What it’s Really Like to be a Single Parent

The other day I went to my doctor’s office for an appointment and was making small talk with the nurse. I told her about an upcoming solo vacation I was going on for a weekend, and the nurse asked me if I was taking my daughter. I told her no, she was with her dad that weekend.

“Oh,” she said. “So you can like get away and do things by yourself when she’s gone. Man, I wish I were divorced so I could get a break from my kids!”

🙆🏻‍♀️🤔😐

I thought of a couple sarcastic, semi humorous possible responses in my head, but chose not to verbally respond to her statement, knowing that it was probably more of a commentary of her sentiments about her own marriage and responsibilities, and less of a statement about divorce.

Because no one who has ever been divorced says stuff like that.

And what the nurse didn’t realize is what it’s REALLY like to be a single parent.

Preface: This is my perspective, based on a few different factors pertaining to my individual situation listed below.

    I am divorced and have my daughter alone about 75% of the time.
    For various reasons, I do not co-parent with her father. We have more of a “business relationship.”
    I do not have a partner in my home. It’s just me and my kid.

So in essence, I’m about to give you my take on single parenting from someone who is truly single parenting 75 % of the time to one child.

Here goes:

Single parenting is like living inside a computer that never turns off. There are many different tabs and programs open and only you can close them because you’re the one with the username and password and operating instructions. Oh, and the operating instructions are ones you have developed yourself based on your own experiences as a child except for you have to keep tweaking them as you realize your childhood and even your child is quite different than you. People may try to help you and sometimes you’re like oh my goodness, thank you for your help, YES, because your computer is so warmed up from running all the time, and you have all these different tabs open, like a tab for meals, clothing, homework, cleaning, extra curricular activities, one for trying to figure out tweens or toddlers, and not even mentioning the tabs for your own life.

In contrast, many homes with two involved parents have a computer they share. They exchange operating instructional notes. They both know how the computer works. And they can divide up the endless tabs and responsibilities. And sometimes one of them can say to the other, “I’m losing my patience with this kid we are trying to figure out. I need to walk away from the computer, so can you keep tabs on it while I go to the grocery store and get a mental break?”

But the single parent has to keep all the tabs open even when she or he wants a break. Any breaks taken from the computer are never, ever spontaneous. No one just randomly shows up at her door at the exact moment she needs a break. That doesn’t mean she or he never receives technical support to keep their computer up and running smoothly. But it does mean she is the only one responsible for running that computer. It is she who must make decisions and decide how to fix it most of the time.

It is the times when my child is most emotional that I feel the greatest responsibility of single parenting and running that computer. When she is devastated about a loss, or extremely excited or nervous about an upcoming event, or angry with me because she didn’t get her way, I feel her feelings and I hold space for her and I realize that THIS IS IT. I’m her emotional support and I have to be present. I have to help her process.

It is in those times that I sometimes literally fall to my knees and say, “Lord, lead me, because it’s just me and my heart leading this kid, and I don’t know what in the heck I’m doing. Give me wisdom and strength to bear this great responsibility.”

Here’s the thing, though: I cannot bear witness to the challenges of single parenting without bearing witnesses to the beauty in it.

I am no more proud of anything than I am of the work I do as a single parent. I am not doing it perfectly, but I am doing it. I know that there are times she wishes, as many children of divorced parents do, that her parents were not divorced. What she doesn’t know, and may never know, is that I fought very hard to save my marriage to the point that I had lost myself completely in another person.

However, I found myself as a mother when I had the freedom to be me. I found myself when my daughter was two years old, woke up vomiting in the middle of the night, and cried for me. I found myself when she was three years old and fell running at the pool and got a concussion, and I scooped her up off the ground and rushed her to the doctor. I found myself when I took her to a child psychologist at the age of four because I was so worried I had no idea what I was doing raising this strong willed, vibrant little girl. I found myself when she received straight As all year long and won an award, and I was the sole person there to support her. I found myself when she got in big trouble in first grade for throwing her shoe over the fence during recess and she went the rest of the school day wearing one shoe.

In a million and one ways, I FOUND myself due to parenting my daughter alone.

And while I do not wish the challenges that come with divorce or single parenting on anyone, I am grateful for the million and one ways that the experience of single parenting has forced me to find myself.

With great responsibility, also comes a great reward, if you are simply willing to find yourself in the midst of the hard stuff.

“Well, it depends.”

One of the most bizarre things a mother can experience is that she can birth a child into the world who has a personality completely different than her own.

