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.

The Woman I Feared: My Ex’s Fiancée

When I was still married, I remember lying in bed one night thinking of all the reasons why I shouldn’t get divorced, despite the fact that my marriage was pretty much a living death at the time. All of the reasons I listed were branches grown from trees of fear or “what if’s.” Among these reasons was the following;

He’s gonna find another woman and I cannot bear the thought of another woman playing mommy to my daughter.

My internal dialogue went something like this: She’s gonna be pretty and sweet and is gonna let my daughter do whatever she wants and my daughter is gonna want to go live with her just like what happened in whatsherface’s family–YEAH that will be my freaking life and I won’t be able to bear it. And she will be the “fun mom” and my daughter will hate me because her dad and fun mom hate me.

But, as the story went (that was actually not just a story, but my real freaking life), I filed for divorce in spite of this fear and all the other fears. Because what often happens when you’re in a situation where fear is ruling your life, is your heart and your brain and body eventually can’t take it anymore, and so you have two choices: disassociate from the pain and fear OR boss up. Somehow, not by anything less than luck or possibly the grace of God, I chose to boss up. Not everyone is or was as lucky as me, and it is to those beloveds who are still living with fear as the boss of them, that I dedicate this post. I am speaking to you, my loves, who are living in fear, and I want you to know:

I am no different than you. I am no smarter than you or more courageous than you. I just somehow decided to do it-to leave an abusive, scary hellhole that was my life. Maybe your hellhole is different situationally than mine, but fear is fear, and loss is loss. It is real, and it’s hard, and it’s scary.

To this day, I have mixed feelings when people say to me, THANK GOD you changed. While I am very thankful I left my situation and that my life is now beautiful and true (albeit messy and hard, just like life is), I have SO much compassion for that girl that I used to be-my rock bottom self. Cause there ain’t nobody in this world who loves her more than I do. Why? Because she felt the pain and let it steer her. She felt the loss and knew that it was devastating. She knew she wasn’t like everyone else around her. But what she didn’t know, was that she was worthy of happiness, respect, and peace of mind. And so that’s why I love her–because she needed love and still does.

We don’t give as much love to people at their rock bottoms as we should. Sometimes it’s because we are afraid they will never change. Sometimes it’s because we are afraid they will change, but not for the better. Sometimes it’s because we’re just plain tired. To the people who are tired, please rest. But to everyone else, I say this: love them anyways. Show them love without fear, so that they know it’s real and that it exists.

And to my rock bottom beloveds, I tell you this story, about my now ex-husband’s girlfriend. Once I left, I had the gift of time. And with time, came less fear and more understanding. And then one day, my little girl came home from a visit with her dad and said, “Daddy has a new friend and her name is Ashley and she’s my friend, too.”

And somehow, I felt the goodness in this. You may ask me WHY and HOW in the HECK did I get there? And all I can tell you is that it was time, beloveds. Time created space, and space created awareness. Fear cannot survive when you start doing things you’re afraid of doing. I don’t know why that is, but it just is. It’s like your brain and anxiety get a little shock, but then they realize that you are still alive, so they keep going. That’s kinda how it was for me, too. I did a lot of little, scary things, and then the big ones took care of themselves.

And then it was revealed to me pretty quickly that Ashley was just a younger version of myself. And I loved her, because I love me. And she loves my girl, and so it makes sense that there is goodness in that. And even though she’s a younger version of me, she’s still not me. I am still mom, and that’s a truth that will always exist. Fear can’t change the truth.

So here it is, my fellow rock bottomers who may be reading this: I am no different than you when it comes to strength and courage. I love you more than I do most people because you know rock bottom. I love you because you understand pain and haven’t entirely dissociated from yourself yet. The pain you feel can be a loophole that you slide through which brings you to your future- a future where you find others like you, and show them love, and pull them out, too. All you have to do now, though, is believe, even if it’s for just a minute, and that everything you’re afraid of, isn’t as strong as you are. Give yourself the credit you deserve and know that you even if you just slide your pinky toe through the loophole, you still got through, so just keep going. One minute of believing fear isn’t your boss may turn into two minutes the next day, and soon enough, with time, you will realize your whole entire leg slipped through the loophole.

