Even before I divorced it made me cringe – hearing married women with children say, “Oh gosh, I’m a single mom!” when their husbands were out of town for the week/weekend/afternoon. Lady, there’s nothing single about you – your husband contributes to the household income, you can call him if you’re having a stressful time with the little crazies, and you know that even if he’s gone for a few days or hours, he’ll be home soon to give you a hug and help you out with the lawnmowing or child-wrangling. Even if he’s not physically with you every moment of every day, he’s there for you in the form of emotional and perhaps financial support. You’re sporting a wedding ring or living with your boyfriend – you are not alone.
A single mom, to me, is a woman who does it all. She brings home the only paychecks with no or virtually no child support. She parents 100% of the time or nearly so. Dad’s out of the picture or so useless or uncommunicative that he may as well be missing. If young Junior gets sick, mom has to take a day off work and clean up the puke because there’s no one else to ask to help. If baby wakes at night, Mom comforts him. If Mom needs someone to vent to about Junior’s nose picking or antisocial behavior, she has to call a friend or a sister because Dad either doesn’t want to hear it or she doesn’t even know where Dad is living.
Now I’m single and come with that added label of divorced. When people I barely know learn I’m not married and have four children, they sometimes open their eyes wide and say to me, “Wow, four kids, that’s a lot of work!” or ask me, all confused, “But who is with your kids right now?” As if I left my three year old home alone to hold down the fort. These strangers assume I’m a single mom, doing the parenting thing completely solo. Some bolder folks will even ask me point blank, “Is their dad helping you out with money?”
I just can’t call myself a single mom, though. My ex and I share 50/50 custody of the kids and it’s heartbreaking. When I know they are sick but they are with their dad, I can’t give hugs to comfort them. They go to school and I don’t get to welcome them home each time they step off the bus. They tell me stories about what they did last weekend and it’s all new to me because I wasn’t there. It hurts. But as hard as it is, I’m not the only one responsible for their parenting. When my daughter had a high fever today, I texted her dad to ask if I should bring her to the doctor. He carries the insurance for the kids and I feel like we can communicate amicably enough to not spar over fevers and children’s ibuprofen (though truthfully, it’s not out of the question for us to fight about stuff like that). He got a new job and needed extra hours of childcare on his parenting days so I stepped in because they are my kids and of course I wanted to see them more. He’ll be taking the kids a few extra days when I travel to see a college friend out of state. We are divorced, but we still share the tasks of parenting. True, I can’t turn to my ex for emotional support, but when our seven year old does something wacky at school (like lick the school bus windows) and gets in trouble, my ex is the only other person who really cares about what’s going on with our son and it helps to have someone with that shared understanding to discuss what we should do for consequences.
Also, I get child support, as well as spousal maintenance for five years, which is meant to wean me off being financially dependent on a man I now live without. My rent is no less expensive because the kids aren’t using their bedrooms 15 days a month. I can’t drive a smaller car just because the kids are only it in half the time. My standard of living and that of the kids has been knocked down by more than a few pegs but we are getting by – I am not sure I could say that if I didn’t have my ex’s financial help. Not this soon. I know now why some women stay in unhappy marriages for so long. They realize they won’t be able to afford to live on their own. I’ve heard stories of too many women who get no financial support from the father of their children and my heart goes out to them because times are hard for me and I have help. I can’t imagine.
Where I really feel my singleness is when I need someone to talk to about something completely banal or fleeting. You know the stories – the ones that aren’t important enough for a status update, tweet, text or phone call to a friend, but you feel like you have to get them out. Like, “Ohmygod, this lady I kind of know from preschool was at the grocery story and she was in the same aisle as me every single aisle. I didn’t know if I was supposed to smile and say hello each time or what!” I used to have a husband for this. He might not have cared but he was there and had two functioning ears and could occasionally nod and grunt to acknowledge my tales. Now my stupid stories end up woven effortlessly into blog posts as seen above. Ahem.
Other times it’s when I look around my house at the mess and realize this is all on me. My ex may not have contributed to the household as much as I would have liked while we were married, but that meant that if something didn’t get done the blame was shared. It wasn’t just me who overlooked the clean laundry basket on the stairs or the broken cookie half under the oven, it was him, too. Now I’m the only one to blame. My ex and I may share parenting duties but we don’t share living spaces. I take the garbage out to the curb and change the light bulbs and put the salt in the water softener (in theory – I have the salt but haven’t done it yet because it seems so deceptively simple I fear I will somehow mess it up). If the house is a wreck it is because I didn’t clean it, friends.
I’m single, yes, but I feel like the term “single mom” describes someone doing more of the hard work completely on her own. I may not want a break from my kids – my forced time away from them is not welcome at all – but I do have breaks. I may not be rich but my kids are taken care of financially by their dad because he and I both know the kids would be living in much worse conditions without child support. For now I’ll just call myself a divorced mom. Or just mom. Those seem to fit.
How do you define single motherhood?