Marjorie making breakfast with Claire before becoming a widow
Things That Suck

Why Being a Widowed Single Mom is So Hard

I realize the title of this post could be an entire book.  There are like 1000 reasons why being a widowed single mom is so hard.  Today, however, I think I may have narrowed it down to one.

The day started out like many days have started out in the past 6 months.  I woke up before the kids, came downstairs for some coffee and to prep the amazing amount of things that my kids need for their days.  My kids have learned to help each other, because they get that mom cannot possibly do everything they need.  So Austin went and got Tommy his clothes for the day and Claire helped Austin make his bed and Tommy let his big sister put on his shoes.  We managed to make it out the door with me yelling only about 50 times.

In any case, I dropped the kids off at their respective camps.  Austin was last, and so I hung around for a minute at his baseball camp to hear the coach give the early morning motivational talk.  “Let’s be team players!” the coach began.  I turned to my friend and we started chatting.  But then the coach took a turn I hadn’t expected.  “A few days ago,” he said, “we lost one of our players.”

I was stunned.  This was a kids’ camp.  Was he talking about a child?

“Willie was 12 years old,” he continued, “and his funeral is today.  He loved our camp and even worked hard at camp when he was sick from chemotherapy.”

The coach continued, and I could feel Austin’s hand reach for mine.  I squatted down next to him and said, “you know they’re talking about someone who had cancer.  A kid.”

“Like Dad,” Austin said.

“Yes,” I said.  The coach was still talking about how great of an attitude Willie had.  “It sounds like he was brave like Dad through his cancer.”

“Yes,” Austin said to me.  He was clearly listening.  He squeezed my hand and I squeezed back.  Then he looked at me, I think to make sure I wasn’t crying.  “Okay, bye mom!” he said, and ran off with his group.

I paused before I left.  Should I tell the coach, so he would know to check in with Austin and see how that speech landed on him?  I decided not to.  I mean, I can’t micro-manage every interaction my kid has with cancer forever, right?

I went home and tried to write, but found it hard.  I kept thinking about Willie’s family, who I don’t actually know.  About 20 minutes later, my friend who had been at the baseball camp came by.  She was crying.  “I’m so shaken by that tribute, and I wanted to check on you,” she said.

I was touched.  We talked for a long time.  At the end, she said, “well, I’m not sure that it was useful for me to come by.”

“Useful?” I asked.  I thought about it.  “Well, I don’t know if it was useful, but it was loving.  And I felt that from you.  And that mattered.”

We actually had to part ways because I had to go back to my root canal dentist.  For real.  Anyway, I was in the office chair waiting for x-rays when the receptionist from my kids’ dentist called.

“Is this the parent of Claire, Austin and Thomas Brimley?” she asked.

“It is,” I answered.

“Well, it seems that we are reviewing your records, and your insurance has not covered your children’s dental visits,” she said.  “So we need you to pay us directly.  You can give me your credit card or we can put you on a payment plan.”

I was confused.  What was she talking about?  I had just been there with the kids a month ago.

“You see, the insurance has not covered any of your bills since 2012” she told me.  “So you now owe over two thousand dollars.  You’ll need to pay this and then you can work it out with your insurance company, because they won’t pay us.”

Wait – what?

I had her clarify that:

1) no insurance had been paid out for six full years

2) the dentist hadn’t contacted me about this for six years

3) yes, even with this mix-up, I still owed them over two thousand dollars, and they wanted the money today.

“I’m going to have to come down there to talk to you,” I said, and hung up.

I started crying.  I know, very mature.  My root canal dentist, who is my age, was awesome about it, and offered to call them back herself.  “They can’t do that!” she said, outraged.

But what the hell do I know about insurance?  I never dealt with it until this year.  I mean, maybe this sort of thing had happened to Shawn in the past?

I sat down after my appointment in the waiting room to think.  What should I do?  Who should I call?

And at that moment, I realized what was so amazingly hard about the day so far.  It’s the feeling I get in situations like this, which is basically, “I’m the only adult in this house and I don’t know how to fix this problem!”

Sometimes, the problem is that I don’t know what to do about Austin’s reaction to a discussion about cancer and sometimes it’s that I don’t know how to make sure my kids have adequate dental coverage.  But it’s all part of the same stress.  At the end of the day I am the only one who can deal with any of it.  The decisions are 100% on me.

I guess I didn’t realize how much I needed the push and pull that exists in co-parenting.  I knew I needed someone to help me with the logistics.  I knew I needed someone who thought my kids were as cute as I thought they were.  But I didn’t really realize how much I needed just to know that there would be another person there who would make basic decisions with me – even if we disagreed.

I still have my community, and damn if they didn’t spring to action the moment they heard I was in trouble.  I got about a dozen emails and other messages with offers to help and a number of outraged texts.  My friend Robyn came and met me at the kids’ dental office an hour later, and together we called the insurance company and then talked to a new receptionist.  We got it straightened out, or at least I didn’t get charged at that moment.  It seems like it will be okay.