And that is how your truth begins.

Should I Stay for the Kids?

When a couple is in a committed relationship, and one of them is contemplating leaving, he or she may ask him or herself questions such as, “Is this bad enough for me to leave or good enough for me to stay?” However, when that same couple is in a committed relationship with children, there is a much more disconcerting thought that may enter his or her mind: “What would leaving do to my children?”

I am 41 years old.  I am divorced.  I am clearly not a psychologist or a relationship expert.  I am not going to furl data or research at you.  However, I have had the privilege of witnessing profound personal growth in people who were willing to dig deeper into the layers of this aforementioned question:  What would leaving my children’s father or mother do to my children?

When I hear people ask this question, I also hear the following underlying/interconnected  questions:

  • What would it do to me to see my children suffer through this pain?
  • What would it mean for my children to come from a broken home?
  • What will happen to me as I explain this to other people?
  • What will people think of me for leaving a marriage or partnership that doesn’t look “that bad?”
  • Shouldn’t I be able to tolerate it, at least until the children get older, so that I can give them a “stable” home life?

These are really hard questions that I am sure many a therapist has heard in their offices. These are questions that have been written into journals and secretly tucked under people’s mattresses where no one else can find them.  These are questions that are whispered in quiet corridors where lovers meet to have affairs that feel more comfortable to them than leaving the status quo.  These are questions that people ask themselves as they drink a bottle of wine every night in order to go to sleep, because numbing out is easier than answering these questions.

While I️ don’t know the answers to these specific underlying questions, what I️ do know is this: OUR CHILDREN NEED US, NOW MORE THAN EVER BEFORE.  And when I say “need us,” I mean need US–the real, most true version of ourselves.  If we are in a relationship that does not offer us the opportunity to be the most REAL and TRUE version of ourselves, then staying in that relationship CANNOT be what’s best for our children.

When a mother walks into her home, and feels like she can’t be herself, that has a negative effect on the little people in her home.  When a girl looks into her daddy’s eyes and sees a person who does not love himself, that actually has a negative impact on that little girl’s mental health. When anyone walks into his or her own home, feeling broken-hearted because love doesn’t live in his or her marriage, his or her children will FEEL the effects of this sadness.

I know kids.  When I come to school to teach, and I seem frazzled for whatever reason, one of these insightful little people will come up to me and say, “Have you had your coffee yet?” BECAUSE THEY KNOW THINGS.  I don’t really wear makeup much anymore to work, but the first day I stopped wearing it, a five year old asked me the minute I stepped into the building, “What happened to you and where did your pretty eyes go?”

These are children–some of the most curiously perceptive people on our planet.  They FEEL things in the air and see between the lines.  They know when we are trying to distract ourselves from our lives in order to avoid living it.  And they definitely know when we don’t love ourselves.

They can also sense when our lives are unfulfilled.  They can feel when there is an emptiness in our hearts.  Our children know when we are pretending, and if we continue to show them that pretending is okay, they will begin to start pretending and stuffing their feelings down, too.

And one of my mantras for this year has been: there is no power in pretending.  We do not want our children to believe it is okay to behave like someone they are not. When we push down who we are and what we want, in order to avoid causing other people to experience pain, we aren’t actually LIVING, and are in fact, BETRAYING our truest, highest selves.

We must start to understand that there is a way of being that is authentic. And in this space of authentic living, we will find that what is good and true and right for us (and I got this line from Glennon Doyle, because she’s a genius) is going to be what is good and true and right for “our people.” And our people include, but are not limited to, our children. Now, this does not mean our children will not suffer pain. Divorce is painful. Painnnnnnnful. Heartbreaking, in fact, for adults, children, and members of the extended family. But–and I️ cannot ask this question enough-is it our job to protect our children from ever experiencing pain and heartbreak? Is that truly what being a parent means? Or, does being a parent mean to hold our child’s hand and show them how to be their truest selves, even when it’s hard and not popular or right?

