Now, before I get into the primary substance of this letter, let me go ahead and claim my privilege. I am not a single parent. I have a spouse with whom I share child-raising duties. I think we do a pretty good job of splitting responsibilities. Also, we have only one child. This means that, most of the time, our child is outnumbered by adults in our house. Except in the rare occasions of playdates, there is not an instance in which children outnumber adults. I also have grandparents nearby who are tremendously helpful. I need to be clear that I am fortunate to have resources in my life. And because of how difficult my own life gets even with these resources, I have reason to suspect that your life is as difficult if not more so. I could be wrong about that; I will claim my assumptions and admit that they might read as ignorant at best and patronizing at worst. It is possible that I am just really bad at parenting and therefore would squander every resource I have and experience parenting as terrible no matter what. Even if that’s the case, please give me the benefit of the doubt and hear my genuine admiration in this letter.
In the past few months, my spouse has traveled a lot. Two of the past three weekends she has been gone from Thursday through Sunday. A month ago, on my child’s first full week of kindergarten, my spouse was in another country for the whole week. So I have done a fair amount of single parenting recently. I found it to be, if I can put it indelicately, really fucking hard.
The most notable change in my life that I noticed about being in single parenting mode is how it elongated my days and shortened my rest. I had to get up earlier every morning because I was solely responsible for getting two people ready for the day. This was extra hectic because our schedule had just changed and we were now beholden to a very concrete time demand: not missing the bus. Stakes were higher than they’d been when I could drop her off at her preschool whenever I wanted and just be late to work. Every morning I would wake twenty to thirty minutes earlier than usual to spend every single minute of that morning attending to my own needs or to my child’s needs. Attending to my child’s needs requires twice the energy, because if I tell myself I need to put my shoes on, then I just put my shoes on. I don’t have to ask myself five times to put my shoes on and then plead with myself to put my shoes on and then threaten myself with losing screen time for not putting my shoes on. No, I just put my shoes on. That isn’t how it works with a five-year-old, however. So while I brush my teeth, I also shout two rooms over about how she should please for the love put her shoes on like I asked.
It’s not just the morning, of course. The evenings are much longer too. As soon as I get home from work, I have to start planning dinner. As with getting ready in the morning, this has to be multi-tasked along with managing a five-year-old. Instead of telling her to do something, however, that time is spent telling her to stop doing something. Stop whining; stop messing with the cat; stop whining; stop messing with the kitchen utensils; stop whining; stop playing with that thing that is not a toy and I ask you not to play with every night; for God’s sake please STOP WHINING. After dinner, which is its own struggle – Please eat the chicken I cooked just for you – then I am back in the kitchen cleaning. During this time, I am fending off constant requests to play with her while “Cat’s In the Cradle” runs through my head. If it’s a bath night, I immediately leave the kitchen for the bathroom, where bathing is followed by blowdrying hair, by brushing teeth, by getting dressed, by reading books and tucking in and then finally – I have time to myself, at roughly 8:30 or 9:00 PM. A good portion of that time is filled with more chores, like laundry, straightening the house, attending to my child’s cat, and preparing for the next day so my morning routine is a little quicker. If there is any time to do something pleasurable, like reading or listening to records, that doesn’t start until at least 10, and then I have to decide how much sleep I want to give up in order to do something simply because I like doing it.
This is what weeknights are like. Then there’s the weekend. Wake me up at 7:00 AM so I can get up and fix breakfast. And then it’s an entire day of entertainment. What are we doing today? When are we doing it? Why can’t we do this instead? And, of course, once we’ve decided to do whatever it is we’re doing, she will pitch a fit because it requires her to put on shoes she doesn’t like. The only break comes when she passes out for a nap, a precious ninety minute window of personal time in which I am too exhausted to do anything other than frantically watch the clock count down to when she wakes up and I’m off to the races again. Even when there is time to rest, the emotional cost feels so high that the time isn’t enough and the rest isn’t sufficient to adequately recover.
Now, having complained tremendously about all of this, I can say that I had help. Her grandparents ran a lot of interference and kept her one afternoon on a weekend. They had us over for dinner one night during the week. When I had an early morning meeting at work, they came and finished her morning routine and put her on the bus. What would I have done if I didn’t have them nearby? And what if I had part-time work with an inconsistent work schedule? Or I had to work multiple jobs? What if I had more than one child? What if my child had some special developmental or healthcare needs? I felt like I barely survived as it was; how would I have managed if I had had even one less source of help?
I realize that part of what made this so taxing for me is that I’m used to co-parenting with my spouse, whom I live with. I suppose that if this were my life and I did it every day, I would get used to it. I’d like to say I’d eventually stop complaining, but that’s probably not true. So that’s why I wanted to write this letter to all the full-time single parents out there. I imagine that most of you have figured out how to manage and are probably doing a pretty amazing job. But I don’t want you to forget how hard you are working just because you’re accustomed to it. What you are doing is really fucking hard. Being the sole parent for children every single day while also juggling a job, household chores, community responsibilities, etc. is really tough. Even if you have other family or friends helping – and probably most of you do – it is still a burden to be the primary sole responsible caregiver in the home. If you don’t have another person either helping you in the house in the daily tasks or taking the kids off your hands a few days a week to give you a break, then you are engaged in an exhausting nonstop circus of energy depletion. I cannot tell you how much I admire your dedication. I’ll try not to idealize you; I know you’re likely imperfect and that you’re just showing up to do what you have to do. I also trust that one day your children are going to grow up and respect how hard you worked to give them what they need, perhaps in deeper ways than my child will.
Parenting is crazy hard work. It definitely helps to have a village, and if that village involves two or more parents or step-parents or grandparents or caregivers, that is a great help. And it’s still hard. I’ll try not to idealize the typically assumed family pattern, either; having two parents in the same household is also really hard and can come with its own problems. My recent experiences parenting in the house by myself were exhausting and I was thrilled to have my spouse return to rejoin me in our co-parenting. For any of you who don’t have a reliable parenting partner, please hear me tell you that I am both impressed by and concerned for you. You are doing a job that is terribly difficult with any amount of resources, and you are doing it with less help than some of us. I hope that you can take a moment or two to offer yourself some grace, compassion, and admiration.
And maybe the next open letter I write is to all the people who aren’t single parents, calling on you – on us – to find ways of supporting those who are endeavoring to do the most precious work of raising children without a live-in parenting partner. Let us all be part of the village and not take our resources for granted.