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.