“All you care about is your sleep,” my 7-year-old daughter grumbles one chilly Sunday morning, nose scrunched in red-hot anger. “You care about your sleep more than you care about me,” she says with a pout. I yawn, and she pulls the covers off. I want to tell her it’s hard being a single mom, hard being the sole caregiver, the hugger and the disciplinarian, the good cop and the bad cop. But instead I roll around to the other side of the bed, hugging myself to keep warm. I try a half-hearted, “That’s not true, of course I care about you,” but my muffled words trail off into my purple pillowcase. She stomps off, angry, and turns on Netflix in the living room. She will watch Angelina Ballerina and Horseland and Octonauts until I get up, groggily rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, sometime in the next few hours.
My daughter doesn’t know that I only went to bed at 4 a.m., two and a half hours before she woke up. She doesn’t know that once I do get out of bed, I’ll have to deal with filthy dishes and a sticky floor and a three-hour sociology class and carpooling to and from playdates. She doesn’t know that I won’t have the luxury of sleeping in on any other day, as we’ll be rushing, rushing like we always do.
She doesn’t know, and I am too exhausted to tell her.
It isn’t easy being a single mother. I pretend that it is because I want to be Superwoman. I want to prove that I can do it myself, all of it — the full-time job, the freelancing jobs, going to college, single parenting, and the cleaning and the cooking and the shopping — and, of course, I want to look awesome while doing it. I want to be Superwoman. But superwomen, I’ve found, are tired. We are always, always tired.
My daughter’s father made the decision to not be involved in her life in any way, so for me, there are no overnight visits, no breaks. And for most single mothers, raising a child alone means being both parents around the clock, 365 days per year, even when you just want, for a little while, to be taken care of. The only time you get to yourself is stolen minutes here and there, a few extra chances to press “snooze” before the guilt drips in, quiet car rides between pick-ups and drop-offs, listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers with the windows down instead of Radio Disney.
Being a single mom means always being the good parent, and always being the bad parent. It means no one to back you up when you’re trying to set down rules, and no one to set down rules after she wears you down and you give in for the umpteenth time. It means no one to build crappy IKEA furniture with, or to help you pack when you move (and then move again), or to help you carry those insanely heavy boxes of furniture up the stairs to your third-floor apartment.
It means never having enough money in the bank. It means two paychecks a month and never-ending bills. It means writing articles and editing magazines at 2 a.m., then going off to your day job at 8 a.m.
It means that every time your child gets sick, or has a day (or week) off from school, or the school buses aren’t running, you, and only you, have to take off work no matter how late your rent check will be. It means choosing between going to sociology class and going to your child’s PTA meeting. And once you do sneak into class after finally finding an afternoon-long playdate, it means sitting there, surrounded by 18-year-old, fresh-faced college kids, knowing you skipped out on an important meeting.
Dating as a single mom means dating on borrowed time, scheduling dinner or a drink after 10 p.m. because the only time you actually have to get ready and head out is well after your child is fast asleep. It also means cutting the evening short because you need to let the babysitter go home.
This is what it means to be a single mom.
There’s this perception out there that single mothers are all lonely, miserable women desperate to get married. Single women in our society, especially those with children, are immediately viewed as substandard, “less than.” And I can’t help but laugh because, really? Women who are raising children alone, who are independent and strong and funny and smart and give everything to their children because there’s no one else to give it to them — these are the women who are looked down upon? How ironic.
Being a single mother means working and working and working some more, and looking at your happy, beautiful, loved children at the end of the day and knowing that they are that way because of you. It means doing everything you can — and then doing some more. It means having a little person (or persons!) to whom you are everything, and who are everything to you. Being a single mom means being the best parent you can possibly be because you know that you are all there is.
It means that you have no time for sympathetic looks from strangers when it's just the two of you at the park or the diner or the mall or from the prerequisite apologies on the faces of people you've just met who ask where your daughter's father is. It means that, on tough days and on good nights, exhausted or high on adrenaline, you have them, and they have you. And when you do get sad — because who doesn’t get sad? — they sit on your lap and hold you close and then just like that, everything is alright. Their arms, no matter how small, are all the help you need.