I became a parent four years ago. Before that I was a mom.
That’s because four years ago, I became a single parent.
Parenting is an oddly cold, even generic, word. It is perhaps the product of a politically correct world, meant to encompass both “mothering” and “fathering.” As if such a thing were possible.
Little girls don’t play dolly and dream of having their baby call them “parent.” Little boys riding their bikes for the first time yell, “I did it, Dad,” not “I did it, parental unit.”
While there are a small number of brave souls who become single parents by choice, most of us find ourselves in this circumstance because things have not worked out as we planned.
Parenting is meant to be a collaborative effort, the life’s work of at least two people. It is beyond an oxymoron that there is such a thing as “single parenting” and yet, for millions of us, there is.
Census data tell us that there are roughly 14 million single parents in the United States today, raising about 22 million children under the age of 21. That’s about a quarter of all kids in this country.
And when you’re single, the hardest job in the world gets exponentially harder. It’s no longer possible to be Mom to your partner’s Dad. The good cop/bad cop arrow is removed from your quiver. The chance to look into the face of another person just as committed to the lives of your children and say, “Am I completely insane to be this upset?” evaporates.
And yet it’s easy for parents in the traditional nuclear family to assume that everyone’s family circumstance is like theirs. Or to think that as traumatic and tragic as divorce and death can be, kids and parents “get over it.”
So here are some random peeves from the world of a single parent. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.
→ There is not a route to single parenthood that is more noble than others. My husband died, and a divorced mom once lamented that her life was much harder because “people look at you and feel sorry; they look at me and think that I failed.”
If there is one thing that moms are great at, it’s finding the single difference that divides us instead of the myriad things that unite us. Single parenting is hard; let’s not make it harder.
→ A friend whose husband was going to be away for a month on business said to me, “You have no idea how hard it is to juggle everything when he’s away.” Actually, I do.
→ When I told another friend that I was getting all the windows cleaned in my house, she said, “It must be nice not to have to ask someone if you can spend that money. You can just do it, without the argument.”
→ A friend who is a widow told me about how a sleepover her daughter was going to got canceled at the last minute because the dad of the hosting family had to go out of town suddenly. The mom said, “I couldn’t possibly manage that until my husband comes back to town.”
→ Friends and family tend to ask how you’re doing around the holidays, but it’s not the epic dates that make being a single mom or dad hard. It’s the countless everyday moments that must be handled in never-ending succession. Imagine never being able to say, “Can you do pickup today?” or “Can you go in late because of the two-hour delay?” Most single parents are too overwhelmed by logistics to get weepy over a less-than-Norman-Rockwell Christmas.
I’m not saying that intact families are always better than single families. I’m certainly not saying that singles who want to share their love with a child shouldn’t parent. I’m just saying that second-guessing is second nature with parenting; it becomes acute when you parent alone. When things go right, there’s no one to celebrate with, and when things go wrong, there’s no one to blame.
So the next time the pitch of the “parenting” hill seems too steep (or the mountain of dirty laundry too high), say a quiet prayer for the parents out there who are struggling, alone, to be both mom and dad.
Are you a single parent? What’s the most outrageous thing anyone has ever said to you? Or what’s your pet peeve in dealing with the school and work bureaucracy while parenting alone? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.