How to Be a Good Friend to a Single Mom

Oct 9, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Single moms with kids and computer
Image: Skynesher/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

My late grandma had a saying I remember fondly: “I am not a piece of crystal.” It was the sort of thing you might bellow at, say, your granddaughter’s new boyfriend if he’d made you feel feeble by offering you his arm — or in my case, a mantra you might repeat when you’re having a baby as a single mom by choice and need to constantly remind yourself that you are strong and badass.

And yet, just as my grandma eventually started accepting my ex-boyfriend as a personal escort — it’s hard to be an 80-year-old stroke survivor and insist on walking in high heels unaided — I’ve come to learn that even the most determined, fiercely independent pregnant woman could use a little assist here and there.

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Some of the most touching and helpful gestures have come from strangers: the man who tied my shoe for me when he saw I was struggling to bend over my belly, the nameless neighbors who have taken out my trash and had those who've had key copies made just to make my life a tad easier. Friends have stepped up too, performing both emotional and physical labor. They’ve moved furniture, run errands, volunteered to come to doctor appointments, given me hand-me-downs and listened to me fret over everything from morning sickness to baby names.

As someone who finds it excruciatingly difficult to ask for help, opening myself up to assistance has been a slow, begrudging process. Now that I’m in my third trimester, my fears of appearing needy or weak have come second to practicality; I simply can’t (or shouldn’t) physically lift every suitcase or heavy shopping bag, and there’s no co-parent around to pitch in. Let me tell you: Nothing says “know your limits” like having strangers tie your damn shoelaces.

Want to be a better ally to the single mom in your life? I asked other women who have gone it solo about the gestures that meant the most — and where they felt their friends fell short. We are not pieces of crystal, but we’re not emotionally neutered superheroes, either.

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Show up

When Becca of Alexandria, Vermont, underwent IVF in her late 40s — she’s now a mother of three, including twins — she wasn’t entirely on her own. Her sister was in charge of administering the hormone shots; once the pregnancy was confirmed, a close friend took over, stopping by every evening to give her a progesterone injection in the rear end.

“One girlfriend came to every early ultrasound so I wouldn't be scared or miss something with all the concerns explained by a flurry of doctors,” she tells SheKnows. “One pal came to my gender-reveal sonogram. She snuck out in the middle and returned with two perfect gift baskets — one for a boy and one for a girl. She had bought four of every basic I might need (two boys and two girls) and then assembled them in the waiting room to the delight of the entire staff. Those were my first baby presents, and I will never forget that moment.”

And when Becca was put on early bed rest, her friends brought her baby shower to her rather than cancel it entirely.

Some moms-to-be may be totally fine with going to appointments and prenatal classes by themselves. I’ve yet to attend a scan with a guest and haven’t thought twice about it. Still, it’s comforting to know there are people ready and willing to tag along, even if it’s just to pat your hand or make funny faces when you’re holding a plastic baby doll up to your boob in a breastfeeding tutorial. A good ally will volunteer their services as a plus-one and will come through if Mama decides to accept the offer.

Break a sweat

I can take the odd remark about the size of my bump — no, it’s not twins, and no, I’m not about to go into labor — but nothing makes my blood boil more than a stranger scolding me through pursed lips with a haughty, “You shouldn’t be carrying that.”

“I’m doing this by myself!” I’m tempted to scream as I heave my groceries onto the counter or check in my luggage. “Who else is going to carry it?!”

It’s infinitely more helpful for others to ditch the lectures and simply do. I’ve had strangers hold open doors and hoist my carry-ons without a word and friends who have come by to do the manual chores I no longer can, such as carting away old books for the charity shop and setting up baby furniture. You don’t need a honey to have a honey-do list, and the friends who help you get through it are worth their weight in gold.

Even stepping up to take on small domestic tasks can make a big difference.

“My (now) ex-husband left when I was 8 months pregnant with my youngest, and I remember my friend La Tausha came over and insisted that I put up my feet while she did my laundry and cleaned my kitchen,” Charlene, an Oakland, California-based living coach who raised her two teenagers as a single mom, tells SheKnows. “She brought me water every once in a while and insisted that I rest. This was so helpful because I was very pregnant and trying not to become overstressed from the demise of my marriage.”

Keep the unsolicited advice to yourself

“Can I tell you something about epidurals?” a family friend known for her candor asked me the other day. I paused, contemplating whether I could get away with saying a firm no without seeming rude. I wish I had.