My mother did just that.

I came into this world, very quickly (my dad barely made it to the hospital in time) and very loudly, according to my father. I was a horrible sleeper (a trait I passed on to my own child) and sensitive and fearful. I was wired for anxiety and phobias and seemed to be driven by my emotions.

From the time I was two years old, up until adulthood, my mother spent a lot of time sagely advising me to slow down. To wait. To be patient. To think. I didn’t like that she was telling me these things, but I mostly listened because something inside of me knew she was speaking wisdom to me.

But the best piece of advice my mother ever gave me of all time was simply two words, or sometimes three, depending on how she framed it:

“It depends.”

That’s right, folks. Two words: IT DEPENDS. Sometimes she added in the extra word, “well,” at the beginning, and in that case, she said:

Well, it depends.”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother said, “It depends,” I would be rolling in the dough. To this day, she says it frequently in response to people making “should” statements that are filled with emotion. The following are a list of statements to which my mother has responded with her adage, “Well, it depends.”

  • Our culture: “Follow your heart.” Mom: “Well, it depends. Sometimes the heart is just a bunch of feelings.”
  • Our culture: “Be fearless.” Mom: “It depends; sometimes fear is there to protect you.”
  • Our culture: “Live your life with no regrets.” Mom: “Well it depends. Sometimes regret can teach us things.”
  • Our culture: “Stand up for what you know is right.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You may not be right and may just be being stubborn.”
  • Our culture: “Take the bull by the horns and act quickly and efficiently.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You can take your time and be efficient as well.”

You see??? IT JUST DEPENDS. That is what I have learned from my mother.

My whole point in sharing how my mother’s phrase has helped me, is because I realize today that it has caused me, despite the fact that I’m wired to be emotional and even anxious, to choose to be OPEN to multiple perspectives. To be OPEN to multiple ways of existing, and feeling and thinking.

And while there are definite moral truths that cannot be argued with when it comes to equality and justice for humanity–no matter who you are, where you live, or what you have done– beyond those universal truths lies the world of “It depends.”

No one has this freaking thing called life figured out. We are all going to make independent judgments based on our experiences. However, there is great comfort in knowing that feelings are just feelings and, as a wise yoga teacher once said, “I am determined to see this mountain as just a mountain. It’s not a statement on my life,” (meaning not everything we perceive as terrible that’s happening to us has anything to do with us).

Pastor Rob Bell says our culture is all treble and no bass. People get their news and develop their thoughts from what they are exposed to on social media. Through the lens of technology, we have begun to believe there are quick answers to everything. In the craziness of all of this, my mom has been my bass, my voice of reason, by asserting that we cannot depend entirely on feelings, or easily swayed by new voices simply because they sound good. It just depends.

I close with a photo of my Mom, telling everyone to chill out, because no one knows what’s going to happen. “It depends,” she probably is saying. ⬇️

Grace Elaine Sommers Whitehead

This past week my mom turned 79. It’s kind of jolting, because I don’t think of her as being someone who is close to entering her octogenarian years. She’s just my mom. However, she’s MY MOM. And being that I’m a mom, this has caused me to reflect on what it must be like to be my mom.

Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself from when I was a kid, and try to remember what my personality was like. I’m guessing my mom would say I was a happy and talkative child, and I was, for the most part. I liked to play outdoors in the dirt, ride my tricycle, talk to the neighbors, and play in the sandbox. I also liked to pretend I had imaginary friends and even children. One day I told my mom that I had two daughters–one named Ruthie (after my grandma who I was obsessed with) and Crouton (after my favorite salad bar topping-BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEASONED BREAD?!). I was creative and liked to color and draw and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

My mom would sit at the foot of my bed every night until I fell asleep. We said bedtime prayers, and she helped me to learn how to pray. She cooked healthy food for us, and we always ate at the table.

(God, I should stop reminiscing because this is actually making me think about all the ways I’ve failed as a parent.)

But before I stop, I must mention one more thing.

I remember lying in bed in my childhood bedroom. Only I wasn’t a child anymore. I was 30 years old. My mom had pulled the curtains up, in hopes that I would feel the sunshine. It was springtime and it was beautiful weather. And yet, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew my parents were concerned, but every time they tried to speak to me, I either cried or shut down. And all I remember thinking was, why can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? There are actual people who are getting up with the sun and going outside and living their lives and going to the grocery store and shit. And getting up to go pee was overwhelming to me. Eating was overwhelming to me. Showering was overwhelming to me.

