The Hidden Costs for the Single Mom

The single mom.  Is this a title?  A state of being?  A label or a criticism?  This seems to be an excuse or a disclaimer for some people.  As if that fact excuses errant or bizarre behavior.  “Well, she is a single mom.”

For me, like many women in the same position for various reasons, is just a fact of life.  I try not to use it as an excuse.  Although, I have mentioned it when sending regrets for missing (yet another) nighttime meeting or event.  I offer it as an explanation, the way one would mention having made previous plans.  I want no sympathy for being a single mom.  I have earned none.  It is not something to be pitied.  Understanding and respect is what I desire.

Adjusting to life as a single mom is a lot of trial and error, frustration and triumph, tears and laughter.  Over the years I have learned some of the hidden costs of being a single mom.  I don’t mean the financial burdens that come with learning to live on one income or adjusting to a new budget.  I mean the real costs.  These are the things that won’t go away with a bigger paycheck.  These are the things that interrupt sleep, distract focus and damage our hearts.

Planning takes on a whole new meaning as a single mom.  I have a habit of taking on too much, starting too many projects, promising too many favors.  At one time, I could go to work in the middle of the night to finish a report if necessary.  I could run errands – alone – quickly and easily on the weekends.  I made a relatively healthy dinner every night and subscribed to the “planned leftovers” philosophy for meal planning through the week.  My cupboard, fridge and freezer were always stocked with staples.  I sent out birthday cards and thank you notes in a timely manner. I often spent time on art and science projects with my son, or visited museums and parks.   As a single mom, that has all changed.  I can’t go to work at night or on weekends anymore.  There’s no one at home to take care of my son.  I have to finish everything in the limited time I have there.  Errands take almost 3 times as long when there is an inquisitive, bored, ADHD boy in tow.  Neither of us want to be there, so the errands take longer or get skipped and are left incomplete.  Either way, it’s not a pleasant endeavor for either of us.  Dinner is a thought that frequently pops up around 5:15 in a panicked state.   I’m not one to buy or serve many pre-packaged, kid-centered meals (like spagetti-o’s or lunchables).  This makes things harder, but it’s my choice and a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my family.  Sometimes I wonder if I should rethink that decision.  I am often running to the store at the last-minute to get some chicken and snow peas in order to make a dinner that should be served in approximately 30 minutes.  I never seem to have the time (or patience) to get enough groceries to really be “stocked up” anymore.  I don’t think I’ve sent out a birthday card in over 2 years (apologies to friends and family – I do love you and think of you!).  Projects with my son are sadly limited to struggles over homework and household chores most of the time.  He received a museum membership as a gift and we’ve yet to use it.  All of these things can be better.  It doesn’t have to be so difficult and frustrating.  But it takes planning and preparation.  Both of which require time – a fleeting commodity in a single parent house.  I’m working on a household planner to help me get back on track, but it’s not coming together very quickly.  I used to have things filed and organized and prepared.  Now I have chaos.  It’s a process.  A long, slow, arduous process.

Happiness is harder to find, harder to hold on to.  Happiness take effort.  It takes awareness and engagement.  It’s not that happiness isn’t available to single moms.  We’re just not as adept at finding it.  Part of this is a strong focus on our children.  A big part of this is guilt (about not focusing on our children). Single moms tend to look past some great opportunities.  The focus is always on the children first, and personal benefits second.  And, while most would agree that keeping yourself happy will make for a happier household over all, it’s not in the plans.  A single mom may stay in a job that’s not best suited to her, or buy/keep a car that’s not her favorite, or pass up an opportunity for a beneficial relationship – that is, if we even are aware of the possibilities.  We are not as comfortable with risk.  If something doesn’t work, there is no partner to lean on for support – financially or emotionally.  It’s all up to us.  Failure is squarely on our shoulders.  Success would be, too, but the guilt makes that part harder to see.  So we settle for okay, because the fear of reaching for happy and missing when another life is solely dependent upon us is too great to bear.

Discipline is hard, and we never get a break from it.  In a two-parent house, each partner has a chance to be the nurturer and the authoritarian.  While one may be great at guiding a child with chores, the other may excel at keeping him/her on task with homework.  The role of the “bad guy” (in the eyes of the child) is assumed by each at different times, keeping a nice balance.  There is a give and take between partners.  For a single mom both roles are played simultaneously and constantly.  There is a never-ending tug-of-war between your heart and your head.  You just hope the right one wins out most of the time.  Even in the most loving moments, the enforcer is just below the surface ready to get everyone back on task.  There is never the chance to say “it hurts me too much to discipline him now, you do it this time, please.”  This became very apparent for me with my son this weekend.  I had been working far too much lately and he had been in the care of others most of the time, getting shuffled from here to there, leaving me with only about one hour of time with him each day.  Finally it was the weekend and we were going to get some time together.  We would talk and play games, go to a park, play outside, maybe even build that model that’s been sitting in pieces on the table for weeks.  It was finally time for US.  Then, early Saturday morning, there was an incident that required swift and firm punishment.  My heart sank.  This was supposed to be our time to be together.  I’d been waiting for this all week.  What was I going to do?  I confronted him, told him the unacceptable behaviour that happened, and sent him to his room.  Our time was gone.  He returned within minutes, crying “I’m sorry!”  I accepted his apology and sent him to his room.  I hated this, but if it was going to work, I had to follow through.  He came back to me again, sobbing, saying “I never get to see you!  I just want to be with you!”  I quietly said I wanted to be with him, too.  Then I sent him back to his room.  All my joy for that day was instantly gone.  We both spent the rest of the day crying.  There is no one else to deliver the bad news or take away the toys.  And when our children are angry with us for punishing them (as children will be), there is no one else there to pick up the slack and be supportive to them.  I remember times when my son was upset with me and ran to cuddle with daddy.  It hurt that he didn’t want to be around me, but I felt satisfaction in knowing that his need for love at that moment was being met.  That need is left unmet now.

One can never know all that will be sacrificed or gained in being a single mom.  It changes day by day.  None of this is to say that two-parent households don’t struggle with some of the same things.  I used to say I felt like a single parent before I became one.  Boy, was I wrong.  I am more anxious, frustrated, and exhausted now than ever before.  And I’m still not happy.  But I love my son with all my heart and can’t imagine life any other way now.  We are a family, just the two of us.  Sometimes I wonder if we would be as close and loving with each other if we didn’t have a sense of “you and me against the world” going on.  Doesn’t matter.  My life, with all it’s chaos and struggles and guilt, is complete because of him. 

I’m a single mom.  It’s not an excuse.  It’s a badge I wear with honor.

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