Single Mommy Blues

It seems we mothers spend a lot of time – and ink – talking about how hard it is to be a mother.

Numerous books, parenting blogs and websites are devoted to the topic. On playgrounds and playdates, mothers huddle together and talk about how incredibly difficult this motherhood game really is.

And yet the voices of some of us mothers mostly remain unheard.

The point of this post is not to compare notes to see which moms have it worst. Mothering is hard. It’s hard whether you’re single or married, whether you’re successfully co-parenting with a cooperative ex, or doing it all by yourself, whether you have the help of a village or only the help you are able to pay for.

But I want to talk about the special hardships faced by single mothers who are doing it alone. Really alone. Without the help of a reliable spouse, co-parent, or a network of friends or family members who pitch in whenever possible.

For several years after my divorce, I sacrificed having a personal life for the sake of my kids. Weekends were consumed by soccer, gymnastics, baseball, softball, tennis, golf, ice skating – you name an activity, we probably tried it. Dating? Hah! I wasn’t ready. Focusing on the kids was a great way to avoid thinking about how badly I’d flubbed the whole “picking the right partner” thing.

I didn’t become SuperMom because I wanted to. I did it because I lacked an alternative. I live in New York City. My family is in Michigan. My ex-husband was – and is -absent and uninvolved.

I had the help I was willing to pay for. I paid full-time rates for part-time babysitters to ensure I had someone to pick the kids up from school and care for them on half-days and school holidays. The extra expense killed my budget, but my work schedule was too demanding to enable me to rely on afterschool programs.

Recently, I tried co-parenting with my ex-husband, an experiment that now seems short-lived. His last overnight visit with the kids was New Year’s weekend. He is too unreliable to keep a regular visiting schedule, and I don’t have the energy to deal with the litany of excuses.

Although single parenting would be tough even if I worked at home, my demanding executive job makes the juggling even more difficult. Plus, in addition to my day job, I do speaking enagements and lectures. I write, for this blog and others, on my own time.

I even finally started dating again.

The writing, the dating, the lecturing, and some occasional exercise are things I do for myself. But they take away from the time I spend with my kids. I can no longer devote every weekend to their activities. And I feel incredibly guilty about it.

For example: my son is a natural baseball talent. Yet I don’t have time to take him to a baseball coach to work on his skills. I don’t have time – or a good enough pitching/throwing arm – to take him to the park and help him work on his catching, fielding and hitting. I haven’t found time to have him try out for a travel team – and even if he did, I’m not sure I would be able to haul him around from game to game.

His father, who played baseball in high school, takes no interest in his son’s baseball development. I get angry about this sometimes, and then I realize being angry is futile.

Well-meaning friends tell me to stop beating up on myself. They tell me to focus on the fact that, all by myself, I have raised smart, independent thinkers who are thriving in some of New York City’s most competitive schools.

I do acknowledge my blessings. But still, I’m tired. So please forgive me for indulging in a bit of whining.

Mothering is hard for all mothers. It is especially hard for us single women who are parenting completely by ourselves. And because we’re so used to doing everything all by ourselves, we don’t ask for help easily. Or always know how to accept it graciously, without constantly thanking the person who agreed to step in for us. Or apologizing for being burdensome.

So if you know a single mom who parents by herself, maybe you can offer her a little help. If your kids are friends, maybe you can offer to pick her kid up from school and host a playdate at your house. Or you can invite her kid to a weekend playdate or sleepover. Let her be the last parent to pick up her child from the birthday party. Because whether she says it or not, she values every single moment she gets to spend by herself. But she may not feel she has the right to ask for that time.

And try not to get too annoyed when she keeps saying “thank you.”

Trials and Tribulations

It ain’t easy being the parent without primary housing responsibilities. I won’t use terms like “custody” or “custodial” because we have not settled all of that officially.

But, it has its issues. One issue is finances. We argue over finances, tax claims, purchasing responsibilities, etc. We make agreements, one person renegs, and things fall apart. We were doing well before, but I think changes happened because of decisions I have made in my personal life that he does not agree with. He seems to be taking a more adversarial approach with me.

Another issue is time. When your child isn’t with you daily, it becomes easier to disconnect from parental obligations. When you only see your child on weekends, it is often like the child is temporarily stepping into your life, so you don’t make a lot of changes. I realized that in my new house, nothing indicates that I have a child. There are no toys scattered, no child’s bed, no pictures even save one magnet on my fridge. It isn’t a kid-friendly home by any means.

A final issue is missed opportunities. I miss everything. Part of it is because his father fails to inform me of when things happen. He claims he doesn’t want to interfere or intrude in my life. What? This is my son we’re talking about. How is telling me about a school event or development intrusion? It’s like he shuts me out intentionally. I resent that. And recognize that it makes me feel even more disconnected than I felt when he was around all of the time.

I realized things were becoming a grave issue when 4 days passed and I hadn’t spoken to him once. I’d asked his father to get him into the habit of calling me and not relying on me to call him. This isnt to say I have a problem with calling him, but I want him to begin to get used to the idea that whenever he wants to talk to me, he can pick up the phone and call me. His father agreed. I asked him this over a month ago and he has only called me twice. I got so caught up in my day-to-day life that days passed without me speaking to him and I hadn’t even really been impacted by it. I’d called a few times but either his father didn’t answer or he was in the bath or he was asleep.

I’m not feeling this at all.

