Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Single Parenthood

OK, I know parenting is hard. But I’m really tired of people with partners complaining to me that they have to be single parents for a day or two.

They have no idea.

The thing about single parenthood isn’t the big stuff. It isn’t the talks you have about how to navigate friendships. It isn’t teaching them the discipline of homework or piano practice. It isn’t talking about god or science or the whole Quinn/Finn/Puck pregnancy thing in Glee. It’s not about pausing the TV in the middle of Twilight to explain that we should be wary of pop culture that teaches women to be attracted to dangerous men. It’s not even about being gay, or why you and Uma split up, or who their sperm donor is.

No, the thing about single parenthood is the relentlessness of the little stuff.

It’s about having everything simmering on the stove, then reaching into the spice rack to find that the chili powder container you thought was full really only has a pinch left. So you load everybody into the car to run to the store, only to get the usual, “Mom, can I have this? Mom, can we buy that? Mom, you promised us.” And what could have and should have been a 10-minute trip to buy chili powder turns into a half hour of channeling the restraint that Edward must feel every time he sees Bella bleed.

Let’s step back here. It’s about having to cook dinner every single night. Or at least figure out what it should be. And then clean it up.

It’s about having to make enough money to be able to buy that dinner, and pay the mortgage and get the school supplies (because somehow taxes aren’t enough for the public schools). All on your own. And let’s not forget that even in this enlightened age of shared custody, most single, custodial parents are women, who make less money than men.

It’s about having to figure out where to put them when you go to work before school starts, and come home after it ends. It’s about having to pay for daycare or camp in the summer because they can’t stay home by themselves. Or, it’s about arranging your life so you have alternative work hours, or you work from home, which usually pays less.

It’s about weighing your sanity against the cost of a baby sitter.

It’s about sitting in bed at 2 in the morning, feeling the bacteria cut through your sinuses like a Ginsu knife, knowing you have a prescription for an antibiotic sitting at the 24-hour Walgreens, which you forgot completely about in the hustle of getting them home and fed and homeworked and practiced and having your nightly talk about the deep things; and wondering, “Should I get them up and throw them in the car and go through the drive through? Or should I just tough it out till morning?”

It’s about suddenly having them join you in bed every night when the split happens in the first place. Because they feel the loss. And they are unerringly attuned to your sorrow and loneliness. It’s about not putting them back in their beds because of your sorrow and loneliness. And then not being able to sleep because little kids never sleep in one place and they end up kicking you all night.

It’s about adding one more thing to your plate and deciding to lose a week’s sleep to try to break them of the habit of crawling into your bed every night. And failing.

It’s about them needing to keep track of the parent they have left, so that you can’t even go to the bathroom without hearing, “Mom.”

I’ve given up on that one.

It’s about not having someone to turn to to say, “Can you please do it this time?” or “I can’t figure out this math homework,” or “Can you do their hair for them?”

It’s about having to admit your weaknesses, tell them that you’re not the hair mom and leave it to them to figure out how to fix each other up for school.

It’s about having to admit your weaknesses.

It’s about having to explain to your 4-year-old, who wakes up in the middle of the night to find you sitting on the floor sobbing that SHE didn’t do anything wrong, and that she’s not responsible for how you feel.

It’s about bringing new people into their lives. And then explaining to them where they went.

It’s about hearing your children yell, “Mom, I love you,” from their room as they’re going to sleep and thinking, “Please just be quiet so I can write.”

It’s about having them yell “I love you” from their room. Because they know you’re stressed with the relentlessness of having to say “no” at the store, or give comfort and punishment when they fight, and make sure they clean up—and have no one to talk to about it all.

Because they know.

Oh, right, and it’s about your ex walking into your house and telling you that it’s a mess, and you really should make them clean up. Your ex. Who lives in a house where there are more adults than kids.

But ultimately, it’s about celebrating the victory over that tough piano piece they just got through. It’s about telling them the story of their birth. It’s about movie nights in bed. It’s about talking about god and science and Glee. Ultimately, it’s like childbirth. You look at them and you forget all the other stuff. You look at them and you can’t imagine doing anything else.

Because when you kiss them goodnight and go to the living room to write, they yell, “Mom, I love you” before they fall off to sleep.

This piece appeared in the September, 2010 issue of Chicago Parent Magazine.


  1. I just read this. I am a single mother and I agree, I cannot stand when someone who is married says "Steph, now I know how it feels to be a single parent" Um...really?? I am a single parent single day, working a full time job as well as in search of a second job because "I" am trying to keep a roof over my son's head. I am sorry to say....but being "ALONE" for one day or even a couple days out of the week is NOTHING!

  2. Sorry I had an error in that paragraph