I recently had a friend send me a text:
“Hey gf,” it started. “Think I could vent to you some time on the phone about how freakin hard it is to do this parenting thing alone? I feel like nobody can get it unless you’ve been there. So happy you’ve found your special someone! I’m trying to keep some hope amidst it all.. Sending love!”
I immediately responded, because this was a friend who I speak with rather infrequently, and if she was reaching out to me, it meant that she was nearing the end of her rope.
We ended up chatting for nearly an hour about all of the challenges of parenthood – the transition from being an independent woman to losing our identity to motherhood, the pressure to be this perfect mother at all times, the loss of a partner to share the responsibilities, and how to survive toddlerhood as a single mom.
Talking to this friend reminded me of the challenges I had as a single mother, and how I was barely able to hold it together. Another friend often recounts how when I walked into my classroom at the start of the workday, I often looked like I had run a marathon and was, more often than not, done before the day even started.
Surviving single parenthood isn’t easy – some days can feel like you’re at war, negotiating with tiny terrorists who will hold you hostage until you beg for mercy. Except, they don’t understand pleading, they don’t recognize the white flag, and they sure as shit are never satisfied with what you provide them with. Some days you’re Super Mom. You wake up with a burst of energy, get yourself showered and enjoy a cup of coffee before the babe – or worse, babes – wake up, you easily convince them that snow boots and winter gloves during the dog days of summer are inappropriate attire, breakfast is not only healthy – they enjoy it and ask for seconds! – you’re out of the house on time, no one forgets anything, and drop off is a breeze.
If there is one thing I remember about single parenting, it is lonely AF, not to mention soul-crushingly taxing to your mental health.
I remember often hearing, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Meaning – I needed to find the balance, to take time for me, to invest in my own self-care.
And quite honestly, that was probably one of the worst pieces of advice I ever received. No shit you can’t pour from an empty cup. No shit I needed to find time to take care of myself. No. Fucking. Shit.
But what these well-wishers don’t understand is that there is no time. Sometimes there is no one else to help. Sometimes it’s you and the babe. And you’re stuck.
And it sucks.
It feels permanent. It feels you will never take another breath. It feels like there will be perpetual noise. It feels like every bone in your body will crumble if the wind blows the wrong direction. It feels like you’ve made a mistake.
You question why you had kids. You wonder if you should go back to your ex. You fantasize about leaving your child at a fire station, or worse, at the grocery store.
And then, these well-wishers, they hit you with another piece of brilliant advice: “Don’t wish these times away. You’ll miss them when your child is grown up and no longer needs you like this.”
And you want to scream, “Fuck you. Fuck off. Go to hell. Thanks for making me feel worse than I already feel, asshole.” (Maybe you’re nicer than I am and wouldn’t curse at them … but that’s not me)
Because you’re tired – no, you’re drained. You’ve given everything you have to your little mini-me and the little shit spit it back in your face and said, “that’s not good enough.”
You’re broken, tattered, and begging for relief.
And as a single parent, there is no relief. There is no one there to tag in. It’s you and the monster. And right now, that monster has you handcuffed to a chair, eyes taped open, and is blasting Britney Spears’s Hit Me Baby, One More Time on repeat.
You’re damn right I’m wishing those days away. You better believe that I will never, in all of my life, want to relive the morning rush when I would have to pin N down in her car seat with my knee in order to buckle her in. I don’t miss those days, nor will I ever. Those mornings make me never want to have another child again. So, no, telling me that I will miss these days is not the correct response.
But what is the correct response? How do we help build moms up instead of breaking them down?
I know we don’t mean to break them down, to make them feel worse than they already do. Because if there is one thing I will never forget about those times, it is how painfully awful I felt at the end of most days. I will never forget the feeling of the hot tears piercing my face as I watched N sleep after a long, rough day. I will never forget how alone and isolated I was during those years.
My advice to my friend who called was as follows:
You are not alone.
What you are feeling is normal. Every single mother – whether they have a support team the size of a football team or whether they are in it alone – every single mother has felt what you are feeling right now. Some women try to hide their true feelings for fear of those Judgey McJudgersons who will make them feel worse. But I am here to tell you, if you don’t talk about it, you’re going to bottle it up. And if you bottle it up, you’re going to explode.