Could it mean that we are actually doing our best parenting when we teach them that they can walk through pain and come out stronger and more resilient?

I️ don’t know about you, but for as much as I️ hate seeing my daughter in pain, what I️ would hate even more would be for her to never know the lessons that pain can teach. That grief can teach. That heartbreak can teach.

Perhaps if our children can learn to withstand heartbreak and grief and pain, they can learn to sit with others and have empathy for them, too, when they see them walking through the same. And when our children can learn to hold space for each other and practice empathy and compassion, they can change this very world.

I Woke Up Like This

When I first got divorced, I walked around for about a year like a female version of Rip Van Winkle who had awoken and was seeing a new world. 

Despite a PTSD diagnosis from my doctor,  everything felt like a miracle to me. 

Every time I would pay a bill, I felt gratitude to be paying my own bills. When I bought my first piece of decent furniture, I felt like a queen. I finally slept like a baby most nights in my bed, and I let my daughter, who was two at the time, sleep next to me, despite everyone telling me “that was a bad idea.” I didn’t care. What I cared about was that we were finally SAFE and FREE. 

For about a year, I walked around like that-in an almost mystical, childlike state of wonder. I am not saying I wasn’t raw and emotional-what I’m saying is that I felt peace, despite the range of emotions that passed through me.

I remember sitting in my little, white and brick house in a not-so-great part of town, rocking my daughter in my tattered, hand-me down rocking chair, thinking that I had life figured out and that life was good. 

You see, it takes some time to realize you have your own life after you haven’t for so many years. And here I was, in 2010, finally awake to the idea that I was alive and that I could make choices for myself.

People observing me said, “Wow. Emily is doing SO well. She’s, like, a brand new person.”

Only I wasn’t. I was still the same person I had been during my entire marriage; I was simply now reacting to the fact that I was finally safe and free.

I was like an aged onion. There were so many layers of me that hadn’t been peeled back yet, and my skin was starting to toughen and the roots were trying to pop out because I needed to be peeled. The learning had barely begun. 

I realized in therapy that rejection was my oldest wound. And it has also been the most difficult wound to heal. Deep wounds like that do not heal from the outside–they can only heal from within. You cannot slap a bandaid on a rejection wound and expect it to heal. You have to do the deep, psychological work that starts from within. 

Combining my fear of rejection with PTSD, and you could say my post divorce dating life was a complete shit storm. I went from boyfriend to boyfriend. I remember my therapist looking up at me and asking me, “Where did you go?”

My energy was frenetic. Although the framework for the abusive marriage was gone, I was still the same person, afraid to be seen. Afraid to show up, instead of showing off. Afraid of being my true self, because…who would actually love that?  Although I said I wanted a partner, I continued to pick partners who were clearly not right for me. 

But tonight, as I sit here on Valentines Day 2017, the one thought in my mind is this: it is so good to be single, free, and safe. I once prayed so hard for the things I have now, and I feel GRATITUDE to have them. I feel a little wide-eyed tonight, even though seven years have passed since I left. 

I know there are many men and women in relationships that, even if they are safe, they are not free. They feel afraid. Maybe they are afraid of rejection from their spouses, even after being married all these years. Or maybe they feel like they just don’t have the courage to be seen, and that eats away at their insides. Or maybe they feel they cannot trust this person lying next to him or her and that wears on them day in, and day out.

If that is you, while I do not have specific answers, I can tell you this. Don’t stop peeling off your layers. Don’t stop showing up. Don’t stop feeling the feelings. Don’t numb out. Have the courage to be yourself and figure out what’s underneath the feelings. Because until you peel all the layers off, all you are is a body with feelings-not your awokened self. And we all need a planet that is full of humans who are healthy, alive, and awake. 