I felt like I was getting evicted from my own life. This was during my second separation from my husband. Things were crumbling and I did not want to surrender. What I didn’t yet understand was that, as Glennon always says, nobody gets evicted from his or her life unless she is being called to a truer, deeper life. Rock bottom is always an invitation to something else- something even more authentic and beautiful.

My mother came into my bedroom. She sat down on my bed. She told me she had baked some homemade bread and had fresh strawberry jam, made with strawberries from our garden. While my mother is an incredible cook, it was very out of character for her to make homemade bread. I looked at her, perplexed. But then I knew: she’s trying to get me to eat AND baking may be her way of coping with the fact that her child is feeling hopeless and not eating or sleeping.

She convinced me to eat a piece of bread. She brought it upstairs to me and sat on my bed. I put the bread in my mouth and could tell it was nearly a perfect tasting piece of bread, so I began to chew it, even though I wasn’t enjoying the process of eating. Every time I swallowed food, it went into the pit of my stomach and I thought would vomit. But I didn’t vomit. So I continued to slowly and thoroughly chew the bread in my mouth so that I could nourish my body at least.

“I’ve been thinking,” my mother suddenly said, “about you.”

I sat up in bed. She had my attention.

“I have this vision of you in my mind. You are an exquisite, beautiful flower. And yet, you’ve been buried for so long under the dirt. The ground above you is hard and cracked, and the soil is not good. However, you continue to grow and you will soon sprout above this ground that is holding you back–this ground that has held you down for so many years, and you will begin to bloom. And you’re just the most beautiful flower. You’re becoming yourself and you’re stunning. You are going to bloom and break free.”

I looked at her in awe, because she was envisioning things for me that I simply couldn’t see. But what she said–her words–were so intricate and fascinating, that it drew me in.

Everyone has always loved my mother. At times I resented this, because I didn’t like sharing her. I would get jealous and hide for attention or act out (when I was a child, to clarify-not last week 😜). But now I know why people are so drawn to her-it’s because she showed up for them, and never fell apart. It’s because she’s a vault when it comes to trust. My mother has exhibited grace under pressure, time and time again. When others are stressed, she remains serious. When people are crying and crushed, she responds with compassion. That’s why people love her.

So that is my mother. She is a believer in things that dwell in truth and possibility. Happy birthday, Mom.

Happy Re-Birth Day to Me


9 years ago today, after laboring for 30+ hours, my daughter, Aliana, was born via Caesarian section at 7:50 am. After experiencing what my OB-GYN proclaimed to be a freakishly challenging pregnancy, that included sciatica, kidney stones, preterm labor, and gestational diabetes, it was mind-blowing to me that a human this extraordinarily healthy had actually been percolating inside of me for nine months.

On this day, June 15, 2008, I was 32 years old, yet I was just a shell of a person.  I had no personality, no likes or dislikes, and no idea how I had gotten myself into the mess of an abusive marriage.

And now I had this tiny, gorgeous human with a full head of curly black hair, that was staring at me with the deepest coffee colored eyes I had ever seen.  And somehow, those eyes were the only thing that ever could break me of my numbness.  You see, I could no longer disassociate from my life, because that would mean I was disassociating from MY OWN CHILD. 

In the intensity of her gaze, I imagined she was saying to me, “I am here.  I am LIGHT.”

Her existence broke me into a million pieces so that I would be somehow be forced to make a plan to put myself together again, because her eyes–HER LIGHT–showed me that she needed a mama who was whole, and that mama had to be me.

One day, I was giving her a bottle when her father entered the room.   I don’t remember what I had said that upset him so much, but he spat on me.  His spit ran down my face and dripped onto my shirt.  I didn’t react, as I knew that would make it worse, but Aliana did. She screamed at the top of her lungs and she no longer wanted the bottle.  Her screams and her terror reminded me of my own terror–reminded me that I needed to finally be terrified in order to be her mother. My heart of darkness slowly began to crack, and I allowed her light to seep into me.

Her birth was my rebirth, so in many ways, this day, June 15, is sacred to me and forever will be. It is a day that I was also born, as this baby was the one who brought me back to life.

Sometimes people say to me, it’s unfortunate that you and your ex husband conceived a child together, because that means you have to still communicate and can’t be completely unattached. What people who make these comments don’t understand is that if I hadn’t had my daughter, I might still be living in that marriage. Aliana’s existence propelled me into a completely new level of life, because I finally loved a person so much that I didn’t want her to live the way I had been living.  The love I couldn’t feel for myself, I could feel for her. 

