The morning after sleeping with a man I know isn’t good for me, I feel exhausted and achy. My 7-year-old is due back from her dad’s any minute. Too many days' dishes are stacked in the sink, clothes and toys are strewn everywhere — and I start to tear up. My small apartment is just as disorganized, run-down and cluttered as the rest of my life.
My ex drops my daughter off and she’s hungry. I haven’t done the grocery shopping. She starts to yell at me: Why can’t I go shopping when she’s at Dad’s? She’s wailing. It’s part of the transition. Going back and forth like a ping-pong ball. My phone beeps. It’s my ex. He sends a few nasty comments and I’ve already forgotten what we’re arguing about, but the words trigger me. Just another Saturday as a single mom, and all I can think is: There is no way any man would want to be part of this.
When I convinced myself that I’d never re-partner, it was a form of protection. I was less likely to get it wrong again, I figured, if I stayed single — and I was attracted to men who reinforced this.
According to the American Psychological Association, about 40 to 50 percent of couples divorce, leading to 23 percent of households led by single mothers, as opposed to 4 percent single fathers. I was single for seven years after splitting from my husband, and during that time the thought of living with anyone again made me cringe.
After a messy divorce, co-parenting can be yet another nightmare. For years, I couldn’t even fall asleep with a man beside me. I just couldn’t relax. I was in constant defense mode. Add to this the stress of being primary breadwinner and the household chores, and I was constantly operating at overcapacity. The thought of introducing my child to a potential man, only for it to not work out and break my child’s already-bruised heart, was too much to bear. Studies have shown that children of divorced parents who experience yet another divorce or family transition have an even steeper decline in their psychological well-being.
After I had gone through the process of healing from my divorce and developing a healthier view of myself through therapy, I did meet someone I could not only fall asleep beside but also felt comfortable introducing to my daughter. It was unexpected and delightful. But my boyfriend and I were constantly toggling between feeling connected and disconnected. When my daughter was at her dad’s, I would feel very close to my boyfriend in a dreamy, first-love way, only to transition to a state of anger and annoyance at him being in my space once my daughter was back. During my moments of disconnection I would cringe at his touch, pick fights and found it hard to talk about my feelings. It was exhausting.
Naturally science looks to my hormones for answers. Researchers have found that, when their children are nearby mothers' brains release more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, triggering their tendency to want to protect their offspring. Neha Mahajan, a clinical psychologist, says that when a child returns, many single parents will put attending to their child above their own personal satisfaction. “It’s almost a clash between womanhood and motherhood, so you get into a fight-or-flight mode,” Mahajan says. Divorce is a broken dream for both mother and child, which Mahajan believes can cause the mother to worry about things that she may not be aware of, including what the child makes of their parent’s new relationship. “There is fear of judgment, a fear of disconnection. You have an internal conflict where you are thinking: Am I doing my duty towards my child? Am I doing my duty towards my new partner? So no matter which space you occupy, which person you satisfy, you will be dissatisfied.”
The circumstances around a divorce matter, too. An emotionally taxing and traumatic custody battle, or negative aspects of a marriage — such as being shouted at, underappreciated or shamed — can be triggering. “You are hypervigilant and hypersensitive to those signs, and you sometimes over-read. You haven’t actually overcome the trauma, so your balanced view is not there. So it’s hard to connect because you quickly go into that place which is traumatic,” Mahajan tells me.
Mahajan suggests that, rather than being in judgment mode and criticizing, open communication is best. Initially I repelled at intimacy from my boyfriend, such as cuddling and kissing when my daughter was around. But once I realized why I was doing this, we learned not to panic, and things slowly began to shift. Sometimes I didn’t feel like talking much and he still stuck around, helped with the dishes and was okay with watching TV in silence rather than probing me. This helped build trust. I started to open up the space I once held like a fortress for me and my daughter to make room for someone else. After two years together, we are now looking for a place to live together as a family.
And when it comes to intimacy, sex and relationship expert Jessica O’Reilly recognizes that single parents sometimes put their needs last in the bedroom because they’re so accustomed to taking care of others. In this part of their lives, it could help to be a little selfish. “For many single parents, this practice … begins outside of the bedroom. You may need to develop this skill in lower pressure [daily] environments first,” O’Reilly says. “When someone offers to help with a ride or a simple errand, try accepting with graciousness as opposed to declining out of fear for putting them out. Eventually, you may get better at accepting offers and asking for what you want both in and out of bed.”