“Oh, so you’re the one who gets a break!” This is what my single friends tell me, with sparkling eyes and well-meaning earnestness, when I send my kids to their dad’s for the weekend. They smile and laugh like we’re in on some fun secret. They mean it — and they mean it in the kindest way. They say it in the coffee shop, in the office, in the bookstore. Again and again and again, happily chirping about my “break.”
But it’s not a break. It doesn’t even approach a “break.”
There was a time when I would have laughed politely and nodded my head, uncomfortable. That time isn’t now. Instead, I’m honest and I say, “Nope.”
No, not really.
No, it’s not a break.
No, parenting doesn’t stop when my kids aren’t home.
Sometimes, when I respond this way, my friends look uncomfortable. There was a time when I would have felt guilty for this. But now, I realize that instead I should expect better of my friends; I should expect people not to chirp hurtful things. So maybe my frank answer will make folks think a little more about how their language might be hurtful to a single mother who is the primary parent for her children — that it might be hurtful to suggest that my kids are so taxing that I need a “break” from them.
I don’t. Not really. In fact, I wish they were here.
I am always a mother. I am always the lead parent, too — the one scheduling doctor and dentist appointments, keeping everyone’s schedule, picking up and dropping off, making sure that homework is done and school events are attended and fun is had. I’m the one my daughter trusts to adjust her palate expander every day, carefully edging it one millimeter wider. I’m the one who cheers loudly as my kids race in track meets — and who celebrates quietly when my son has the best discus throw of his season. I rush-order ballet tights and shoes when my daughter’s suddenly don’t fit any longer just before a big performance. It’s I, alone, who drives my daughter to voice lessons and ballet rehearsals — I, alone, who urges my son to shower after grueling workouts.
I am a single parent without a reliable co-parent. Indeed, that was one of the many reasons my marriage didn’t work. And when my kids aren’t at home, I think about them constantly. I worry. And I do my best to ensure they are cared for by the person who didn’t even know where my daughter’s elementary school was in the final year before we separated.
It’s time we stop treating parenthood like a job. Parenting is part of my life. It’s something I chose to do, like so many other people have for millennia. In 2019, we don’t accept anyone suggesting that fathers “babysit” their kids. Why should we accept the language used to speak to single parents that suggests the required, unwanted time away from their kids is some sort of a treat?
I am a mother, no matter where my kids are. I am a mother who worries that my daughter will forget to take her medicine — and reminds her, even when she isn’t home. I am a mother who worries my kids won’t be provided fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods while they’re away (because there’s a history of this) so I stock up for when they return. I am a mother who hopes my son is sleeping enough, but not so late that it disrupts his rhythm for school mornings. I am a mother who worries that my daughter, who is prone to dehydration, isn’t drinking enough and doesn’t have what she needs to stay hydrated. I arrive to pick her up armed with fluids — and she is grateful.
I am a mother always. No matter where my kids are.
(Cue the trolls to talk about how fathers can handle all the things mothers can. To them, I say: Sure, some can. But not all parents are cut from the same proverbial cloth. Read the words I wrote, not the ones you want to read. And don’t assume that because you are a dad / know a dad / have a dad that you know my life and my situation.)
Don’t misunderstand: I don’t want to stop my children from seeing their father. But I don’t appreciate the insinuating that parenting stops at the drop-off point. Because it doesn’t.
No, my kids being away isn’t a “break.” If anything, it’s a disruption from our normal, day-to-day life. The house is silent. The pull to cook vanishes. The things my kids and I share — from talking about our days to the funny things our cat does — are absent. The cadence of my very life is upset when my kids aren’t here. And sure, that cadence will eventually change when my kids are older and go to college and onto their adult lives and I’m an empty-nester for real. But that time isn’t now. Right now, I am in the active phase of parenting — guiding my teen and my tween through middle school and hopefully into a fruitful adulthood.
It’s a big job. And I love it.
So dear friends, acquaintances, colleagues and passersby, I know you mean well. Really, I do. But you’re mistaken. This isn’t a break for me; it’s a hard week. I’m worried, I’m off-kilter, I’m having a hard time. I might look okay; I might look no different from any other day. But there’s an ache you cannot see.
So before you congratulate me on my “days off,” take a breath and rethink your words. Hearing you say something like, “oh, bummer — I bet you miss them” would feel a lot better right now. It would recognize the bond my children and I have. And it would acknowledge that raising my kids isn’t a chore I’m forced to deal with; on the contrary, it’s an important part of my life. One I cherish.
And to you, the other single parents out there — the ones who are struggling as your kids spend time away from home: Perhaps you, too, are feeling like your guts have been ripped from your chest. Perhaps you are parenting via text and hoping your kids are adequately cared for. I get it. I’m with you. You can talk to me. I know you’re struggling with your life disrupted, and I know it’s hard. But it will be over before you know it, and they’ll be back again. I swear.