I could barely hear her words through the sobs, but I already knew what she was telling me. They were once my words, coming now out of her mouth.
“He won’t be here for Christmas.”
“My son won’t know his father.”
“What am I gonna do?”
I tried to answer with support and without crying. I failed.
There are no words of comfort to say when a woman’s just joined the worst mom club out there. Instead, I told her my truths from my time as a member.
“Don’t focus on the things he won’t have, or you’ll drive yourself crazy. It will only make it worse for you and for him. If he grows up being told losing his dad was a tragedy, then it will be a tragedy. If he’s raised like life with a single mom is normal, it won’t hurt as much.”
I was hoping to stop her wallowing before it began because I spent an awfully long time in the pits crying about all the things my son wouldn’t have. I wanted to save her the time by imparting this message on her at the beginning.
But I felt insensitive afterward. This wasn’t the time for that talk. She’d been a single mom for a matter of minutes, so I switched gears, “But today, you get to fall apart. Today you get to cry and scream and feel scared and sad about whatever you need.”
“I can’t, I have to be strong for my son. I have to take care of him.”
It’s like there’s a universal script somewhere and the single moms of the world are handed the pages as soon as the male lead in our children’s lives take their exit. I remember repeating this line like a mantra, hoping it’d provide me with the strength I was supposed to be showing.
“Yes, you do. But, it’s okay. If you spend tonight crying and all you do is manage to feed him and keep him safe, you were strong. Sometimes it takes the greatest strength to let ourselves fall. Someone with that spirit will have the resilience to stand back up. I promise you.”
Now what kind of advice is that, you may be asking. Shouldn’t I be spitting lines from a Lifetime movie moment? “There’s no time to cry, you’ve got a child to take care of,” is what you’re expecting me to say?
F*ck that. Single motherhood is the toughest mom role to be in. And when we shove the tough moments down, all we’re doing is packing more in to explode out later. Better to get it out now, while he’s too young to realize what’s going on than to snap later when he will remember it.*
My son’s father and I were together for the first two years of my son’s life, but he was a ghost dad. Out the door before our little one was awake, home in time for the dinner-bath-bed wrap-up to the day, and passed out on the couch most weekends. I felt like a single mom from the moment my son was born. I was always doing things with him alone. I took him to daycare. I picked him up from daycare (his father literally picked him up one time and complained because I’d inconvenienced his day). At night, it was baby and me walking the dog. If our son needed to go to the doctor, it was me who took him. If we went to the library, the science center, the zoo, the park, anywhere for fun on the weekends, it was just my son and me.
But, within days of becoming a true single mom, even I came to appreciate what I’d lost. As little as he was around, when he was there, he was still a second set of eyes, a second pair of hands. Though he wasn’t the type of dad to jump in without being dragged, at the end of the day, if something happened to me and it was an absolute emergency there was another person to care for our son in my absence.
After the door closed behind him and it was just me, I knew what it meant to be really alone. I was the only one there to answer the cries. The only one to do the shopping. The only one to do the cooking. The only one to change the diapers. The only one to lay with him, rock him, rub his back, do cartwheels, whatever it took to get him to sleep. I was the only one to hear his screams as I put him in the bath every night (a fear he developed the night after his father left and lasted for years) and try to wash him in spite of them. I was the only one to wrestle him to the ground and clothe him each morning. The only one to pick up the shoes he threw at me at least ten times a day during tantrums. The only one on the receiving end of his tiny fists or feet or teeth during every tantrum. The only one with eyes on her when this happened in Publix, Starbucks, Walgreens, the park, the beach, the daycare, our home, our friend’s homes, etc. I was the only one to call if he got sick during the day which meant I was the one who missed work at least once or twice a week for six months while he adjusted to daycare. And I was still the only one to pay the bills.
It was me alone who took him to the emergency room when he would get dehydrated from what I thought was stomach viruses and turned out to be a lactose intolerance. There was no one else to clean him up during our potty training time when he came running in my room in the middle of the night at least three times a week, sh*t running down his legs. I had no one to ask to clean the floors where he’d left a trail from his room to mine while I handled getting him changed. No one to ask to help change the sheets in the middle of the almost every night while we were night training.
I would sit at work shaking from the thought of what would happen to him if I died in a car crash on my way home. Who would pick him up? Who would even know?
I would picture his small body being carried away by a DCF (Department of Children and Families) worker when they couldn’t locate me. My heart would stop and I’d crumple onto my desk hyperventilating through sobs at the image.
Every mom fears losing her children, it’s a natural basic instinct driving us to act as their protector. That fear is healthy. It’s normal. It’s necessary. Every mom fears dying and leaving her children behind. Every mom is inconvenienced when their child is sick and they need to leave work. Every mom is stressed out and worn out and feels drained from all the needs of their children. Take all the fear and all the stress of every mom and double it, triple it even, and you’ll know how a single mom feels.
I’m not diminishing how difficult motherhood is for anyone, here. It’s f*cking hard no matter what your situation is.
I’m not asking for pity for myself or any single mom. If anything, pity was the worst thing you could’ve given me. If you want to give anything to a single mom, give a helping hand. Give a kind word. Give a hug. Give a meal. Give them a night off. But never pity them. Especially for women who chose to be single. As hard as it was, my son and I were better off without him.
