessened by better organization on my part. But for now? I remain here on my wheel.
KIDS – My children deserve to be kids. Just because I do not have another adult at home with whom to talk about my worries or big decisions (see “Lonely”), that does not mean my kids have the responsibility of being my sounding board. They don’t need to know when I am worried about the mortgage. They already have had to grow up faster than I would have liked . . . I am careful not to add to that any more than necessary. I am grateful to have my mom as an outlet. She lives 650 miles away, but I can call her when the stress is high and say, “I just need to talk to another grown up for a minute.”
LONELY – I sometimes sit on the couch at night with a book (OK, with the TV remote) and wish I had someone there with me. I long for adult conversation at the end of the day. I want to talk about the kids or politics or laugh at a rerun of The Office. I’m not super excited about the fact that I’ve been getting into my bed alone for the past nine years. I don’t feel lonely every day, but I acknowledge it happens. But, I also acknowledge that sometimes marriage can be even more lonely.
MARRIAGE – I want my kids to see examples of healthy marriages, in case they choose to be married one day. The concept of two adults who love each other and work together to build a home (figuratively, not literally) is foreign to them. They need to see these partnerships in action and I purposefully put people in our lives who can offer such an illustration. But I also let them know that it is OK not to be married and that their goals in life may be entirely different.
NAP – There are many days when I get home from work and I give the kids a hug and tell them I need just fifteen minutes in my room with my eyes closed. That brief time that I have allows me to release any stress I may be carrying from the office (or more likely from other drivers on my commute) and recharge my battery to transition to dinner making and homework helping and often fight mediating. I’ve also been known to fall asleep in front of Law and Order: SVU on the weekends while the kids play with friends. They are older now and it’s safe for me to nap. It’s glorious.
OPEN – I am happy to say that I am still open to the idea of love. I believe in romance. And I want to get those butterflies again. I have a couple of single mom friends who have been burned so badly that they never want to be in a relationship again. However, I tell my kids often that being in love is wonderful. Finding a partner who treats you with respect and who adores you can be a great addition to your life. After my divorce, it took me a while to believe I was worthy of interest and affection. I believe that now. So, if you know anyone . . .
PEACE – It took some time, but I am at peace with the fact that being a single parent is better for my kids than having them be witness to the marriage from which they were produced.
QUIET – Finding some of this is necessary, if only for brief periods (see “Naps”). I try to get up just ten minutes before the kids so that I can collect my thoughts and think about what the day will bring before the noise and chaos of getting ready for school begins. I also love the quiet moments when I peek in on them sleeping at night and look at their resting faces. It gets me teary almost every time I do this as I think about how fortunate I am to be their mom.
RESENTMENT – On most days, I manage to live with forgiveness about the circumstances of my marriage and its dissolution. But there are times when a kid is throwing up at 2:00am or my preteen child is telling me I don’t understand anything or my third grader is in tears about a bully at school that I get angry because I am the only one who has to handle all of this. There is no luxury of another option. When I am exhausted or I don’t have an answer, I resent the fact that fathers more often have the option of making participation a choice.
STRONG – If you are a single parent like me, you’ve probably had people say to you, “I don’t know how you do it!” I used to shy away from that comment. I’ve never really known any different. This is just mothering to me. But, my fellow single parents, let’s give ourselves some credit. We DO have to be strong to put our families on our backs and love them and guide them. I am a strong woman. I will tell you this, though. The woman in the photo above did not know that yet.
TIME – There is not enough of this. I’m away from my kids for ten hours every weekday, leaving just a few hours before bedtime. I worry that I’m not connecting with them as much as I should. Last year for Christmas, one of my gifts to them was a promise for one family event a month and an individual date with each kid every other month. We keep our plans on the kitchen wall and it’s fun to think about what we want to do each month. Sticking to those promises of time together has been so important to our family’s strength.
UNDERSTANDING – One of the gifts that single parenting has given me is the desire to be more understanding of people’s circumstances. I want to befriend the mom who needs assistance from the government to feed and shelter her children every month instead of making assumptions about her. I empathize with the women who are no longer in difficult marriages as well as those who are still choosing to stay. Many of us did not anticipate the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, and I want to appreciate that each person has her own story to tell.
VILLAGE – I do not know how I would function without my village. I have amazing friends and I often wonder how I deserve them. They listen to and love my children. They discipline them. And they support us in every way possible. Agree with Hillary Clinton’s politics or not, but her call that “it takes a village” to raise our kids rings true to me. If you are a single parent and you are operating without a strong village around you, I hope you build one. Just reach out to me and I will be a proud member of your tribe!
WEIGHT – Single parents can feel this heavily on their shoulders. The consequences of every decision, good or bad, are yours to own. Is this the right school system for my kids? How do I best discipline in this situation? Do they understand when I try to explain why their dad and I aren’t married and they only stay at my house? This weight can be scary but also empowering.
EXHALE – There are times that I’m sitting at my desk at work and I can feel the ache from my jaw being clenched. The tension has settled into my body. When this happens, I close my eyes and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. It makes an amazing difference to focus on nothing else other than inhaling and exhaling. The oxygen gives me energy and a clearer mind.
YOU – It’s important not to forget who YOU are during the busy process of mothering. This is true whether you are a single parent or not. I have thought to myself, “I feel like I’m a paralegal and a mom. But I don’t at all feel like I’m simply a woman.” I don’t want that adult part of me to get lost. I need to remember what brings me happiness and carve out a few moments to do these things. And I need to be around other adults simply for the joy of conversation and interaction.
ZERO – This is approximately the amount to which I can change anything that has happened in the past. I remember and I learn from it. I sometimes think about it more than I should. But I refuse to dwell there. The saying that the windshield is larger than the rear view mirror holds true for a reason. My job is to look ahead and work every day to make the best life possible for my family.