My daughter is coming down with the flu. She’s already taken one day off school. I can’t take any more time off. I’m a single mom; I’ve got bills to pay.
I try to get some work done but find myself constantly interrupted by requests for juice, games, another snack. She coughs all night. I can’t sleep.
I’m worried about her, but I’m also worried about tomorrow. I’ve got deadlines. I need her to go back to school. Should I call Grandma and ask her if she’d be willing to babysit, knowing that I’ll be exposing my elderly mother to my daughter’s germs?
I wake up the next morning to a tickle in my throat. Oh no! I can’t afford to get sick. I’m already behind.
Mothers in the US are drowning in stress.”
It’s harder to be a working mother in the United States than in any other country in the developed world.”
Caitlyn Collins is an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.
She doesn’t think we mothers CAN do it all. She thinks we need more help.
“I want American moms to stop blaming themselves,” she says. “I want American mothers to stop thinking that somehow their conflict is their own fault, and that if they tried a little harder, got a new schedule, woke up a little earlier every morning … that they could somehow figure out the key to managing their stress. That’s just not the case.”
Collins means well—she wants to let us off the hook.
But the fact is, we ARE on our own. No one is leaping to help us. We’re not being flooded with affordable, amazing childcare. Our bosses aren’t encouraging us to take time off for a sick kid or school in-service days.
If you’re a working single mom, it’s all up to you. You have to manage your stress. You’ve got to try harder, rearrange your schedule, and wake up earlier. Your children deserve your best.
Your most important job is being a mom. Failure is not an option.
“Bad Mom” Badge
Like most freelance moms, I take time off for my daughter’s illnesses but work through my own. I’m a grown-up. Coughing and sneezing doesn’t stop me from sitting at the computer.
But being sick plays havoc with my concentration. I have a hard time thinking clearly. I don’t produce my best work.
No matter. Taking time off would have even worse consequences. I’d end up further behind than I already am. I’d end up playing catch-up for weeks. No, thank you.
I tell myself I won’t infect anyone else as long as I wash my hands and stay close to home. The global economic engine doesn’t stop just because someone gets sick.
But my daughter’s school has a different attitude. Children give their germs generously to those they love. They sneeze in people’s faces. They wipe their noses with the back of their hands. They give sloppy kisses without a second thought.
And so when I send my child to school—even though she’s sick, even though she’s begging to stay home—I know what the other mothers are thinking.
Their child might get sick because of me.
I empathize with them. I really do. But I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes I have an important meeting that’s been scheduled for months, and I can’t find anyone to babysit.
I tell my daughter I need her to be brave. I know she doesn’t feel good, I know she wants to stay home, but just for today I need to her to buck up and soldier through. “It’ll be good practice for when you’re a grown-up,” I say.
As I drop her off at school and watch her cross the road, struggling with her backpack and a thick coat, my heart sinks.
Stages of Single Motherhood
I’m not the same woman I was four years ago.
Back then, I had just split up with my daughter’s father. I was dead-set on doing it all. I was going to have a successful career, a beautiful home, and bake cookies with my daughter each weekend. I was going to rise to the occasion.
What I didn’t know then was that I couldn’t do it all. I had to give up what being the mom I wanted to be. I couldn’t be the perfect mom when I barely had time to breathe.
You don’t just walk out of your life with a man and walk into life as an independent woman with children on board. You go through stages. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross had it right. The stages of single motherhood are like the stages of grief:
- Depression, and finally
You start out believing nothing will change in your children’s life, because you’re going to protect them from the fall-out of the split. You’re going to single-handedly keep their lives stable, consistent, and secure.
You end up knowing there is nothing you can do to protect them from the way life has turned out. Your children’s lives are forever changed. It’s just the way it has to be.
This is what the stages of single motherhood have felt like for me. Perhaps they might remind you of your own story.
Stage #1. Denial
My daughter is running across the living room, shrieking, with a dollar-store helium balloon in hand.
She zig-zags like a lunatic, jerking the balloon so fiercely I’m sure it will pop.
She is three years old. I am thirty-nine.
I’ve just become a single mom.
“It’s wonderful living in a house with no furniture!” I enthuse. “So much space! So many possibilities!”
I am certain I’ll love this single mother gig. I’ll be the monarch of my kingdom. I’ll decide when to send my daughter to bed and whether she can get out of eating carrots for dinner. My house will stay squeaky-clean with just the two of us in it. Everything will stay right where I left it.