But, my friend’s situation is different. She’s lost the father of her son for reasons that are her own and so I will not share, but it wasn’t by choice. And she is not feeling like she’s better off. She is not storming the gates of single motherhood with an, “I got this!” attitude. She’s devastated. And rightly so.
So I emphasized it being okay for her to give herself one night to be a wreck. Because I may have chosen to leave my son’s father, and I never mourned our relationship, but I definitely took time to mourn the loss of my picture-perfect family dream. And I cried a lot in the early days.
Is it ideal for a mom to be a basket case on the floor in front of your child all the time? No, probably not. But, as much as it hurts to ignore your child’s cries for one night. As much as we may not want their lives to be disrupted, and will go to bed kicking ourselves because on top of everything else we failed to do all our mom duties at 100%, our children will survive one night of less-than-perfect mothering.
When my son and I were alone in the house, and the walls were closing in, I gave him many less-than-ideal nights. One night, I laid in the fetal position crying at the foot of my bed. He needed me, or maybe he just wanted me. He came and said, “Get up mama.” And I couldn’t. I was paralyzed with anxiety. So my baby boy grabbed my hand and pulled me to my knees. Usually, if I’m upset, then he gets upset, but on that night he was calm through the whole thing as he pulled my arm trying to get me up. I still couldn’t, though. I was in the midst of a full-blown panic attack and my legs were jelly. I crawled on my hands and knees behind him. My two-year-old son and his out of the ordinary state of calm is what eventually brought me out of it. And I remember wondering who the child was and who was the adult that night.
I told her that story. It’s one of my lowest memories, my sone ever seeing me like that. I’d fallen so hard, my two-year-old had to scrape me off the floor. But the point is, he survived. I survived. We survived. And today, he’s as happy a kindergartener as you’ve ever seen. Will he remember it? Perhaps. But if he does, I hope what he takes away is knowing life sometimes kicks us to the floor, sometimes it knocks the people we love down, and sometimes we have to pick the people we love up and sometimes we have to let ourselves be picked up.
Hearing her cry, hearing her parrot my own lines back to me, I was back in that room.
I wish I could wave a wand and make it go away for her. I wish there was something to say to at least make her feel better. I wish no parent and no child anywhere ever had to go through loss, but that’s not life.
Life is suffering and that sucks.
So, for any single mom out there, whether you’re new to the club or a senior member, here’s the mantra I came up with in my darkest days:
It’s okay to have bad nights. It is okay to let your child cry in those times when you yourself need to let it out. It is okay to step out of the room and leave them to their crying if you feel your breaking point being reached. As long as they’re safe, it is okay for you NOT to do something for them and to walk away. As long as you come back when you’re calm, they will survive.
It’s okay to ask for help. If you need to call a friend at one o’clock in the morning because you’re about to put your child’s head through a wall and you need someone to talk you down, it’s okay. If they’re a good friend, they’ll answer and they might be tired and a little cranky but they’re not going to leave you because you needed them in the middle of the night.
And most importantly, It’s okay to be a single mom. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you’re providing less of a childhood to your kid because it’s just you. And don’t you ever think you’re not enough. Yes, children will miss having a father. Yes, they will notice their friends have dads and they don’t. Yes, they will ask about him. Yes, they will go through periods of being sad about it. But, the only rule in parenting is love your children. And as long as you’re doing that, then everything else is okay.
In a previous blog, I gave a few tips for creating a village if you don’t already have one because the village will save any mom’s life. You can read the full post here, or to make it easy I’ll copy the exact section below:
Do NOT fall into the modern-mama trap of feeling like you alone have to do it all. There’s a reason this particular mantra (or proverb I’ve turned into a mantra) has been passed down from generation to generation. It really does take a village.
When times are tough, ask for help. Call on your parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, colleagues, whoever you can. This ride is rough and traveling companions are necessary for survival.
If you don’t have a village, create one. When I found myself single with a toddler, I looked around and my village was a ghost town. In the misery of my relationship with my son’s father, I’d chased every one of my villagers away. My family lived across the country, and I was ALONE. I needed help and I found it in the way of colleagues at my new job, first. Next, I reunited with old friends. Then, my mom chose to relocate because she’s the best mother in the world! And finally, opening my heart to a new man and accepting all the craziness that came with his large Spanish family gave me a home in my new big boisterous village.
Other good places to start if you find yourself really alone: care.com for babysitters, Facebook groups or Meetup.com for parenting or playgroups, your child’s daycare – reach out to other parents for play dates, your church if you belong to one, and get to know your neighbors or hang out at a neighborhood park for opportunities to meet other parents who live close by.
I will add, that sometimes the teachers at daycares moonlight as babysitters in their off hours and they’re a great option since they already know your child(ren).
Co-parenting doesn’t always end up meaning mom+dad. Before my husband and I got serious, my mom became my co-parent. I also had a close friend who was a single mom and we leaned on each other to help pick each other’s kids up when something happened, trade babysitting, help with laundry, run errands, etc. Once you find your village, let others help you parent as much as you need it. It’s okay.
*I should note, my friend’s son is not quite two-years-old yet and my son was just a few months over two when I went through my moments. My opinion and choice of advice would be different if the child were older. Every scenario is different, and the advice given here to my friend is based on my relationship with her and her family which gives me an insight I wouldn’t have for others in different situations. So please read this advice for what it is, given from one friend to another.