I’m not a single parent. I’ve spent a significant chunk of parenthood without my husband, but I’m not a single parent. At the end of a long day or week or a long month without my other half I can rest easy in the knowledge that, at some point, my husband will be home; at some point, the troops will arrive; at some point this marathon will end.
So, while I can empathise with single parents and I can begin to understand how they feel, I don’t know for sure. What I do know, from my limited experience as a single parent, is this: they are the toughest, strongest, most kick-ass versions of us all.
Most of my friends are in fairly normal relationships. By that I mean that they see each other every day or most days. It may not be for very long. It may not be long enough to have a conversation but if you know that at some point your other half will be climbing into bed with you then, psychologically, you can rest that little bit more easily. If you spend your life knowing that you are in this ‘parent thing’ together and that each night you can chat about your day, or talk about the shit stuff, or share a bottle of wine together then you’re winning.
If on the other hand, you have no buddy, no partner, no team mate, you don’t get that luxury. You don’t get to count down the minutes or the seconds until your other half is home and you can have a grown up conversation. You don’t get to watch the clock until you can be only half-responsible for the Small people in your house. You can drink a glass (or two) of wine without the guilt because you’re sharing it with someone and not drinking on your own. You don’t feel like you’re smothering your social skills or drowning your brain in shit TV because you get to have a real-life conversation with another human being…and if they aren’t there, what’s the alternative?
The alternative is that you’ll probably not spend time cooking a really healthy wholesome meal for yourself because, come on, after the novelty wears off, that’s not fun. Apart from anything else, there’s no “I’ll cook, you clean” division of labour option. Instead, it’s more of a “I’ll earn the money and do the shopping and do the cooking and clean it up” option which isn’t nearly as fun. So, you’ll probably eat up leftovers from your Small’s dinner, even if most of those have already been masticated considerably and settle for a couple of pieces of toast and a guilt-laden glass of wine.
With little else to do when your Small is sleeping you’ll become obsessed with using that time to clean or work…because, when the fuck else are you going to do it? Any, and I mean ANY child-free time you have, can’t be allocated to fun and fuck it all, because there’s only you to earn the money, keep your whole system together and find enough energy to love your Small so much that they don’t even realise that they’re missing a parent.
And here’s the difference – I’m lucky because while I’m on my own a lot, I’m on my own because my husband is away earning money. I do work freelance but I have the luxury of knowing that if I can’t work because of the Small then it’s not the end of the world. If I was a real, bona-fide single mama I wouldn’t have that luxury and here’s where my ability to fully understand their experience fails. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to be the only one available to earn enough money to keep them warm and fed and happy; to be the only one responsible for keeping their world together and constant; to be the only one at the end of the day. Alone. Tired. Exhausted.
I’ve nearly been there, I’ve almost been that alone and there are times when I’ve sat and sobbed on my own in my living room and spoken out loud to nobody. I know how that felt and because of that I know that, given a choice, I’d never willingly choose to do this on my own.
I’ve been on my own for most of the last seven months and psychologically it has been the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done. I’ve survived because I’ve know that there was an end date. I’ve survived because I’ve known that the end justifies the means – my husband has been earning money. I’ve survived because I’ve had family and friends helping me out during this temporary tough time and I don’t use the word ‘survived’ lightly. It’s been a gut-wrenchingly hard, mind-numbingly boring, anxiety-inducing stressful experience but it’s been just about ok because I’ve known from day one that it’s temporary.
For single mamas, it’s not temporary. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no, “I’ve just got to get to 6.30pm when my husband gets home.” There’s no sharing the morning get-ups, or the financial stresses. There’s no debrief at the end of the day. There’s no date nights or sexy-time or family breakfasts. It’s an endless treadmill that they do because they know they can’t NOT do it.
And do you know what is amazing? They’re not miserable. Sure they have miserable times and moments when they call someone, anyone, and say, “I can’t do it. I need help,” but they are still grateful and thankful for what they have. They still look at the children playing and beam because they really, truly understand the heartache and graft it took to get there. Before Nike even knew what they were talking about, single mamas were ‘just doing it’ and nailing it and because, quite simply, there is no other option. It was a choice of life or death.
So, I ask you, let’s as parents just take a minute to really think about what it would be like to be doing this on our own, for real. I know it’s all relative but think about those times you’ve whinged and moaned about your husband being home late. Or vice versa. Think about what it would feel like if there was nobody coming home at all.
I’ve often said that parents are superheroes and I stand by that but here’s the thing. Single parents are gods. We should worship them and give what we can to them and high-five them. We should remember that, if we have an ‘other half’, it’s never that hard. If you have an ‘other half’ we don’t really even know what hard is.