My husband had an affair, but long before he did this he made choices that kept him away from us. Right from the very beginning. He chose other people, other events, other places over his family. So even though our relationship only broke down two months ago I’ve been functioning as a single parent for about eighty percent of the time that Bo has been alive.
My mother was a single parent. When I was eleven, my parents marriage ended and my mother became solely responsible for my two younger brothers and me. It sunk her into a deep dark hole. She did the best she could for us, but it nearly destroyed her. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, and I still don’t, but I know that everything she did was out of love for us. I knew then that she wasn’t coping. And I understand that now, more than I ever wanted to.
Except for women who choose to fall pregnant (via sperm donor or the like) and know right from the beginning that they will be a single parent (and for the record I don’t think this makes it any easier really), I don’t think there is a single woman on this earth who faces single parenthood without some reluctance. Doing it alone, for most of us, was never the game plan. Relationships fall apart, people die, people fall out of love, people cheat, people move on, people make choices… good and bad… that affect the course of the lives of everyone around us. We are all intrinsically connected after all.
There is so much to be said about the honest experience of the single parent. There is so much silence surrounding the truth. There are so many things that people are afraid to say. Women so afraid of admitting they aren’t coping. Afraid of the judgment that they face. So many women who are terrified to ask for help. Women who are asking for help and not getting it. Women who are struggling financially, emotionally, spiritually but who aren’t being heard. So many truths that aren’t understood. And therefore, there are so many misrepresentations and the great social prejudice that comes with a great social silence. The attitude that our society has that tends to blame a single mother for her circumstances, I believe, comes from a greater unknowing. An incredible cultural ignorance.
There is a great social prejudice against single mothers. Women who have babies and who leave their husbands. Women who choose to continue a pregnancy even when the paternal father refuses to acknowledge the baby as his responsibility. Women who make great personal sacrifice for the sake of a child. For the well-being of a child. The woman who decides to continue a pregnancy even though the man she is with (or was with) chooses to opt out. The attitude of our society that choosing not to terminate a pregnancy somehow equates to her having sole responsibility for the care of that child makes no sense to me. Because of biology (and society), men have the option of cashing out of a relationship, of a family. They can walk away and continue their lives much like before, without great (financial or emotional) responsibility, sleep deprivation or stress. They can go back to friendships and relationships and family. But the woman (and I say woman here, but this is of course not only the case, single dads experience the same if not greater prejudice at times) is left behind. With a great responsibility, (almost always) a decline in living conditions and lifestyle and more often than not no real help.
I don’t think anyone can truly appreciate the incredible emotional responsibility that a woman is left with when she becomes a single parent. It is not only the 24 hour a day 7 days a week responsibility of the care of a child. It is not only the (incredible stress) of sole (in many cases) financial responsibly. It’s not only the incredible pressure of being the only person to make every choice surrounding a child’s care and upbringing and circumstances. It’s not just the fact that it is completely and totally unreasonable that our society expects that ONE person, alone and completely without support can be undeniably patient and giving to a child day in, day out for many, many years. It is insane and it is just not humanly possible. It is all of these things in combination with each other, and so many more.
For me, as a single parent, the biggest challenge with single parenting is time. The lack of time is directly related to my own issues of a loss of identity and self-esteem. Issues that I am trying to conquer, trying to overcome, trying to become empowered by, instead of feeling powerless because of. I am a parent for every minute of every day. Even at night when Bo has gone to bed and I have gone to work, sitting at my desk in the spare room, I am still the only parent in the house. I know when she wakes (and she does, often) that it is always me who will go to her. I can’t pop out for a trip to the supermarket alone or catch up with friends without a baby or have a long bath or go for a walk because there is no one else for the day-to-day. It is isolating and it is a very displacing feeling.
I’m not sure if anyone who has not lived in it could understand the incredible loneliness that comes from being trapped, in isolation, with a small child as the only regular company and a lack of adult conversation. As lovely as my daughter is, and as wonderful a conversationalist she is becoming -- we still don’t speak the same language. It’s not enough. That is something that people don’t truly talk about. About the late nights alone. The frustration with a clingy, needy child that you get no break from. Caring for a sick child alone (and then often sick, yourself). There is so much silence, and in that silence I am sure there are other mothers suffering. Truly suffering with little or no input from outside of the relationship she has with her child. But why can’t she speak up? What have we done as a society that has alienated all of us from each other. Where asking for help is seen as a weakness? Where offering help is a last resort?
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the incredible responsibility that is being a sole parent. I look at Bo and I think, how can I possibly do this, all of this, alone? This isn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be with her father. I wanted the happy family. I wanted to be together. To share the load. To share the joy. I wanted to be able to sit on the couch with my husband at the end of the day and laugh about the beautiful things she did, and cry over the frustrations and have him there to hold my hand and help out and love her like I do. Because as hard as it is to not be able to share the challenges… it’s just as hard not having someone right there to share the joy. The little things, like a kid finally doing a poo after being bunged up for a few days, or eating their whole lunch, or having a proper nap… we want to share these things with someone and let’s be honest, no one else cares about those things as much (or if at all) as the parents.
The other night Bo woke at 10pm and wouldn’t go back to sleep so I got her up and snuggled with her on the couch in front of a movie. She was so beautiful. She sat eating peanut butter on toast. Licking her fingers and talking to me very seriously in her own language, every now pausing and raising her eyebrows at me… as if to say, do you understand mama, are you hearing me? And I would say, yes of course. She would then start giggling and shouting at the people on the TV. And it was such a perfect moment. I looked at her and I could see a glimpse of the little girl she is going to be and I wish her dad had been here to see her. To share in the absolute joy that she is. I wish I had someone to truly share those moments with. The moments of pride.
When I think of the incredibly unreasonable expectations we have on mothers in general, I am shocked. Our society pushes for (unreasonable) perfection. Our society expects that mothers should raise these perfect children whilst being essentially isolated from the world. Instead of offering support, we offer judgmental advice, books with parenting “rules” and guidelines that have the potential of stripping mothers of their instinct. And then we add on top of that a mother without the support of a partner, without the small moments of respite that the partnered mother is given. Without the time to find herself.
And we turn around and we judge these mothers. Single mothers. We judge them. I know a young single mother who was called the most disgusting names by her own brother, because she is without a man. Because she chose to continue her pregnancy and raise her beautiful child alone. Because she didn’t have the choice to just “walk away.” Because she chose life. We judge women we see alone, wrangling children. The plight of the single parent has become fodder for television shows and sitcoms and jokes… what we don’t do is offer real, supportive, full assistance. I’m not talking about pensions or money or aid. I’m ashamed (albeit extraordinarily grateful) to have to ask for a handout from the government to survive… and I’m sure most people are. I’d prefer to have the facility to raise my child the way (I believe) she deserves to be raised and work enough to make good money to support us without help. But as one person, that is not possible right now; our society doesn’t support working options for mothers who want to keep their children with them.
I’m talking about swapping judgment for humanity. Hate for love. Do-it-my-way-advice for hands-on help.
Why is it so hard for us as a society to be supportive of our people? Why are we always so quick to judge and so slow to react? When did we become so distant from each other? When did society stop being about community? When did parenthood become more about rules and less about raising good, strong, caring people -- together.
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