DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley speaks at event for late husband Shawn
New Perspectives

Single Parenting, Not Solo Parenting

If you’re a widow with young kids, I bet you’ve heard the argument surrounding solo vs. single parenting. But for those of you who don’t know, it’s a debate that’s not just about semantics. Here’s the key question:

Are widowed parents “single parents”, or should we use the term “solo parents”?

Single parenting, the argument goes, includes many types of people. A single parent might be a divorced parent, who sees their children only half of the time. The term “single parent” is also sometimes used by parents who are alone with their kids for stretches of time (days or weeks or longer) while their partner is working somewhere else. “I’m single parenting for the weekend,” is a text I used to send frequently before Shawn died.

I never sent it after he died. Then it was just my life.

And yes, I had my dad and my amazing friends, but I didn’t have a partner once I became a widow. For 2 1/2 years, I was the only parent of my children.

When I wrote about parenting in those years, I often would note that I was a “single parent” and almost every time, someone would correct me. “You’re a solo parent!”

The argument continued like this: solo parents are those parents who are totally alone. Whether by abandonment or death or choice or something else, solo parents are different from single parents because there’s never really a break from being the sole caregiver. Sure, you might have childcare while you work or you might have grandparents who are really helpful. But as a solo parent, you are the only person who is taking kids to the dentist or figuring out how to save for college or meeting with the teacher at parent conferences.

I never really bought too much into this argument, to be honest. I figured it must be hard to be divorced, too, and that plenty of single moms with crappy ex-partners probably had other really hard aspects of parenting to contend with. I felt like putting up that dividing line between me and other single parents (however that single parenting looked) wasn’t useful. We had more in common than we had different, I figured.

But the past few weeks have made me reconsider my previous stance.

Now, I have a partner who is my co-parent. (If you want to read more about Chris and how he’s become a part of our family, try this piece by Claire or this recent piece by me.) Yes, when Chris first moved in, we had to navigate the role he played in the house. But slowly, he wasn’t just another person in the house. He was a parent, complete with all the roles and responsibilities that any parent has. And during Covid, that’s been a lot.

I don’t think I realized how much of the parenting Chris slowly took over until he had to be away recently, for a little over a week. Of course in the spring of 2020 he came and went often. But back then, I still thought of myself as my kids’ only parent. Now, we are co-parents in every way.

Case in point? The first day Chris was away, Claire was worried about her grades. “Can you check them?” she asked.

I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to access the grades on the new system. When 6th grade started last fall, Chris took over this duty. I had to text him to get the information about Claire’s grades, and he dutifully looked it up.

It’s a small thing, of course. I mean, who cares if I had been forced to look up Claire’s grades? I’m sure I’d have the login information somewhere, and I would have just looked it up and solved this problem. But it’s April, and it’s not something I’ve looked up this entire school year. How much stress did this really take off my shoulders? Likely not a lot.

And yet.

It’s obviously not the only thing that Chris does for the kids. He reads to the boys every night and he goes to parent-teacher conferences and he fixes all tech problems during virtual school – and this is just the start of a long list. But it was this issue with the online grades that really got me thinking about the difference between single parenting and solo parenting.

For a little over a week, I was “single parenting” once again. I was the only parent around who made sure Tommy washed his hands properly and the only parent who helped Austin with his writing and the only parent who made sure there was food in the fridge. If something went wrong, it was (basically) on me.

But I knew that it wasn’t on me forever. I knew that Chris would return and that when he returned he would be an engaged and active parent. I knew that there was an ending to being alone with three kids. Moreover, I wasn’t doing all of the other stuff alone, because I could call him if I needed him. When I reflected on this fact, I realized that not only was I not “solo parenting,” I also wasn’t really “single parenting.” In fact, I shouldn’t have used the term “single parenting” at all. That’s not what I was doing!

I’m still not convinced that it’s super important to use the phrase “solo parent” rather than “single parent” when referring to someone who is parenting completely alone. I’m not sure I ever would have qualified as a totally solo parent even years ago, because I had my dad in the house for much of the school year, and he was very involved in the kids’ lives. Furthermore, I think that these semantics can get in the way of recognizing the struggle faced by single/solo parents – one that has more commonalities than differences.

That said, I’d like to give a shout out to everyone who is parenting alone. I don’t care if you call yourself a solo parent or a single parent or a widowed parent or something else entirely. You get to pick your own title, and I will use the title you want! No matter what you call yourself, I see your struggles.

You’re making it, every day, and that makes you a hero in my book.

6 Comments

  • Mike

    I don’t worry about the semantics too much. All I know is I’m the only parent my kids have….period. I do imagine this is a very different experience than a divorce with shared custody but that experience doesn’t concern me so I don’t think about it much.

  • Betsy

    Uh oh, I’m going to churn out a super long comment because the title of your post got me a bit riled up as a widowed parent. After reading the full post, I think the title means you are acknowledging that you are now a single parent and not a solo parent, rather than dismissing the use of the term solo parent in general (yes?).

    The pandemic has painfully accentuated the unique challenges of the only/solo parent situation. Let’s think about what happened within days: in-person K-12 school disappeared, childcare centers and programs closed, and the recommendation came down to have absolutely nobody in your home except immediate family members who live there already. Before the pandemic, it was simply unimaginable to most parents that those things could happen at the same time. When they did, it was universally stressful to parents. For the only parent, though, this was more than stressful. To manage professional work, schooling of the kids, and the basic business of life without violating some “rule” of the pandemic regarding social distancing or leaving kids home alone was/is simply not possible. Further, there is not one thing that is not the responsibility of the only parent – from working and providing benefits for the family to having clean masks for everyone, getting the kid a covid test for a scratchy throat, making /arranging every meal, cleaning up, buying the next size of shoes, and yes, checking on the grades, homework, practice logs, zoom times, emailing the teacher, managing the days off, picking up the school device in the 1-hour window for parent/guardian sign-out, etc. (I am tired! I want a gold star for managing all of that! I have venom for the principal for the 1-hour pickup time by parent/guardian only!)

    I absolutely do not look down on my divorced friends who split custody and are single parents; we have more logistics in common than my married parent friends. Divorce situations can be sticky and, in some ways, more complicated than mine because of it. Still, my divorced single parent friends are quick to acknowledge that I get no help, no input regarding decisions about my kids’ health and wellbeing, and absolutely no time off, whereas they do. They also understand that the widowed parent situation is rare, which is isolating, and it bears unique challenges due to guiding grieving children. I appreciate that acknowledgement and support from them because being seen/heard is important. I try to reciprocate by listening and giving support to them because, as you acknowledged, those who are doing any kind of single parenting have a weighty responsibility.

    I think I wrote enough (ha ha). Thanks for your blog. It often makes me feel less alone and it always makes me think even when I do not share your exact experiences.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, I feel you. I do. I hope the post came through: I don’t think of myself as a single OR a solo parent anymore! But yes, I want to give you – and every other parenting-along-parent – a SUPER BIG GOLD STAR and a nice meal out, whenever we can next do that. Hang in there. You describe the impossibility of it all so well.

  • Lori

    Oh my goodness….thank you both for your comments. It’s a very lonely, stressful job for sure. Helps to know SOMEONE understands.

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