He tells me that he has every intention of keeping him at least through the 4th grade. 5 more years of this? I don’t know man… what will it do to our relationship? And why do I feel more and more comfortable with that  idea?

I don’t know if that makes me a bad parent or just indicates that maybe I recognize what is best for my son in the long run.

In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for text-messaged pictures of what he is doing.

I had to ask if that was me, or daddy’s new girlfriend…

the in-between ones

We’ve been talking a lot about fathers who aren’t in their children’s lives, either because mothers’ have made it extremely difficult, or because they themselves have refused to step up.

I don’t really know any fathers that fit either of those scenarios. Most of the fathers I know are either the “good” ones, the ones that are either married to the mothers AND fully participatory in their child’s life, or if not married, have joint physical custody and/or joint legal custody, see their children several times a week, and are fully financially supportive of their kids. Their children KNOW, beyond a doubt, even if both biological parents are re-married or otherwise committed, who their biological parents are, and they love them.

But I also know many “in-between” fathers. Fathers who have “stories” that don’t quite add up to me, fathers who say they are doing all that they can, but I can’t quite figure out why their relationship with their child is not better than what it is. They see them sometimes, sporadically, inconsistently. Their children love them, when they see them. There’s always some excuse about why they couldn’t get there, or why this court date was missed, or what happened this pay period, or how he gave her extra last time. Or there are those that I can understand why their relationship is what it is, usually due to a father’s actions against a mother that has made a child withdraw, or a father’s actions in general that has made a child say, “what the…!” and back up. Say, “I don’t want to see dad” b/c of dad’s new girlfriend or dad’s new apartment or the sleeping arrangements or how dad leaves me with a babysitter every time I go over there.

And when we, as children, as women, grow up, our relationships with our fathers get murky, at least as I’ve seen. When you become a mother, and look back on your childhood, you see things, actions, events, through new eyes. You see your mother and her relationship with your father, through new eyes. Perhaps not through her eyes, as she is not you, but through a mother’s eyes, through a grown woman’s eyes, through the eyes of a woman who perhaps loved that man and had sex with that man and wanted that man. And you see how perhaps that man was not the man you thought your father was. In some cases, you see how your father was not the father you thought him to be at certain times in your life. And that is unsettling.

So often we talk about the “good” ones and the “bad” ones, but what about the “in-between” ones? The ones that try, maybe hard, maybe not. The ones that are there, kinda. The ones you root for, but let you down. Sometimes.

Of course, this is not just about fathers. Relationships with parents are tricky things. My relationship with my own parents has changed so much even in the last five years – perhaps not from their perspective, but definitely from mine. Things have happened, words have been said, impressions have been made; things that make me question whether any of us can, at the end of the day call ourselves “good” parents. We will probably all do something that leaves an indelible negative mark on our child, maybe not when they are young, but when they grown older; perhaps though they will be more emotionally mature than I and will see their parents as “people” with “flaws” and not as their parents who are supposed to perpetually have some sort of superior wisdom. I’m not bitter; far from it. I’m just trying to understand how we draw the lines.


Fathers and Daughters

I still remember his deliberate movements; his even-paced, leisurely walks around the block in the late afternoon sun; the slow grin into which he would break when I read to him in French.  At 66, my grandfather was not the authoritarian he had been when raising my mother.  With my sister and me, he was all warmth, his smiles and displays of affection a constant reminder of his approval of us.  He visited during the summers, and the room in which he stayed was named “chambre de Pere-Pere” even after he returned to Haiti at the end of his visits.  After he died, my mother summarily announced that the room was no longer “Grandfather’s room;” instead, it was just the TV room.  She wore only black and white for one year to mourn his passing, despite the fact that their relationship had not been everything she wanted it to be.  One of the first colored items of clothing she wore when her grieving period was complete was an embroidered short-sleeved linen shirt that had belonged to him.  Even now, when I see men wearing Guayaberas in the streets of Miami, I am reminded of my Pere-Pere.

For reasons at once complex and simple, my daughter does not know her maternal grandfather; they have never met.  My relationship with my father is strained; and the offenses that have passed between us are made heavier by our cultural differences.  A West African man, he is comfortable neither acknowledging the pain he has caused his children, nor spontaneously reaching out to connect with his daughters; because he is an elder, we must contact him first, and keep contacting him even if he chooses not to respond.  An American girl, I’m well versed in pop psychology; I know that toxic people, even parents, do not deserve space in my life.  As a result, I’ve made peace with the distance between us, no longer needing his validation.  We talk on occasion, but the conversations are often muddled by his insistence on settling the score, noting what I did or did not do that requires his reprimand.

It’s okay, necessary even, to give myself what my father has not been able to give me.  But what of that which my father could give to my daughter?  I would love to marvel at his ability to be tender and understanding with her in a way he cannot be with his first-born, much like my mother probably marveled at my grandfather’s soft touch with my sister and me.  There must be something liberating about being a grandparent; freed from the burden of active parenting, grandparents are only expected to offer love, unfettered by the messy complications of disappointment in failure, or anxious hope for success.  And just as easily, grandchildren offer only love in return, aware that a grandparent’s love is more truly unconditional than that of their parents.

I think about the possibilities of that unconditional love between grandfathers and granddaughters when I do call him; I am always hopeful that our conversation will finally be less about who wronged whom, and more about catching up.  My daughter babbles cheerfully in the background, and instantly his voice softens.  “Oh, I can hear her,” he says wistfully.  “She must be so big, now.”