Please don’t tell me it’s “as if" you’re a single mother

Susan Saybrook
May 27 · 3 min read

A friend and I are middle-age grad students, as well as being parents. She is married to a doctor, which she tells me is “like being a single mother" because he works so many hours.

Each time she says it, I feel my blood pressure surge.

Then there is another friend. Though her live-in boyfriend drives her child to school with his in the morning, accompanies her to parent-teacher meetings, and covers expenses when she comes up short, her ex doesn’t pay his parenting share, so she often says she is “essentially a single mother".

Look, I’m not saying both friends don’t have their challenges in life to deal with. But when someone is sharing parenting decisions and expenses, or covering for you when you get the flu, or holding you when you cry at night because the enormity of the responsibility you deal with every day is crushing you, you are not in it alone. And saying that you are nearly single mothering or “essentially" single mothering feels invalidating to me.

I know there are those who would differ with me and say that single parenting is any situation where the other parent is minimally involved or not involved at all. But I can tell you that if someone shares the load and has your back, you are dealing with a vastly different set of issues than I am.

Maybe you think I am playing Hardship One Upmanship.

Maybe, to a certain extent, I am.

The thing is, unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to appreciate the cumulative strain of doing something as monumental and all-encompassing as parenting completely on your own.

Unless you are independently wealthy, there are major financial stresses.

Unless you are incredibly self-reliant, there are times when being the sole responsibility bearer will feel exhausting.

And unless single parenting was the goal you went in with, you are grieving, if not your specific ex-partner, then at least the cherished image of being a team in handling this complex, ever-changing, sometimes all consuming parenting thing.

I look at it this way. A recent work responsibility took me out of town for a few days recently, and my parents took care of my daughter. I am lucky, of course, to have parents who, while they live in another state and have health issues, can periodically do this, and are willing to. But I digress.

While I was away, I missed my daughter. It was like a dull ache that never fully went away.

But I would never say to a woman who was dealing with infertility that I was “essentially childless" during that trip, because, how insensitive and invalidating would that be? Sure, I had a temporary feeling, but my situation was not of the ongoing, involuntary kind and obviously could never be compared with the pain, anxiety, and ambiguous loss some people grapple with when having difficulty becoming a parent. It’s apples and oranges, clearly.

Just like the times when you are temporarily the more active part of a parenting duo, versus the daily aloneness of single parenting.

So let’s make a deal.

I won’t downplay the challenges in your life if you’ll refrain from downplaying the challenges mine.

    Susan Saybrook

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    Things you might find in this writer's catch-all drawer include: child's artwork, university ID, dog treat, half-written list, & poem on a napkin.