This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.
When women with husbands in high-powered jobs complain of their long work hours, it can be hard for a single mother to sympathize.
At a party, a social gathering, or simply chatting to a parent in a park, if a conversation goes for long enough, eventually I need to declare that I’m a single mother of a young baby. This needs to happen for a conversation to progress with any authenticity on my behalf.
On declaring my status I quickly have a sympathetic ear, particularly of other mothers. Soon enough, however, they feel compelled to claim a closer alignment than might be deemed fair. “I’m practically a single mother, he’s always at work” or “I was like a single mother, he didn’t do a thing” or “I’m like a single mother, I never get a moment to myself” they state with enthusiasm.
I must confess, it’s somewhat hard to sympathize, for feeling like a single mother is most definitely not the same as being one.
These comments about moments of absence, mostly related to time, ignore and completely discount the hardest and very real aspects—emotional, financial, and physical—of what it is like to be a single mother.
A single mother does it all, there’s no shifts, no relief that comes in at the end of the day, however late. If the night is sleepless due to a fever, teething, or something unexplained, then the morning rolls on regardless. This can happen night after night with no relief, that’s just the way it is.
There’s no one to accuse of not pulling their load, there’s no chance for a sleep-in or nap because you did the night shift, it all rolls on and so does the single mother. Invariably she musters a smile and is hopeful for a better sleep the coming night or some night after that.
A single mother invariably has a concern for finances, as lone parents are significantly over-represented among poor groups in society. When women with husbands in high-powered jobs complain of their long work hours, it can be hard for a single mother to sympathize. A cleaner, a babysitter, a holiday—luxuries one would not dare afford when the future bares down upon oneself and a child with just a single limited income.
Moments like first solids, first steps, first words, and all the silly things in between, the funny grins, little habits—the single mother may record them but they are to be shared, perhaps, with her mother or friends. It’s very different to the wife who calls her husband in elation, sending videos that he shares with colleagues and friends. Such moments—the significant moments—are often celebrated by the single mother alone. Yes, still significant and they do bring joy, but the twinge of sadness that can creep in to each moment should not be discounted—we all know these moments would be better shared.
Parents commonly ponder their child’s appearance, looking for and celebrating traces of each other. “He has my eyes” or “she has her father’s curls.” Imagine not wanting to see your partner in your child.
The special occasions—birthdays, Christmas, even the birthdays of others—can hurt for the single mother. Parents flank their child, look at each other with pride, the husband or wife thanks the other for their support, for being a “great dad” or “great mom.” Not so for many single mothers.
And though a child fills a house and most minutes of the day, there is still time, particularly in the night when a child sleeps, that a single mother can be left longing for company. There’s no debrief of the day, no adult conversation. We often eat dinner in silence.
An odd sound in the night? The single mother must investigate. Home maintenance required? She’ll have to tend to it, if she calls in a repairman she’ll probably pretend her husband’s not home so that he doesn’t know she lives alone. The trash needs to go out, and back in the next day? The single mother has to do it, and in my case with baby strapped to chest. A medical emergency? She must make and back her own decisions, sometimes in the dark of night.
The single mother often gives up on the idea of “me time”—time to yourself to exercise, get a haircut, read a magazine. There will be time for all that again one day, perhaps.
Despite all of this, single mothers get on with it, they most certainly do.
The great delight is that many of us actually appear less bitter than our coupled friends. As we take out the trash, we’re not cursing an absent partner, it’s just what needs to be done on a Sunday night. Another sleepless night? That’s OK, there’ll be a better one soon. No time for exercise? That’s OK, there’ll be time for that later.
A single mother’s life is certainly tough, but she may, in fact, have more moments of joy than the woman who stands in the park claiming that she feels like a single mother as her husband shows his colleagues a video of his baby’s first smile. His colleagues may smile with feigned interest, not because they think it’s cute but because they can see he’s a proud father—and what a gift that is. If only his wife could see that.
Mavis King is a Sydney, Australia-based writer who unexpectedly found herself raising her daughter as a single mother. She has two degrees, a professional career, and is living proof that it takes a village to raise a child.