Were you invited to a Moms’ Night Out Holiday Cookie Exchange that demanded you bake 72 homemade cookies and don’t know how to say no? Ask a Single Mom. Thinking about divorce and want to know what life is like on the other side? Ask a Single Mom. Have no idea how to make time for yourself or hate the other mothers in playgroup? Our resident Single Mom has the answers and clarity that can only come from hustling the parenting gig solo.
Dear Ask A Single Mom:
I’m a single mother by choice to an adorable 2-year-old boy. He’s my whole world, and I haven’t regretted my decision to raise him all on my own for a second.
I work from home, and because I share custody with no one, I’m with him all the time. So why then, if I’m never alone, do I feel so incredibly lonely? I’m not even sure what I’m lonely for: I’m certainly not looking for another parent for my son, and I have plenty of close friends and family to talk to, but the feeling of isolation is killing me.
Can give me some advice on how to deal with the loneliness that comes with raising a kid on your own?
Dear Lonely Mama,
Of course you’re lonely, kids are terrible companions! Society tells women that once you have a baby you’ll finally be Jerry-Maguire-completed, but the reality is: Kids are narcissists. They can’t hold a conversation, they can’t empathize, and they suck all the energy out of us until we fall into our beds for the five minutes of sleep we get before they need something again. And it’s not that your son isn’t lovely and that he doesn’t bring amazing meaning and joy to your life—because he does! But let’s be real, these early years are a lot of work and a lot of learning. And any time you’re really working hard and learning hard, that shit is lonely.
Kids exist in their own realities. And they demand that you join them there. In a world where yogurt must be eaten with a pink spoon, where sand falling through chubby fingers is magic, where you’re diagnosing and nursing a stuffed dog on the living room floor with your toddler until your back hurts and you’re so bored you could die but you don’t want to crush any future veterinary proclivities so you do it anyway forever. One of the most interesting things about motherhood is, while you’re bending yourself to exist in your kiddo’s reality, you still continue to have this really intense experience of your own reality—your intellectual and emotional life, your wants and hopes and dreams and needs. It doesn’t quit just because you’re now at the center of someone else’s life. When I think about being a kid and my mother, I’m immediately transported to thinking of her as my mother and not as a person at all. And this is what it is, this is the relationship. It’s essentially a one-way street for a long time.
I know you don’t regret having your kiddo. But it’s possible to love your kiddo to death and also feel unsettled and unfulfilled. And I’m so glad you have a good support system, because we need that to stay sane. But support systems and loneliness don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So what should you do? How can you feel less lonely? In my experience loneliness can be dealt with in two ways: You can put a band-aid on it with external forces or soothe it internally.
External forces: Surround yourself with people; hire babysitters so you can go out with your friends; invite another mom and her kiddo over so the kids can entertain each other and you can chat; maybe start dating; put your kid in soccer or swimming or t-ball or something that forces you to be out in the world on a schedule; identify a hobby you love and figure out how to make time for it, etc. All of these are good things to do. But what I suspect you’re dealing with is a loneliness that will be better addressed internally.
Picture it: Halloween, just a couple weeks ago. My son and I had all these tentative trick-or-treating plans, groups to join up with, but in the end, he and I just went out alone. And so we’re going from house to house, just the two of us, and all around are kids with two parents, or big groups of coupled-up parents and kids, and I started to feel lonely and sad. But fuck that. There’s always another choice. Sure you can let loneliness overtake Halloween. Or you can lean into what’s right in front of you. I leaned into me and my kiddo and the weight of his hand in mine. Into the joy of watching him very intently collecting candy. Into the warm night air, which was it’s own miracle because we live in Chicago. He’s 7 and I’m 36 and it’s all passing very quickly.
So that’s one strategy—when you feel it coming on, be present. Look around and see what miracles are right in front of you, because they’re there. You say your kiddo is your whole world. I know what you mean because kids just do that, they take up all the space. And when you’re a single mom, the pressures and responsibilities are heightened—I get that. Still, what I think is going on is that you’re feeling a call to know yourself better, both as a mother and as an adult woman on her own path.
So how do you do that, get to know yourself and care for yourself? Especially when you don’t have a lot of spare time? One of my suggestions is to show yourself that same unconditional love you show your kiddo and do it as a practice. Find ways to be gentle and thoughtful with yourself. And, girl, I know you’re short on time, but it’s not as big as it sounds. Last night I put my kiddo to bed and made a beautiful charcuterie and watched “Project Runway” and felt absolutely thrilled by the decadence of the cheese and bread and fashion and my own company.
I also want you to find some quiet moments every day to journal or meditate, or create a sort of mindfulness practice that feels good to you. I went through a period of time where I experienced a great deal of sadness about being partner-less. And every night before bed I answered these three questions from Elizabeth Gilbert (who’s sort of woo woo, but in an endearing way):
What do I really really really want?
What was the happiest moment of my day?
What is my mantra for tomorrow?
And it helped center me. Because you know what, you get to have wants and needs and goals, even as someone’s mother. And I think that’s what the loneliness is telling you—you have lost that connection to your center. Maybe Elizabeth Gilbert’s questions aren’t the right path for you, but what I’m saying is, find the space in your life to live in your reality, not just your kiddo’s. The space to reflect and create a deeper relationship with yourself. Because eventually your kiddo is going to grow up and move out and start his life and you’re going to still be there. But when you’re your own best company, you’re never alone.
Adrienne Gunn is a writer, editor, and storyteller and has published in McSweeney’s, PANK, TriQuarterly, Five Quarterly, among other journals, and has a one-woman show called Mother of the Year!