What it's like being a single mom

Since becoming a single mom, I realize just how much the nonprofit sector relies on single moms to tell stories of our work, and it’s weird. I’ll admit, I probably didn’t notice this before having this experience myself, but now I cringe when people tell a narrative that aligns with their idea of an experience and not the person’s story. So I thought it would be helpful to write about what it IS like to be a single mom.

It’s infuriating. People make all kinds of assumptions about me. Many people assume that since I have a kid, I have a nuclear, hetero-normative family. I do not. People assume things about why I got divorced, my character, and my financial situation. They say unhelpful things like:

  • “I know what it’s like. I’m single parenting it this Saturday.” (If someone is coming home after a limited time, you are absolutely not single parenting.)
  • “AT LEAST…” (insert some silver lining trope they have not experienced personally)
  • “This is Amelia, and she’s a single mom.” This is not the first thing I would choose to say about myself. It’s weird when people’s perceptions don’t quite match up with your own.
  • Jokes about frazzled single parents when I am the only one they know.

It’s awesome. I get the entire bed to myself, and I have learned to love star fishing the whole thing. I can decide we’re having pizza for breakfast or skipping a social event to wear our pajamas all day or only vacuuming the bugs from the basement once a year. The independence is intoxicating.

It’s exhausting. There is no one to tap out to, no one who is about to arrive home. I am it. This both helps me stay calm (I am the adult here) and sends me into a panic (why can’t there be another adult here?).  The tantrums are directed solely at me, and there are days when all I want is another person with whom to witness it all.

It’s lonely. I’m at an age when the divorce waves have not quite hit. I have a few single mom friends, and they’re incredible for their empathy and understanding, but no one else really gets it. A few people don’t offer silver linings, and they’re the people who keep checking in with relentless persistence.

It’s confusing. As a single mom, the world holds me in opposing forces of their myth narrative: I am both revered from a distance and blamed for society’s ills. People love to tell me how strong I am until my kid is screaming for chocolate in the checkout line at Target.

It’s the best of both worlds. I am lucky to have a positive co-parenting relationship with my kiddo’s father, so we get the family picnic companionship together, and then we part ways. I come home to my house where I wash the sheets as often as I want and hog my kid, cuddling up to watch Elmo. 

When co-parenting, it feels like sending my kid to college every week. I get sad when I miss my son’s moments, new words he learns or people he encounters. The other day, he saw a valentine and correctly identified Mickey Mouse on it. How did he know who that was? Part of the heartbreak of divorce is finding out all the things he’s learned without me.

It’s rewarding. I have become the divorce doula for everyone who came after me, and though I don’t wish this experience on anyone, there is a deep bond that results from having this in common with a friend.

It’s not one experience. People are single parents for a variety of reasons. I know one urban, white, female, American experience, and that is the perspective I write from.

It is also a nuanced one. There are days when I squeeze in a burrito, margarita, and think piece read before I pick up my son from day care. We drive to the hardware store, and on the way, he asks for a bagel and cheese and big trucks 37 times in a row. When I get to the store and checkout, my debit card is declined and I can’t remember the pin number because my brain is full of Daniel Tiger songs. My son has been running up and down aisle three, and the cashier sees my distress and gives him a truck that we don’t have to purchase and carries the bag of sidewalk salt to my car. We sigh relief when we get home, and my son takes the plastic truck to bed with him, sighing contently as I cover him with a blanket.

As my therapist would say, all of these things can be true at the same time.

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