I was at a store the other day and the man helping me was very chatty. He wanted to know everything about me, and since I’m a talkative person myself, I started telling him about my life. I hadn’t yet mentioned that I was a single mom, and it was clear that he thought I was just another suburban wife with a handful of kids. “It’s great that since you’re a teacher, you get to spend so much time with your kids after school,” he said.
“I’m lucky,” I said.
“You know, there are just so many moms out there making bad choices,” he said. This came a bit out of nowhere and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I paused.
“I mean,” he continued, his voice rising, “I don’t understand these women who mill about in my neighborhood with their kids late at night. They are just hanging out on the sidewalks downtown, right around all the buses and other traffic. Those kids should be in bed!”
“Well,” I said softly, “maybe those women just got off work or need to get groceries. Maybe they are single moms.”
“Maybe,” he conceded, “but I just want to go up to them and tell them that they shouldn’t have kids out that late!”
I had to be blunt here. “Don’t do that,” I said. I tried to make my voice even and soft. “You don’t know what someone’s life is like, you know?”
He smiled at me. I’m sure he thought I was just some good, Christian woman who tried to think the best of everyone.
But that’s not it at all. I have always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. But if I’m honest, I didn’t ever really get it. Now, I have just a small peek into the imperfect lives that many single moms live.
It’s not easy.
I’ve seen other single moms out late with their young kids. Usually, the mom is waiting for the bus, or carrying groceries in one arm and a toddler in the other. She’s probably spent the day cleaning someone else’s house or taking care of someone’s else’s kids. She usually looks impatient and exhausted. I’m sure she IS feeling impatient and exhausted.
I feel that way too, sometimes, except my job is a white-collar teaching job where I make a decent living and get health care. I feel that way too, except that I drive my car to and from the grocery store. I feel that way too, except that I have an army of resourced friends and family members that help me.
I see women doing too much without the help of a partner all the time. And do you know what I think when I see them now?
What a fucking rock star.
I’m serious. I am barely hanging on, and then I see someone with far fewer resources who’s still managing to make things work and I think, “wow, that’s incredible.” Yes, her kids are up too late and yes, they might be eating McDonalds for dinner. But I see that same mom put her hand on her son’s back and braid her daughter’s hair while they wait for the bus.
That should be honored, not criticized.
As I left the shop that day, I finished talking to the chatty man. “I do some writing as well,” I said. “In fact, I wrote something in the Washington Post a few weeks ago.”
“That’s incredible,” he said, beaming.
“The article was about parenting and how hard it is now that I’m a single mom. My husband died earlier this year and even going to the grocery store can seem impossible.”
He was stunned into silence for a minute, and then said, “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” I said. There was a pause, so I said, “one thing I’ve realized this year is that being a single mom is harder than you can imagine.”
He smiled at me. I’m not sure if he understood that I wasn’t just talking about my experience. I was talking about that woman at the bus stop, the one with the groceries and the toddler.
I was talking about someone who deserves respect.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.