At first I have visions of the two of us eating dinner together at the tiny kitchen table. I cook proper meals, made for a man’s appetite. My daughter pokes at the gnocchi. “Don’t like it,” she says.
It’s pointless. Unless I want to eat leftovers for a week. Family meals are too big for the two of us. But that’s all I’ve been cooking for years.
I become a short-order cook. I make her whatever she wants, sit her in front of the television, and hog the kitchen table for myself. I put my feet up on the other chair, prop a book in my lap, and eat a salad.
Salad or soup for dinner each night. So tasty and cheap!
I’m not worried. Except when I’m terrified, and even then I won’t admit it.
When you find yourself single with children in tow, you have to believe it will turn out okay. You and your kids are a team now. You will face whatever life throws at you with cunning and panache.
Don’t mess with Mama Bear! you think. I’ve been through hell once, and I’m not afraid anymore.
You’re part of a special club now. The Single Mamas Club.
You didn’t even know this club existed until you were inducted into it. Women in your life—at work, at school—pulled you aside when they saw you struggling. They shared their own little secret. They went through the exact same thing.
You had no idea. They seem like they have it all together. They don’t look divorced.
You listen to them with fierce hope. “You’re better off without him,” they say. “You don’t need a man. Your kids will be so much happier.”
You look at their confident smiles. They must be right. They’ve got this single parenthood thing sorted. You want to be just like them.
Until the evening you’re bathing your child and you hear the pot on the stove boil over. What were you thinking, trying to cook dinner while playing rubber duckies?
As you calculate how long it will take to race into the kitchen and save the spaghetti—how long does it take for an unaccompanied child to drown?—you hear the phone ring. It’s your mother. She’ll be annoyed if you don’t pick up.
And the hopelessness of it all hits you.
You can’t be mother and father and breadwinner and homemaker all at once.
You’re just one person. This is a job made for two.
Stage #2. Anger
I’m walking with a girlfriend through the aisles of Natural Grocers. We’re in awe of the options. So organic! So healthy!
I’m examining bulk elderberry tea when I hear my girlfriend draw in her breath. Like she’s stubbed her toe or something.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
Her lips are pressed tight. Her eyes are damp. She doesn’t say anything at first, like she doesn’t want to let the words out.
“I’m so mad at him,” she whispers.
I know who she’s talking about.
“We used to have all this.” She points to the rows of health food. “This is how I used to feed my children. I spent so much time buying the right food and cooking delicious meals and making our home just perfect. All he had to do was come home and put his feet up and play with the kids.”
“Now? I can’t afford this stuff. My kids deserve healthy food, and I end up giving them the cheap stuff.”
She adds in a soft voice, “It’s like he threw our family away. He didn’t value it enough to keep it.”
Stage #3. Bargaining
I am out on my first date in nearly a decade.
I’m wearing a dress. My hair is loose. I’ve done my makeup.
I inspect myself in the mirror. I look like a drag queen.
This is not how I look. I look like a mom. I live in a ponytail, hoodie, and yoga pants. My daughter doesn’t like it when I wear makeup. “You look weird, Mom,” she says.
But moms don’t attract men. Females attract men. So I can’t talk about the cute things my daughter said or mothering misadventures all evening, which is what I usually do when I go out with friends.
What does one say to a male?
I’m dating again because I want my daughter to have a family. I know how that sounds. Like the stereotype of a woman who can’t live without a man.
But it’s not a man I need. It’s the support. Things are tough on my single income. My daughter wants to me to play with her in the evenings, but I can’t because there’s too much to do. Someone else would ease the burden. Someone else would play with her when I can’t.
Most of the time, I like it when it’s just the two of us. Our home is very girly. We watch Disney movies. We decorate the house with pretty things. We go to bed early.
I’m not sure how I feel about the thought of having a man in the house again. I feel incredibly lucky to have no one else to look after but my daughter. I don’t have to wash smelly sports clothes or make space for a man’s stuff in the bathroom cabinet.
But my daughter loves the daddies who come to the birthday parties and break out dance moves with a dozen giggling girls.
She thrives on daddy energy. It makes her feel bigger and stronger. It makes her feel important.
Mommy energy is different. It’s the energy she needs when she’s got an owie or a problem with friends or homework she needs to complete. She takes mommy energy for granted. It’s always there, like electricity.
But sometimes I wish I had somewhere to plug in my outlet.
So here I am. Out on this date. With a nice guy who’s five years younger than me and really has no clue.
We talk about his life. He likes craft beers and running clubs. He donates to charity. His mother still tells him what to do.