Something deep inside of me knew that I could never be the mother she needed unless I could fully be myself, and the journey to self discovery started with her birth. 

Changing lives is serious business, and this girl wasn’t even planning on getting into that business; the universe simply deemed it so.

And for that I will always be thankful. Happy birthday, Aliana. 

The Ocean, the Sun, and Dory

Aliana and I just came home from a short trip to Florida.  At the airport, a stranger asked me where I was going.  I told him, “Naples, Florida.”  He asked, “Who lives in Naples?”

“The ocean,” I said.

He looked puzzled.  I almost asked him, “Have you not seen the ocean?”

As Aliana and I swam in the waves on Tuesday afternoon, I asked her a question.  “How do you think you are like the ocean?” Together, we made a list of the ways that she is like the ocean:

  • Strong, yet soft
  • Beautiful
  • Constantly changing, yet still the same
  • Full of life
  • Deep
  • Fun
  • Majestic

Then last night, we watched the sun set over the ocean.  And all I could think about was how this same sun has been setting on our earth every day since the beginning of time. The sun gives us life and is such a powerful part of God’s creation, yet I have never stopped to even think about how that ball of fire keeps me alive.  That MASSIVE star keeps our earth going. It goes up every morning, no matter what, and goes down every evening, no matter what.  It does its damn job without complaint.  And when it shines, it’s amazing how that makes all of us feel.


So as I was having these thoughts and trying to practice gratitude for the beauty that was surrounding me and has been surrounding humanity since the beginning of time, I started thinking about what it means to surrender to the forces around us–God, nature, circumstances.  Whatever they may be.  And I realized this:  Surrendering is freaking hard.  It’s not in our nature to let go.  It’s not in our nature to let God and the universe make decisions for us, yet that’s exactly what sometimes happens.

People have often asked me why I’m divorced (which, by the way, is a somewhat invasive question to ask someone you don’t know well, but anywho).  Rather than going into an excessive explanation, I have started saying, “I married a person who God didn’t intend for me to marry.”

There is no doubt in my mind, that God didn’t want me to marry my ex-husband.  But I wanted to marry him, and so I did.  And while I have this incredible child as a result of my decision, I can still honestly say that I was not acting in accordance with God’s will when I said, “I do.”  I was acting in accordance to MY WILL.

Along the same lines, I do not understand when people say, “I have no regrets.”  Because, I think regret is an important teacher.  I have LOTS of regrets, guys. I regret hurting my parents by being selfish.  I regret having no boundaries with people.  I regret putting myself in danger.  I regret hurting people by not being honest with them.  I regret gossiping about others. I regret trying to control people.

While I learned from those decisions (notice I don’t call them mistakes, I call them decisions), I’m still a work in progress, and I hate that I am that way, but I am.  Because I’m like Dory from Finding Nemo (I totally stole that analogy from Glennon, by the way)–I now know all this “life stuff” and “who I’m supposed to be” in my head, but then I sometimes have days or weeks where I forget it.  It’s during those moments that I make decisions that are sometimes less than stellar–decisions I regret.  But I’m trying to iron my path out so I have less of them.

And, if I take the time to pay attention to the forces of nature, they just may remind me everyday to SURRENDER to who I am and to the universe.  If I were in control of my life, things would be so different right now, but I’M NOT.  And strangely enough, I also believe God knows what God is doing, and I am just gonna try to get out of God’s way so I don’t jack it up.

 

 

 

Your Children are not your Children

My mom was born in her grandparents’ home in the cold of winter on January 14th, 1939. Her mom, Ruth, was a homemaker, and her father, Clayton, was a farmer and Mennonite pastor. They named her Grace Elaine. 

This is the home/farm where she grew up:   
She was the first born of three children, and the only girl, but was not spoiled in any way shape or form. Those Mennonite grandparents of mine were too busy thinking about how to put a meal on the table and sew their own clothes and milk cows and crap. 

Here’s a photo of my mama and her cousins when she was younger. My mom is in the center, with her hands up by her mouth. Her younger brother, Elson, is in the front, putting God knows what into his mouth. 

 

When I asked her to describe her childhood, she said the following, “We had good, simple food and were never hungry because we had cows my parents milked and food from the garden which was canned in the summer. We kept potatoes and apples in the basement during the winter.  

We had chickens who laid eggs which we needed to gather. Sometimes we bought groceries from a huckster, a man with a truck which had shelves of food. ”

I have no idea what the hell a huckster is. 