But – this was just one morning.  Just a few hours of one day where I didn’t know what the hell to do and I almost just put the entire dental bill on my credit card just to make it go away.

I didn’t do it.  I dealt with the dental receptionists and the insurance company.  I talked to Austin after camp about how he felt about the tribute to a young cancer patient.  And when the day ended, I felt like everything had turned out okay.

But it was just so exhausting to have every single decision today fall to me.

Today, and forever.  All on me.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Jason

    I hope a major divorce between you and the kids’ dentist happened not long after this, because this is insanity.

    As always, you have a way with words. But also, as always, please don’t let it be all on you! You have us — your tribe, your village, your backstop — to help when shit goes south.

  • Elissa

    Oh geez–what a day! I know exactly that feeling you’re describing–the weight of being the decisionmaker and wanting to share that burden. It reminds me of my short-lived teaching career, where I used to constantly agonize over whether I was doing the right thing in the classroom and struggled with being the one in charge. Obviously a totally different situation, but you capture the feeling of exhaustion so well. You are doing a great job, but I know that assurance doesn’t make it any easier. Sending love and wishes for a few crisis-free days!

    • Marjorie

      Yes – it is very very similar, except of course that I love my children so much more than I ever loved any student, so it makes it that much more complicated. But you are right – it’s a super similar feeling!

  • Joy

    I wish things were different, obviously, but the collective force of the tribe (that you built!) is something to see. I love your friend that stopped by and Robyn for showing up at a moment’s notice. Also–eff the receptionist that called you on that. WTF.

    • Marjorie

      For real. But my friend who cried with me and Robyn’s amazing ability to get things to HAPPEN really made this all straighten out. What luck to have such great friends.

  • Nancy Branch

    It’s outrageous your children’s dentist billing staff didn’t catch this sooner – much sooner. You did the right thing not to pay, and I would be highly suspect of a billing office that came at me with a bill which goes back six years. Someone wasn’t doing their job, and it wasn’t you! I hope this will be straightened out, and your liability is not too much.

    • Marjorie

      Exactly! I think I’ll end up owing very little, thanks to my many lawyer friends here in DC. Thank God!

  • Henry

    Well, you braved through another day. Wow; what an eloquent essay! You are so articulate in boiling the stress of 1000 reasons down to a single sentence: “At the end of the day I am the only one who can deal with any of it.” Your tribe is strong and wonderful, and they seem to materialize whenever needed. But it isn’t the same as having someone there to make basic decisions with, is it? And it is hard not having that someone there to help you recuperate from the exhaustion. But keep calling for help when you need it, and help will come.

    • Marjorie

      My tribe is so great! And yes – I’m proud that I made it through even though it was a TOUGH day. 🙂

  • Mel

    I totally get it. We lost my kids dad to cancer 3 months ago . And the responsibility is crazy overwhelming. Just the massive life sized loneliness that hangs around you in place of him. It is hard everyday to try and figure it all out. And to try and get up everyday and be best mum and dad you can be. And realising all the stuff you personally have to give up so that you can give all that extra stuff to your kids.

    • Marjorie

      Exactly. Three months out is really hard. That time period was the toughest for me. Take care – it’s all impossible, but in some ways, it does get easier.

  • Holly Paterniti

    I know exactly how you feel…… husband passed on November 22, 2017 after his battle of Renal Cell Carcinoma. My daughter was 12 and my son was 18 when he passed. Things have been difficult these days. I miss him so much 🙁 He was only 48 years old and should not be gone. Life is absolutely not fair.

    • Marjorie

      You can say that again! And actually, my widower father says “life is unfair” multiple times a day for me. I think the more I can internalize his words, the better I’m able to cope. But it’s so hard some days. Sending hugs.

  • Beth Morris

    I could have written this. I have a boyfriend. He helps me but it just isn’t the same and I think that hurts his feelings sometimes. But no one loves or is as invested in your kids and you and their dad. I am at a crossroads with my job and I can’t decide what to do…..I owed my dentist 1600 in back bills….this is the first year I didn’t email their teachers on the death anniversary (tho I like to because my daughter is mopey and not at her best, and my son often acts out).

    • Marjorie

      Yes. It’s so hard – everything is hard. I think we just have to be as kind to ourselves as we can. Sending hugs.

  • Gretchen

    Great article! As a widowed single-mom I can totally relate to this. It’s been 3.5 years and I’ll admit it doesn’t really get easier, you just are more tired! Glad you have your great network of friends; I’d be lost without mine!

    • Marjorie

      Totally – it’s so important to have good friends around you. I have such a wonderful community and it’s STILL so hard, so I can’t imagine surviving without them.