My elder daughter turns 10 this month, which also marks a decade of me being a single mother. I’ve had relationships in that time, some of them serious, but not for the past five years. I dated, but with hefty dry spells in between. The momentary romanticism that came with dating was something I craved, outside my chaotic life of working, putting myself through college and raising my daughters on my own.
In those moments of intimacy, I relaxed into embraces, but it was an escape. I kept the two worlds separate. Most of my dates weren’t interested in getting involved with the underbelly of my life: the day-to-day stresses of raising kids and supporting a family by myself. When they saw how overwhelming it could be, they’d get overwhelmed, too.
Being a single mom, I fought my way through living in poverty, feeling like I wasn’t ever enough, feeling an annoying tug that we as a family possibly weren’t complete. But I knew that I needed to be self-sufficient first; I needed the empowerment of accomplishing that. Every day I got up, got kids to school and day care, worked a full-time job that supported us, made dinner, cleaned up and somehow got everyone to sleep at a respectable hour. We didn’t need a man to complete us.
Then, rather suddenly, I had one.
Things moved rapidly when my friend Matt and I discovered that we’d fallen in love. We started saying things like “sometimes you just know” in our efforts to explain our decision to get married. In addition to becoming my husband, Matt took on a fair share of housework and the mental work it takes to raise children.
I never asked him to do this. In fact, I kept most of what needed to be done to myself. Even though it was the kids’ mess, I saw it as mine to manage or clean up. Part of this was projecting my experiences from the past onto him. I’d had boyfriends berate me for not having dinner on the table, calling me lazy for sitting around with the grout in the bathroom being dirty. My friends who are moms spoke of their husbands, it was a bit of the same, or they sometimes likened them to an additional child: someone who whined and couldn’t accomplish simple tasks. From these conversations, I assumed the amount of work that I put into managing the household would stay the same, whether I had a husband or not.
I especially didn’t want Matt to know the thoughts that were constantly running in my head: Did my youngest have enough diapers? Did I check for lice that week? Was there enough milk? I’d get stressed about things piling up, while the dishes and laundry did the same, and insisted I do it all on my own. Matt started to notice this, and asked me to let him share in the work of caring for a family.
I tried, but often failed. I work from home, I would say, so it’s easier for me to do laundry. The bills are already set up in my name. I wanted the house to be clean and the fridge full when he got home, and dinner on the way. I’d been in the habit of taking care of everything, so I was more comfortable with continuing to do that. Matt knew that, for several months, I hadn’t had much time to do the things I loved. He insisted that I take a day for myself, and I agreed, relishing time to read a book over breakfast and well into afternoon, while he spent one-on-one time with the girls. I remember almost every detail of that day but never requested a repeat. It seemed too indulgent.
However, things changed when my job took me to a conference in Los Angeles for a weekend. While I was away, Matt experienced what I’d lived for so many years — being the only parent, with little to no help, and an inability to “tap out” when things got crazy. “I don’t know how you did this by yourself for 10 years,” he said.
Through the pictures he sent me that weekend — of him and the girls sharing ice cream after school, going hiking, playing in rivers and the toddler sleeping through the night in her room — I saw my new husband through a different filter. He was a loving, supportive partner and stepfather to my children. I learned to trust not only that he could handle the stress of raising kids but also that he truly wanted to.
When I got back, we made a conscious effort to share the work of running a household — not just the loads of laundry, but the logistics as well. We started talking about what to make for dinner together and kept a running list of what needed to be picked up from the store. Now we write events in our schedules on a shared calendar and equally keep track of the kids’ schedules. It was like watching the clutter in my head escape to a shared space where I wasn’t the only one to worry over them anymore.
Now that we were sharing the workload, I suddenly had more time for myself. I started saying yes to invitations out for drinks with friends. I started going hiking. Although I still encourage him to get out more than I encourage myself to do so, I am learning how to do it without feeling guilty. Whenever I run into someone, their first comment is how happy I look, that I’m glowing. I guess that comes from finally sharing the mental load.