Happy love day, 2017.


Back in the days of my 2010, Rip Van Winkle awakening. 

I Don’t Have a Model

I was talking to these hooligans, a.k.a, my parents on the phone a couple of nights ago.

   

My dad said, “I wish you would just call us more and respond quicker to our emails.”

This may seem like a guilt-trip statement, but it’s not. You see, my dad’s not really a guilt trippy type of person. He’s just honest and speaks from the heart. 

I felt a twinge of something–maybe guilt, sadness, inadequacy–when my dad said this. Because he’s right. I don’t respond efficiently enough. And these are people who deserve to hear from me. These are people who REALLY love me. 

So it got me thinking about a couple of different things. The first thing it got me thinking about is the fact that I still feel kinda overwhelmed by this single parenting thing at times. It’s consuming.  And the second thing it got me thinking about is that I am so overwhelmed by my “to do list” that I have unfortunately neglected those who are most important to me.

When you know someone will always be there, you sometimes forget how important that relationship is to you. And  I do NOT want to be like that. Because at the end of the day, there are a handful of individuals in my life who know me deeply and are committed to loving me. And while I have A LOT of responsibilities on my plate, I want to make it a practice to invest in those relationships. 

So that ⬆️ was the second thing I thought about. Now back to the first: 

Being a single parent is consuming. 

I DON’T HAVE A MODEL for this single parenting thing. My whole family consists of married couples. I have tried to not think about this too much, because it’s, quite frankly, an overwhelming thought, which can lead to negative self talk like, “What the heck are you doing? I mean, seriously, no wonder you have motherhood-induced ADHD- BECAUSE YOU are just on freaking auto pilot.”

And then this thought can turn into a meaner voice. It says, “Just who in the HECK do you think you are? People think you have your crap together and YOU DO NOT. You can’t even get your parents called back.”

What a mean thought. 

So I put the thought on the shelf. And I did what I do when I feel overwhelmed–I put my phone down, stopped doing chores or thinking about chores, and snuggled up to Aliana, to remind myself of why I do what I do. 

And after that, I just did the next thing, and reminded myself to practice self-compassion sometimes for when I fall short. Which is like, all the freaking time. 

And even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent household, I paused that night to think about the millions of single mamas and single daddies in this world who just somehow miraculously parent their children BY THEMSELVES. They may have their moments where they feel truly overwhelmed. Where they pause and think, “Geesh, it would be nice to have a partner to help me do the dishes. It would be nice to have someone stay at home with the little ones while I go for a quick walk and get some fresh air. It would be nice to have a partner around so that I didn’t have to experience my child’s emotional meltdown or temper tantrum ALONE.”

There are MILLIONS of single parents going through that. Right now. Every second. And they just put on the game face and are brave and keep going.

So I’m not alone in the struggle. My struggle is universal in some ways–by single parents and those who are not single parents. My struggle is simply this: I’ve got a lot of crap on my plate, and I’m doing the best I can. While I do the best I can, I’m going to work on being still so that I can love those who need my love. Being still means to cut out the “I’m so busy” crap, and making time to just BE. 

You can do it. I can do it. We can do it. We can do hard things. 

Just Do the Next Thing. 

Being a divorced, single parent is just the weirdest thing. 

There are a lot of weird things in life. Some things only have felt weird to me for a season–like becoming a parent. The whole first six months of that, I was like, “Holy crap, you mean they just don’t stop crying? And they don’t sleep? And my LIFE HAS ESSENTIALLY BEEN TAKEN OVER BY THIS TINY BEING?”

But, I got over the weirdness of that. It took me about six months, as I mentioned, and my brain adjusted to the fact that I was a real mom. I was responsible for this tiny, remarkable being, and by golly, I was determined to get it right. 

But this divorced, single parent thing? Meh. Not so much.