It is OK to wish away this time.
It is OK to long for a partner or a teammate. It is OK to never want to relive these days. It is OK to pray for the clock to quickly make it’s way to bedtime, if only so you can also close your eyes. It is OK. All of it. Everything that you are feeling is OK. Do not shame yourself. Do not try to pretend that you are loving every minute of this single parenting.
Your child doesn’t need you to be perfect. Your child needs you to love them.
We all know that childhood trauma causes a lifetime of pain. And I think that as mothers, we tend to put too much pressure on ourselves in attempt to provide our child with a life free from childhood trauma. But here’s the thing: every single child will experience trauma, some worse than others. Even leaving your child in the other room to cry it out will cause trauma of some sort. I am NOT advocating neglect or abuse of any form. What I am saying is that regardless of how hard you try to provide your child with a trauma-free, always happy childhood, there will be SOMETHING that your child will have to heal from as an adult.
So stop trying to be perfect. It’s OK to yell sometimes. It’s OK to leave your child in their bedroom and step outside into the hallway and sob while they wail for you. It is OK to have days where you child is plopped in front of the TV while you pour your full heart of heavy emotions into your journal. It is OK to say you can’t do today any longer and lie about the time to get your child to bed an hour earlier. It is OK for your child to eat fast food because you just don’t have the energy to make them a healthy dinner tonight. It is OK.
What your child needs is to know that you are there. That you have their back. That you will love them even when they are their most unlovable selves. That even through all of the screaming and yelling and crying, you are still their mama, and you would still go to the ends of the Earth for them.
Mandatory quiet time is necessary.
As N became what I call “nap resistant,” I instilled “mandatory quiet time.” The rule was “you don’t have to nap, but you cannot come out of your room until I say it’s time.” I put her in her bed with a few toys, a stuffed animal, and a book. Her baby monitor was on, but the bedroom door was shut. Sometimes I would sit out on the balcony and read. Sometimes I would crawl into a ball on the couch and cry. Sometimes I would cook or chat on the phone with a friend. It didn’t matter. It was mandatory quiet time, and I didn’t care whether or not she slept. I needed at least 30 minutes of me time.
The beginning was difficult. She resisted and sobbed and didn’t understand. And then she came to understand mandatory quiet time. Now, she excuses herself and institutes her own quiet time by removing herself from us. Kids need to understand that parents need a break. We need a chance to breath, to be still, and to have silence. And the more we communicate this need to them when they are younger, the more they will appreciate it and learn to take that time for themselves as they get older.
Your child needs to see you be human.
Humans have emotions. Humans have fun. They laugh, they love, they get silly and make goofy faces. But humans also get angry. They get scared, hurt, frustrated, and annoyed. They lose their temper. Sometimes they are snarky, and sometimes they yell really, REALLY loudly. And sometimes they are mean and hurt our feelings and make us cry.
And it is our job as parents to show our kids this. If all we ever showed our children was the fun, loving, laughing, silly mom, how are they ever going to learn to deal with that impossibly demanding, snarky boss? I’m NOT saying be nasty to them on purpose. But they need to see all sides of us. We cannot constantly bite our tongues and hide that snippiness from them all the time. It’s unrealistic.
It’s how we recover from those moments that is important.
Being able to apologize is key. They aren’t going to learn how to make mistakes and own up to them if you can’t show them. When you lose your shit – and you will lose your shit – own up to it. If not in the moment, at the end of the day. And if you miss that opportunity, apologize the next morning. Nothing says, “I love you,” more than you being able to say to your two-year-old, “I had a bad day, and I maybe said some things that I shouldn’t have. I may have even made you sad. And I am sorry. I will do better.” Ask your child how they are feeling. Do they have anything that they want to talk about? I know mine did. Hell, N even suggested things I could do instead of yell.
Those conversations are golden and perfect teaching moments. Don’t miss out on those because of your pride.
At the end of the day, I know that you love your child. You know that you love your child. Your child needs to know it too.