When I was in graduate school, I listened to a presentation by a professor about single moms. At the time, I was a 28-year-old without children, so I didn’t question much of what he said (although he wasn’t a parent or a woman, which did make me think, “how does he really know what they think?” Actually, now that I write that as a 41-year-old single mom, I’m thinking, “there’s no way he truly understood what their experiences were like!” But I digress.)
Anyway, his theory was that the single moms were grouped into two categories which basically consisted of “I can’t do this anymore” and “making it.” I actually don’t remember the first category name but I remember the phrase “making it.” It just struck me as such a low bar. I mean, was the measure of success for a single mom simply “making it”?
Now that I am a single mom, “making it” actually seems like a pretty good way to characterize my life – or at least it’s a good way to characterize my life when things are going well. If I’m able to move through the days with some measure of ease, provide my kids with what they need, and do all of the necessary things to keep us all afloat, I feel like I’ve won a goddamn prize. “Making it” really isn’t that crazy of an idea. Maybe my (childless, male) professor was onto something.
I’ve been thinking about being a single mom a lot lately. Sure, the pandemic has amplified a lot of the challenges that single moms face, even those who (like me) have all of their basic needs covered. It’s a whole lot harder to get to “making it” than it was a few months ago.
But there has been one big change for me. After many weeks of surviving the pandemic as the only adult in my house, my partner Chris showed up and surprised me at my house. And because there wasn’t really anywhere else for him to go at that point (he couldn’t get a hotel room, or easily commute from home) he stayed with us.
My children were elated. They know Chris and they love when he’s around. Immediately, they were begging him to go on bike rides and throw the ball and read them stories. He did all of that, and a lot more, because he loves my kids.
No, he is not their parent. (“He’s your boy-friend!” Tommy sometimes says in a sing-song voice.) But he’s been able to come and stay with us for a few stretches of time during the pandemic, and so I can compare my life with him physically here with my life without him physically here.
Technically, I’m a single mom no matter where my partner is sleeping. I’m the only one paying for my kids’ clothes and I’m the only one scheduling their yearly vaccinations. I’m the only one who is legally in charge of them. But when Chris is here, I have someone here who is helping with many of the aspects of parenting.
And I will say this right now, very clearly: it is so much harder to be a parent without a partner than one with a partner. At least for me, and I bet for a lot of other people too.
Yes, I know that there are partners who are terrible and abusive and it’s clearly worse to be in those partnerships than to be single. And I get that it’s hard for everyone right now. But if I compare the weeks when I am a truly single mom to the weeks when I have someone around to help me out, there’s really no contest. Being a single mom is So. Much. Harder.
I actually sat down and tried to figure out why this is. Chris isn’t paying the bills at my house and he doesn’t know what size of shoes Tommy needs. Maybe he will someday, but that’s not where we are at this early stage. But he’s doing other things. First, he’s is playing with my kids, and that’s wonderful for them (and for me too, especially when I’m cooking dinner.) Along this line, he’s also paying attention to them, asking about their days and being genuinely curious about the things that interest them. He’s providing much needed help when one of their bikes breaks or someone falls down and gets a bruise.
These things are wonderful. But there’s something that Chris provides that’s even more important than the daily entertainment of children.
He provides me with support.
The other day, Austin made me super angry. I can’t even remember what he did now, but when it happened I went upstairs where Chris was working and I complained loudly. He listened, and sympathized with me, and we strategized about my next steps. He did not solve my problem. He merely held space for me to talk about it. As he quietly hugged me, I felt my heart rate go down. By the time I got back downstairs, I could talk to Austin calmly. It was amazing.
If I had been forced to deal with this alone, I may have had the same outcome. I (hopefully) would have gone upstairs, sat on my bed and composed myself and then come back down talk to my son.
But it would have taken so much more emotional energy.
Things are not instantly perfect when Chris is here. It’s still hard in a lot of ways. And yet, my life is so much better and my days are so much easier when I have him around for daily support. Not because he reads to Tommy when he’s whining, or takes Claire out for a long bike ride, or wrestles with Austin on the carpet of the living room. Those things are really nice. But the real game-changer is how he supports me as a parent. How he makes me feel competent and strong, calm and happy.
I guess every parent – partnered and single – is just trying to “make it.” But for me, I’ve found it so much easier to move out of survival mode when I have someone around to add additional support. I’m not saying that every partnered person faces an easy parenting situation. But I will say this: for me, true single parenting is much, much, much harder than parenting that I do alongside someone else. Not because the logistics are harder, even though they are. But because it’s just way harder to do everything alone, without someone standing next to you saying, “you got this.”
So I’ll say it now to all you single moms and dads: I see you.
And you got this.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.
Hi I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. It’s really helped reading about your experiences as a widow. I lost my husband nearly 9 months ago after a long battle with melanoma he was 52. We had our twin boys later so they were only 11 when their Dad died. It was the most extreme pain I’ve ever felt in my life and felt like I would never come out of the total devastation and inertia.
But in the last month or so I’m starting to feel like I can do it alone but as soon as I feel that something triggers me and I’m on the floor feeling overwhelmed by the solo responsibility for everything and I ache to have him hold me and listen to me again so I can get up again and deal with things.
So what u just described about having support is exactly what I’m missing so desperately
Even when my husband was sick and he was for 6 years ,I could talk to him about our boys and me and I didn’t fully grasp what he did for me until he gone and I was alone without my best friend in the world being there for me, understanding me, loving and supporting me. We were a team and now I’m just me again and my head still spins with the reality of it.
Yes – this line: “We were a team and now I’m just me again and my head still spins with the reality of it” – it’s everything I felt for so long. It did get easier after about a year and a half for me (though I know people who took longer and people who took shorter times). After that point, I felt like my head wasn’t spinning as much, though it was still hard. Hang in there. My heart is with you.
My late husband never knew our son’s shoe size and he wasn’t aware of his vaccination schedule etc, but just like your new partner Chris, he was there to listen and provide support and play. This was enough for me and it is something that I dearly miss as a single parent. It is the emotion support and back-up. I have dated a bit and I have met some guys that I think may have been compatible with our little family, but I am very hesitant to bring someone new into my son’s life. Our loss is almost 2 years out now and we are just now starting to really put together the pieces of our lives and nowadays, we are more genuinely happy than sad on most days. What I am missing is what you described in your blog post, but I am very worried about introducing a new partner to my son and then him getting attached and if the relationship ends up not working out, then it would be another loss and disappointment to him. I don’t know what the right or wrong answer is in this situation, but I think our unique circumstances make this even more difficult .
Oh, I totally understand your hesitation! I’m actually working on a blog post about this very issue, but what I can say is this: I think it depends. I think you have to feel it out with your own kids and new partner and figure out what (if any) timeline for meeting each other is right. And then you have to make the best decision you can, knowing that nothing is ever a perfect decision. That’s of course easier said than done! But I do understand your hopes and fears – I think they are very common among widowed parents.