He is a man ready to begin his life with someone. I’ve already lived one life with someone.
Maybe I had my chance.
Stage #4. Depression
I’m leaning on the counter, trying to repair my daughter’s gingerbread house with Elmer’s glue.
I’m so mad. Why didn’t she press harder on the gingerbread roof, so it stuck to the walls rather than sitting lightly on top of the icing, ready to slide at the slightest jostle?
And, of course, there’s no more icing, so I’m trying to put the damn thing back together with gobs of school glue.
She’s sitting at the kitchen table coloring. She knows I’m mad. We have a lot to do today. Only two more weekends, and we’re off for our annual Christmas trip. I’ve got to get Christmas cookies baked, all the presents sorted, everything packed, the house clean, and extra work finished so I can afford time off.
The pressure is immense. When kids are little, Christmas means everything. You have to make it magical. There’s no choice.
I’m already wearing my “Bad Mom” badge because I missed Santa Claus. My daughter loves getting her picture taken with Santa. But this year, Santa made his ONLY visit to our small town early—like, Thanksgiving weekend early, before I even thought to check the papers. My daughter was heartbroken.
I finish securing the gingerbread roof and turn back to my daughter. “All right,” I say with a cheery smile. “Ready to bake cookies?”
“Yeah!” she says.
Behind me, I hear a wet slap. I turn around slowly. The gingerbread roof has slid off again. As I watch, the entire gingerbread house collapses.
My face twists up. I feel like a 5-year-old about to cry. “Sweetie,” I say quickly. “Can I just throw this away? I know you made it and I know it’s important to you, but I can’t fix it. I can’t. It’s completely fallen apart. It’s just a … a wreck.”
She looks at me. I can see the concern on her face. “Okay, Mom,” she says.
I grab the plate and throw its contents in the bin, then grab the plastic bag and tie it up and take it outside. I need some air. I can’t fall apart. I’ve got too much to do.
When I come back in, my daughter is hunched over her crayons. “Mom,” she says, without looking at me. “That gingerbread house meant a lot to me. I feel upset that you threw it away.”
“Oh, honey!” I close my eyes. I go over and hug her tight shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
She starts to cry. “I don’t like it when you get upset! I don’t know what to do to make you feel better.”
“It’s not your job to take care of me. It’s my job to take care of you,” I soothe.
I know my lines. She’s the kid. I’m the grown-up. Her emotions can go all over the place. Mine must stay steady.
“I don’t always do the best job as your mom, I know.” Honest words burst out before I can stop them. “I just can’t do it all. I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
Stage #5. Acceptance
My daughter wants to be a mother someday.
She wants a girl she can name “Rosie.” Or “Rainbowy.”
She’s going to have me babysit. I’ll be Grandma. I’ll have to show her how to take care of the baby.
She’s not sure if she’s going to be married, though. She knows you need a daddy to make a baby, but she’s already assuming she’s going to raise the baby on her own. Like her mom.
I know the children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce themselves. I’m sending her out into the world with a strike against her.
I never wanted this for her.
I wanted to her to grow up with a mommy and a daddy delighting together over each new accomplishment. I wanted her to grow up with a big family and a pussycat and the same bedroom for her entire childhood. I wanted to protect her from all the hurt and pain of grown-up life.
But I’ve had to live with what I’ve done. This is how life has unfolded. This is the way things are.
Some people say our children choose us from heaven. Souls peer down at us from their perch in the clouds and say, “That one. I want her to be my mother. I want that one to be my dad.”
When they come down to earth and are born into this world, they already know what they’re getting into. They’ve made their contract. They know what could happen.
When my daughter was five, I told her this story. She said, “I remember picking you!”
“You remember being in heaven?” I asked quizzically.
“I think so,” she said. “I saw you and I was like, ‘Her! Her!’”
It helps to know my daughter would still pick me, after everything.
A Family of Two
It took me a long time to see that nothing was missing from our lives. We weren’t man-less. We weren’t half a family. We were an entire family. A family of two.
I’ll never forget the kindness of the teacher at my daughter’s preschool all those years ago. When I was trying to explain why my daughter wouldn’t be enrolling next term, because her dad and I were splitting up, she took me aside and let me cry in the teacher’s lounge. “All my daughter wants is her family!” I sobbed. “I’m taking that away from her.”
“Of course you aren’t!” the woman said brightly. “You are her family. Families come in all shapes and sizes.”
I’ve tried to hold onto that.
To believe that what matters most is being together, rather than getting it right.