Anyways, my mom was a good girl. She pretty much did what her parents wanted her to do. Despite that fact, they SENT HER AWAY to Mennonite boarding school–a private, Mennonite high school that was located two hours from home. I guess they just wanted to make sure she was a hundred percent Mennonite a hundred percent of the time. 

And she pretty much was. She sewed, read the Bible, sang hymns, cooked awesome food, and even wore a covering on her head. She was beautiful, but concealed her beauty in order not to be vain. That was the “Mennonite way” during that time.

My mom was a unique mother. She became an ordained minister when I was in the third grade. (More on that here, if you’re curious.She was extremely matter of fact all of the time, as well as logical and honest. When I was around seven years old, she sat me down and talked to me about menstruation. I was like, “This sucks, and why the heck are you telling me about this because I’m freaking seven years old??!!” 

Her reply, “Because it’s going to happen someday, and you need to be informed.” Such a Grace answer. 

She bought my brother and me a book about body parts and bodies changing. When she saw us reading it, she said, “Let me know if you have any questions. It’s okay to talk about the book.” We were like, “Um, no,” and quickly put the book away in embarrassment. 

She believed in rules and following them, but definitely picked her battles carefully. If she said, “If you do that one more time, you will get spanked,” she meant it. 

For whatever reason, she neither encouraged nor discouraged us from believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. My theory is that she could not tell a lie. Ever. She was like freaking George Washington, for God’s sake. 

She rarely showed emotion, and was often even-keeled–the opposite of my dad. However, when she lost her brother to cancer, I remember seeing her tears. She says, “My saddest time was when my brother Elson died from a four year battle with cancer. Since he was 18 months younger than I, I felt he was part of me. I had so many tears even though we lived hundreds of miles apart for many years. Even a long time after the funeral I was surprised that when I looked into a mirror I felt like crying. That has never happened before or since.”

That’s what cancer does, people. It’s devastating. 

My mom continued to parent me into my adulthood. The first time my exhusband and I separated prior to my divorce, that woman sent me a freaking Bible verse every.stinking.day through email. Every morning I knew I would have a piece of encouragement in my inbox when I woke up. 

When I was in the midst of grieving the death of my marriage, I literally could not get out of my bed one day. The tears flowed from my eyes to the point that my eyeballs were swollen and I couldn’t see. My mom stayed with me. She baked me homemade bread. She prayed. She told me she envisioned me like a beautiful flower who was about to blossom, but I had been covered with dirt for so long and I was finally reaching out of the soil. She saw my potential before I did.

I wanted to be my mom. She’s just that kind of strong woman I was longing to be. 

So right after I gave birth to my own daughter, I started to breastfeed. It was very challenging for me on many levels. I went back to work when Aliana was eight weeks, my marriage was continuing to crumble, and I was trying to do everything perfect. I put tremendous amounts of pressure on myself, and I was an  emotional post-partum wreck. 

I decided to see a lactation consultant. 

When I was sitting in the consultant’s office, feeling overwhelmed, I said, “My mom nursed me until I was two years old! I know I can do this. I just don’t get it.”

The consultant looked at me and said, “You are referring to your mom a lot, and that’s okay. Could it be, though, that you are a different kind of mother?”

Ugh. When the truth stares you in the face, it’s often hard to hear, but necessary.

I realized in that moment that I would never be my mother, and I would need to accept that. The truth was, I was a working mom, whereas my mom stayed home with us until I went to school. The truth was, I was in an unhealthy marriage that was falling apart and I had minimal support in my child rearing, whereas my mom had the support of my dad. The truth was… I was NOT my mother. 

Not only were our circumstances different, but our personalities are very different as well. My mom is shy, and I’m a social butterfly. My mom is graceful under pressure, whereas I get emotional. My mom is the best cook I know, I am not. My mom is a minister, and I MOST DEFINITELY am not. 

The educator in me wants to draw a Venn Diagram for you to explicitly show you our similarities and differences, but it’s getting late, and I don’t have time for that, and neither do you. 

What I will say is this: Parenting is hard. I am thankful I had good parents. I am also trusting in the fact that although I am very different than my mother, that I am designed to parent my daughter. 

And I know that my daughter is not me either. It can be difficult to accept that our children are not going to be us or be exactly who we want them to be. 

This quote from Kahlil Gibran (one of my heroes), sums it up:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, 

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

I love you, mom. ❤️