Advice is a tricky issue. Of course I have a million questions about the whole pregnancy process, but it’s difficult to do things my way when I’m wading through countless opinions I didn’t ask for. I have a couple of mom friends I trust implicitly and supplement my doctor’s advice with the requisite baby books, but it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is different and can be impacted by their location, culture and even age. (Older women are often surprised when I mention the foods I’m not supposed to eat because those guidelines weren’t standard during their own pregnancies.)

Single or not, pregnant women are inundated with advice, much of it conflicting. Let us ask the questions before taking it upon yourself to serve up a lecture.

Don’t judge

Every single mom has a story: a breakup, a one-night stand, widowhood, a conscious decision to give motherhood a go using unconventional means. For some, it’s plan A. For others, it’s plan B or even C. But trust me: Any criticism you can throw our way about raising a kid outside the "perfect" nuclear family experience is something we’ve already considered and agonized over. We don’t need your guilt trips; we’ve got our own.

Karen, a divorcée with two teens based in Oklahoma, was surprised when her loved ones reacted negatively to her decision to adopt a third child as a single mom.

“It wasn’t a conventional situation or adoption,” she tells SheKnows. “I was told from friends and family that I was stupid for taking on another child when my two were just about grown and out. No one gave baby showers; no one had the same excitement I had about this new little life.”

Kelly, who is raising her 2-year-old daughter in Southern California, is still reeling from the reactions she received when she got pregnant. Much of the backlash stemmed from the fact that her ex is mixed-race.

“‘Of course a Black guy knocked you up and left. Since you are not married, you're best off having an abortion,’" someone told her.

“One woman even went so far as to schedule an appointment for me at Planned Parenthood. I thank God every day that I listened to my heart and not to any naysayers. But I am equally grateful that I stuck to my guns and said that no matter what the circumstances, I would give my baby an amazing life. I was astounded by the utter cruelty of others,” she tells SheKnows.

The bottom line: A true friend offers support, not condemnation.

Offer to babysit

Single moms aren’t just doing their thing without a co-parent; they’re likely also missing out on the support network provided by a second set of grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends. Making a plan without the baby often means relying on babysitters, an expense that can quickly add up. So why not pitch in?

“Because I am a single parent with a demanding career, I need to find a babysitter to watch her when I attend work events,” Nikoleta, a Chicago-based mom with a 7-year-old daughter, tells SheKnows. “And that is where one of the many challenges lies — who can watch my child? Having a support group of other single mom friends who understand me and my situation is crucial for my well-being and survival. My babysitter is a close single friend of mine who has two kids herself, and anytime I need her to help me, she is there for me!”

Charlene of Oakland agrees, crediting a married couple with whisking off her kids on the weekend so she could rest up and have a break to tackle other errands.

Ease up the pressure

Prepping for a baby with no co-parent to split responsibilities with often feels like a full-time job. And guess what: I already have a full-time job. So when friends beg me to go out for drinks (which I can’t drink), book vacations (which could cover the cost of multiple top-of-the-line strollers) or commit to pretty much any plans after my due date (which involves making intense calculations on how my baby will act, how I’ll be feeling and countless other factors), it feels suffocating. It’s not that I want to be a hermit; it’s just that grabbing lunch or having a shopping date feels so much more manageable and productive than making small talk with drunk people at a party. Making big plans for the future — particularly those that will involve travel, money and childcare — feels daunting until I have a better handle on motherhood. It’s fine to ask, but don’t push if the answer is no or we say, “I need to wait and see.”

Don’t flake

If I’d wanted to be subject to the whims of an unreliable partner, I honestly wouldn’t have decided to have a baby on my own. It’s hard to shake off the “it’s easier to do it by myself” mentality, which is why it can be so galling and frustrating when someone who has offered to help out suddenly bails because they’re hungover or just have something better to do. It’s obviously not a friend’s responsibility to raise this baby, but it is their responsibility to honor whatever commitments they’ve made. Whether it’s babysitting, showing up for a prenatal class, or coming by to help set up the nursery, pulling out with a half-baked excuse is the opposite of helpful.

More: What Being a Single Mom for One Month Taught Me About Parenting

Ultimately, being a supportive friend can involve a gesture as small as picking up a bag of the Flamin' Hot Cheetos your single mama-to-be pal is craving. Listen. Be sensitive. Roll up your sleeves. Recognize that being a single mom is about being fearless, not helpless — but a back rub or finished load of laundry never goes unappreciated.

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