In August 2009, just before I recognized that my marriage had turned down the path that would lead to its end in divorce three years later, I wrote this post:
My husband L is a US soldier. This means that he’s overseas, 15 months at a time, about every other year. Right now, he’s living in Korea. We have seven long months left before we get to see him again. He misses me and the kids, of course, and we miss him terribly.
Because of L’s frequent absences, people sometimes refer to me as a single mother. It usually comes in the form, “Wow, your kids are wonderful, but they’re a handful, and to think you manage as a single mother!” I accept and appreciate the compliment. I object to the label.
I take exception to being called a single mother because it’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to L, who is an involved, and loving father. It’s also disrespectful to all the single parents out there. I certainly couldn’t pull off single parenthood!
Because L’s job takes him away from us about half the time, I do tend to make the day-to-day decisions in raising M and J. However, whenever possible, we make decisions together. If I can’t contact L before I have to make a decision, we’ll discuss it afterward, and adjust as needed. Even for the tiny things that don’t merit discussion, I take into account our joint philosophy on parenting, not just my own opinions. I would have never had children by myself, or with anyone other than L. He gives me balance. He makes me a competent mother, even when he’s geographically distant, by caring as much about our children’s well-being as I do, by being their advocate, by letting me know when I’m doing things right, and showing me how to do them better.
To call me a single mother implies that I do not raise my children in partnership with my husband. I recognize that there are plenty of parents out there who are no longer in a romantic relationship or marriage with the other parent of their child, but still partner in raising their child. Perhaps our parenting arrangement isn’t all that different from theirs. However, I don’t think that this is what people mean when they refer to me as a single mother.
Parenting with a partner is easier than parenting alone. Sure, partnering takes work and commitment, whether or not you see your co-parent on a daily basis. There are constant compromises and course corrections. Unlike a single parent, though, we have two incomes. I know that L will eventually come home, and I can take a nice long bubble bath without a worry in the world. I know that he will see to the girls’ spiritual upbringing, which I cannot. I know that if anything were to happen to me, my daughters would be all right.
So please, don’t give me credit I don’t deserve. Tell the next single parent you see that you recognize that they’re doing the most difficult job in the world alone, and probably very well.
My main point remains the same. Taking care of the day-to-day business of parenting by oneself for a while with a co-parent in the picture is completely different than single parenting. I prefer the term “solo parenting” for that temporary period of flying solo while a co-parent is away. However, being married doesn’t guarantee that you have a co-parent. A few months after I wrote the post I quoted above, I realized that nothing I could do could get my now-ex to engage with the family. It would be another 3 years before he left us, but I had no emotional or childcare partner during the slow death of our marriage. I did still have his income contributing to the family, but I had entered a realm adjacent to that of the single parenting world.
That shadow realm was far tougher than my current reality as a card-carrying single mom. (If being the Single Parent Coordinator for Multiples of America doesn’t grant me a membership card, I don’t know what would!) I was trying to rescue a broken marriage. I still had to budget for the needs and habits of another adult. I had to try to shelter my children from their father’s emotional unavailability. And I had to try to raise them in his faith, not my own, without any participation from him.
Yes, things are tight on the money front for us, but not because of the loss of my ex’s salary. The financial straits we’re in just now were born of the expenses of our custody battle.
For me—and I speak for myself alone—single parenthood is the easiest of the three modes: co-parenting, transition, and single parenthood. That whole thing about needing L to raise the kids Christian? Pshaw! Just yesterday, J asked him what Good Friday was and he couldn’t remember. So I, the atheist parent, was once again the one to explain that it was the day Jesus was crucified and it’s “good” not because of his suffering and death, but because of his willingness to bear the consequences of everyone else’s mistake rendered it holy. I still get input from those I respect who know and love my kids, but this is a far larger community than my ex would allow when we were together: teachers, mentors, friends and church members. Single parenting is far less lonely a path for us than co-parenting was.
So, what are you? A co-parent? A single parent? Or are you in that treacherous realm in between?