Single Moms adjust, adapt, and get the job done…most of it, anyway.
In the weeks after my husband ran off with his mistress, in an attempt to come to terms with my undesired state as a single parent, I did what all over-educated, type-A moms do; I started reading what the experts had to say.
For the benefit of those who have not been forced to undertake this sort of non-compulsory education, it was overwhelmingly depressing, particularly for a mother of girls. Children of divorce are 50% more likely to develop health problems than those raised in two-parent households; teenagers in single-parent families are 300% more likely to need psychological help than children in intact families; kids of single moms are more than twice as likely to commit suicide; kids of divorce are twice as likely to drop out of high school and are more likely to get pregnant while still in high school.
After internalizing all these negative statistics, which only served to confirm my suspicion that I was completely inadequate for the challenge, I crawled into the shower, turned the burning hot water on, laid down on the floor of the bathtub and sobbed – deep, full body, convulsing sobs.
And then I got up and got started raising my daughters, then 3 years and 18 months, to be resilient and beat the odds.
Now, some 5 years later, doing so has taught me some important parenting lessons; lessons I would not have accepted as true as a partnered parent.
1. It is impossible to be perfect, and more fun not to worry about perfection.
My quest for perfection had always left me insecure. Whether I was trying to “keep up” in my academic pursuits, attempting to meet my husband’s absurd expectations of me, or endeavoring to keep up with the competitive parenting landscape of the Washington DC metro area, I was paralyzed with my inability to meet the various standards of perfection established for me, whether self-imposed or externally decreed. Ironically, once I became a solo parent, the quest for perfection was over. Having failed dramatically in my choice of a mate and partner for raising children, I was forced to abandon the whole future I had imagined. So, the pressure was off. There would be no perfect Christmas card, family event or party. Instead, I have chosen to embrace the imperfection, stretch its boundaries, and set my own standards for what would count as “good enough.”
Shrugging off the chains of perfection has allowed me to try things and fail, laugh at myself and set an example for my daughters, letting them know that it’s okay not to be perfect. We aren’t always on time. Socks do not always match. My 18-month old wore one pink croc and one green croc for a year, including through a snowy winter, and that was okay (and were able to use the opposite pair when the first pair wore out). The standards turned from “does this appear to be perfect” to “will anyone die or be hurt?”
2. Other people are going to help you raise your kids, and that is a gift.
The modern world in which families with two parents who are working and geographically-distributed extended families have changed the reality of how children are raised. Mom is no longer always at home when school lets out. In a two-parent home, this reality has led to mommy guilt for working mothers – Should I stay home with my kids? Am I setting a bad example for my daughters if I don’t work? Can I work part-time? Should I be at ballet rehearsal or can the nanny take her? As a single mom, I was freed from this type of mommy guilt. Yes, I am going to work outside the home. It is the only way to support my children and myself.End of guilty voices.
This reality has also required that, of necessity, other people will help me raise my kids. Who these people are will depend on the circumstances:
I was lucky to have my Mom able to move in for a few months in the immediate aftermath of my ex leaving. While she also worked full time, she could share in taking one kid to daycare, while I dropped the other at pre-school on our respective ways to work (they were of course in opposite directions). Later, when a friend needed a place to stay for a few months, he moved in and would “watch” the kids while I went running in the evenings and would read stories to the girls when I needed a quiet glass of wine. Finally, we had an au pair that lived with us for six months, the best gift from the universe ever, who cooked and entertained and employed her look of quiet German disapproval when anyone’s behavior was out of line (mine included).
I also was lucky enough to have community of friends who were there in a pinch to help with pick-up or who invited us for a standing Thursday night meal and were a source of stability and comfort for my kids and I. Teachers, vacations with friends, coaches, therapists – all are people who are helping me to raise my kids.
3. You can opt out of the PTA and don’t have to be the class treasurer.
I sat in the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church that provided the space for my daughter’s pre-school. Next to me was my realtor-turned neighbor-turned friend, whose son was in my daughter’s class. The director of the program and the head of the PTA were stressing the importance of parent involvement, the opportunities to volunteer and the need for a treasurer. The need to do my part started to weigh heavily on my shoulders as she continued, “the treasurer position can be done in the evenings and weekends, so if you are working, you can still do this.”
My tentative attempt to raise my hand was met with an immediate “No! Sit on your hands! You get a pass as a single mom.” My friend’s commanding whisper acted as simultaneous permission and commandment, allowing me to retract my hand.
4. The house doesn’t have to be sparkling.
I’ve never been neat. My attempts to keep our house tidy never satisfied the standards of my ex, who was raised with live-in help. But, once I was a single mom, I quickly came to the conclusion that a clean house was an obvious sign that my priorities were off and I wasn’t paying enough attention to my kids – or so I justified to myself. My standard moved from a completely clean house to clean clothes, clean sheets and enough clean dishes to feed ourselves and whoever dropped in for dinner that night. An occasional purge of kids drawings, books I initially thought I would read but hadn’t (and likely wouldn’t), and outgrown kids’ clothes and toys kept the house from being overrun by stuff. But sparkling? Never.
5. The dance party doesn’t have to stop.
There is nothing that will change my daughters’ moods faster than a dance party. I learned this technique in the days after their Dad left and I was too distraught to explain what was happening or be able to comfort them without joining them with uncontrollable tears or keep the paralyzing fear of how I was going to raise these girls on my own out of my voice. So I plugged in my phone to the little speaker in the kitchen, turned the music up and we danced. Spinning and dipping and twirling and singing. The endorphins from moving, the giggles from my kids, the look of torture on the dog’s face at my awkward dancing: All uplifting. Five years later, we still dance when we are sad or frustrated or don’t know what to say . . . and it still does the trick.