I wrote about my journey towards accepting my divorce here.  I think I did a pretty fabulous job at grieving the loss of my marriage. I also think I have done a pretty fabulous job at being okay with where I’m at in life; I’m definitely okay with telling others that I’m divorced. I’m definitely okay with talking about the mistakes I made in my marriage and accepting responsibility for them. I did all that hard work through therapy, reading, and intense reflection. 

But watching my daughter walk out the door and get into my ex-husband’s car every other weekend? 

I’m not good at that. 

I cry. I don’t cry in front of her, but I call out, “I love you,” close the door, watch her skip to his car, sit down in my rocking chair and cry. 

I feel so alone in that moment. And it’s not about being physically alone. It’s about this feeling that no one understands my suffering in that moment. You may be thinking, geesh, Emily–“suffering” is a strong choice of word there.  But THAT, my friends, is my suffering. 

The experience of watching my child walk out the door of my home and prepare herself mentally to transition over to another home for a brief amount of time, while knowing that the rules and the way the households are run are totally different–THAT is my suffering. 

This is why I sometimes ball up on Sunday mornings when I’m child free in my bed and hit the snooze button until noon. Not because I need that much sleep; but, because I am sad for my child. I grieve that she doesn’t have the normalcy of a childhood that I did. I grieve that I am not with her. I grieve that I don’t know what she’s doing in her other home. I grieve that she has to transition all the time between two homes which is just heartbreaking to me. 

So it’s in these moments, like I had this a.m., that I literally put my hands on my heart, and say to myself, “This is hard. It hurts. Give yourself this moment to cry. And then, go and do the next thing.” 

Whatever that thing may be–now go and do that, Emily. You must do that next thing. And then the next, and the next, and so on. 

So now I’m going to the laundromat. Because that is my next thing. 

  
And as a sidenote, when you feel sad, google “suffering quotes.” I know… You’re probably thinking– won’t this make me feel more down? No, it won’t, because you will be reminded that suffering is part of the human existence. Here are just a few I found this morning:

“To hurt is as human as to breathe.” -J.K. Rowling

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seated with scars.”-Kahlil Gibran

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” -Winston Churchill

“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” -Marianne Williamson

“I thought faith would say, I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, I’ll sit with you in it.” -Brene Brown

So, my faith is with me here in this laundromat. And I know that when I feel that overwhelming sadness, I will once again, put my hand over my heart, recognize that the moment sucks, and then do the next thing. 

And the next thing. 

And then the next. 

And then, you’re okay again. I’m okay again. 😎

What it’s Like to Text with a Six Year Old

My daughter sometimes texts me from her IPod. Here are a few of some of the more intriguing ones I have received:

 A picture of her and a random kid from the laundromat. She makes friends everywhere we go apparently. And she likes the poop emoji. A lot.

My comments are in blue; hers are in white. She likes to take selfies to convey her disgust with me.
  
The time I made the mistake of asking her to give me a job. It’s a long story. 
  

From the time she texted me when I was waiting in line to buy donuts at the donut shop. And no, she’s NOT patient.

  

Apparently you can make funny pics with these body part emojis.  

And speaking of nose picking:

  

 I guess she was feeling better. 
From the time she was bored in the coffee shop and asking me to think of a game.

 
And last, but not least, her attempt at body part humor, in which she snapped a picture of me when I wasn’t looking 😖:

 

To summarize, six year olds’ jokes often consist of body part/bodily function humor. 

And on another note, I was looking through all these texts tonight because she’s with her dad at the moment. And I really miss her. The toughest piece about being a single, divorced parent is that when you are with your child, you’re doing the whole parenting thing by yourself, so you feel a little stressed out. Your child may wear you down A LOT. But the minute he or she leaves to go with the other parent, you miss him or her like crazy. You just keep thinking about her little smile or the way he throws his ball around the house and knocks things over, and then you start to realize that you actually MISS him knocking things over.
And most of all, you realize that he or she is really what’s most important to you in this great, big world.