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Single-Minded: The hardest part of parenting alone? Smug marrieds.

Dana Wilkie (pictured with her daughter) is a journalist living in Alexandria.
Dana Wilkie (pictured with her daughter) is a journalist living in Alexandria. (Courtesy Author)

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By Dana Wilkie
Sunday, November 16, 2008

My friend's brow is etched with worry. Or perhaps it's disbelief.

I am seated on her sofa in her cavernous Alexandria home, as her 2-year-old plants lollipop-coated fingers in my hair and her 4-year-old shrieks from upstairs.

"I don't know how you do it," she intones with this intense, searching look. "It must be so hard."

She is wondering what it is like to be on my own with a 7-year-old daughter. In other words, she is asking about my being a single mother -- a status that, even in this seemingly inclusive age, often earns this knitted-brow look.

"Not really," I reply evenly. "What could be so hard about raising one vivacious and agreeable little girl?"

I do not say this to deflect pity. Being a single mother is all I know. If raising this incredible creature on my own has been hard, I have not realized it. Had I realized it, I would not have cared. Every bath, every boo-boo, every bedtime struggle -- they have been an adventure beyond any I imagined.

My friend has voiced this belief before: that my household must be more stressed and chaotic than hers. When she's beat at the end of the day, she says, her husband picks up the slack. When she's down with the flu, he takes the kids to the zoo. How on earth, she wonders, do I cope?

I tell her that I count seven women within a few blocks of my Alexandria home doing what I am: raising children on their own, by choice, from the very first diaper. They gave birth without men in the delivery room, as I did. Or they adopted domestically or from overseas. They are highly educated professionals earning incredible salaries. They are pillars in their churches and leaders in their communities.

And yet, people still conclude that single mothers' lives are tedious or lonely, or that the kids suffer because there is no daddy in the house. A married man once complimented me on how I was raising my daughter. "Clearly," he said magnanimously, "you're head and shoulders above most single moms." I dared not ask what he genuinely knew of "most" single parents, but I could guess at his biases: that our children don't eat as many vegetables or take as many baths; that we don't read them as many books and lack the energy to consistently discipline; that the result is a child who is not as healthy, secure or polite as children with two parents at home.

While talking with several mothers at a playground last fall, one woman nodded toward a mom having a battle of wills with a moody 5-year-old. "She's a single mother," this woman felt compelled to explain in a low voice. But, she quickly added, she "does a really good job of getting the kids to school on time." As if punctuality is more than we can expect from a woman with no husband to drag her out of bed.

People such as these view the children of single parents through a colored lens. Should my daughter fail to say "thank you," the assumption will be that I am not around enough to instill proper manners. Should she whine, the conclusion will be that she is starved for my attention. But let her little peers with two parents forget their manners or throw a fit, and most people are happy to assume the poor creatures are, you know, just tired.

When my daughter was an infant, a married neighbor with her own baby befriended me. She stopped coming by after concluding, she said, that she had nothing "to teach" me about motherhood. My junior in years and education, this woman had assumed her wedding ring qualified her as a more competent parent than I.

Knowing what I did of this woman, I could have pointed out that in my household, there are no spells of silent fury brought on by marital discord, no bickering about who shoulders the load of housework and child care, no tense negotiations over sex or finances.

Of course, my daughter and I have other friends -- couples who have us over regularly, who dine with us, vacation with us, have my daughter for sleepovers -- who would never suggest our home is not as joyous as theirs, because they've seen otherwise.

As I sit on my friend's couch, I wonder if there is a way to convey what these couples know. Perhaps I can point out that every household has its challenges: She has relinquished a career she loved for her idea of a traditional family; she is often left alone with two small children while her husband is away on lengthy business trips.

And then it dawns on me: Maybe my friend does not want to be convinced that my family life is as full as hers. Perhaps it is too frightening to believe that a family minus a mate could be as content and happy -- in short, as "normal" -- as hers. So I do not try to convince her. Instead, I just listen.

"Don't you get tired?" she asks, with a shake of her head. "I don't know how I'd do it on my own."

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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