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When married moms say to single ones: ‘I don’t know how you do it’

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You get used to the comments after a while. For me, a single mother of a 2-year-old son, they started about the time that I brought my son home from the hospital.

I don’t know how you do it. My husband was out of town for three days, and I nearly lost my mind.

I’m pulling my hair out, and there are two of us.

I often wonder what might happen if I expressed similar concern for my married counterparts.

Your husband was pestering you for sex eight weeks post-delivery? I don’t know how you can stand sleeping in the same room as him.

You make the child care arrangements and plan all your daughter’s activities? I’d be so resentful.

All of these comments reflect certain truths. In my case, it’s that parenting without a partner is hard. The tasks of daily life that are challenging for two-parent families to manage — drop-offs, pickups, lunch-making, doctor appointments — can feel next to impossible when there’s only one adult to do them. An evening work event or out-of-town trip is a costly logistical nightmare. A public transit delay, a near catastrophe. There’s no one to entertain my son while I shower, dash to the store or go for a run.

Parenting solo can also be lonely. My son’s father and I have a friendly, if casual, relationship. We dated briefly and broke up amicably, just weeks before I discovered I was pregnant (a joyous surprise to me, a less welcome one for him). He visits, and he and our son have fun together. But based on our mutual agreement, he doesn’t play an active parenting role. I don’t call him to marvel at our son’s accomplishments, discuss concerns or kick around major decisions. And although I’ve dated, I haven’t been in a serious relationship since my son was born. Consequently, I’m well aware of all of the things my life’s lacking at the moment. Reliable adult conversation. Romantic getaways. Someone to serve as a sounding board for my daily life quandaries.

But married parents have their own struggles. Although having a partner makes many things easier, it also brings additional complexities — some mundane, some grievous. I’ve seen many friends make peace with dramatically inequitable divisions of labor in their marriages. I’ve watched them battle fatigue and loneliness — made all the worse because they share a home and a bed — and despair over their partner’s approach to parenting. I’ve listened to many female friends talk about how uninterested in sex they were, post-baby, and the guilt or tensions it caused. Sometimes these struggles resolve over time. Sometimes they do not.

Single parenting is not uniquely challenging, it’s differently challenging, filled in equal measure with longing and contentment. For my son, I yearn for someone who would compensate for my parenting shortcomings — who would make our home feel lively when I’m tired, serene when I’m impatient, organized when I’m scattered. I fantasize about someone who would empty the trash without being asked; experiment with new recipes; and plan exotic, yet toddler-friendly, vacations.

But parenting with a partner — even the unrealistic one I’ve dreamed up — would require me to sacrifice some of what I’ve appreciated most about my son’s early years. There is clarity in knowing that all decisions rest with me. I like being the one who sets the boundaries and establishes the routines — our Saturday morning coffee, muffin and music class outings; Sunday pancake brunches and play dates. It’s a relief not to have to negotiate bedtime routines, food choices and discipline strategies — or to have someone else clambering for my attention when I’m exhausted and feel pushed to my limits. And the generosity I’ve experienced — from my parents who spent the first months of my son’s life in a nearby sublet apartment; the friend who accompanied my son and me on cross-country work trips — has taught me a new level of humility and gratitude.

More than anything, I cherish the quiet intimacy of our relationship, the primacy of my love for him and his for me. He loves and is loved by others — Nana and Papa; a bevy of honorary aunties and uncles, all of whom dote on him. But there are gifts he saves for me alone — the way he yells “Hi, honey bunny” as he runs to me and covers my cheek in wet kisses, how he nestles into my lap at night and requests “more snuggles, please.”

I know that our closeness is more universal than unique — the kind of emotional connection that all loving parents share with their children. And I understand that my ability to love is not finite, that a heart can expand exponentially. I’ve been in love before. I remember.

But for now, I am grateful that my heart’s limits haven’t been tested. That in my son’s earliest years, my emotional priority has been clear and uncontested.

I don’t fault people for saying things they intend to be supportive. Indeed, I appreciate the many ways that my loved ones show that they understand the challenges that I face.

But when empathic words are tinged with pity, I think, “Oh no, you’ve got it all wrong.” While single parenting is hard at times, it’s also the easiest, most natural thing that I’ve ever done. The exhaustion I experience co-exists with joy, the frustration with gratitude.

I suspect that is the case for all parents.


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