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I never intended to become a single mother.
And yet, here I am, co-parenting, taxiing my kids about to places, and trying to make decisions about their future.
Everything I have learned can be summed up into eight single lessons:
Lesson 1: The village.
I have a village: it takes one to raise a child, after all. But outside of my small-but-mighty village, there is a larger one—the village my children belong to. It encompasses all of their family, and their family friends, their teachers, and everyone who lavishes love and care upon them.
There are people in my children’s village I haven’t met. So I have to be okay about that.
There are people in my children’s village who may not like me, or feel a bit weird about me. And I have to be okay about that too. What matters most is that my children grow up within a broad community made up of people who care about them and have their best interests at heart.
Lesson 2: The ones that leave.
Before the divorce, my world was a little one, neat and orderly, and everything had its place. And then I became a single parent. Everyone who once had a place seemed to have to do a reshuffle.
Some asked if they had to pick sides. No. There weren’t sides to pick.
Some showed up: literally with food and cakes and a million little ways to help navigate a confusing time.
Some didn’t, and I don’t know why. The thing is, I don’t need to know. I think divorce is often messy, and for some people, triggering. So many of my friends only knew me as a married woman or a single lady, and they wanted me to go back to one or the other. I can only be who I am now, not past versions of myself.
Lesson 3: What in the world is dating now?
Relationships are hard, marriage is hard, and dating, well, what even is that?
I didn’t really know what to do. I tried apps. I tried organic dating. I tried apps again. I became thankful we lived in a pandemic.
Before my marriage, I was a lover of fate, destiny, true love, signs, the idea of meant-to-be. Now I think that a nice relationship might just be with someone you’re happy eating a late-night Uber Eats delivery with while watching trashy TV. My standards aren’t lower. Still, my expectations for fairy tales have been significantly dashed.
Lesson 4: Children first.
My children are number one in almost every single situation.
I was up late working on a university assignment when my daughter was ill. I had to call the doctor out to check on her, and she stayed sick all week. So I raked up a bunch of sick certificates, sent it to uni, and still handed work in late. And I had to be okay about it.
I used to dread social situations with my toddlers. Not that they were naughty, they were just so active. It was hard to enjoy being out for a meal, supervising the children, feeling like part of dinner conversation, and trying to make them not touch everything in sight.
When I became a single mum, I stopped most social situations where I knew it wasn’t in their best interests to be out. What they needed came before what other people wanted. I put them first.
Lesson 5: No one else is responsible for my happiness.
For the first year, I struggled with this: I always felt that there were things I had to do or be at or join in with, and I would be frustrated if I couldn’t get someone to help mind the kids or support me in the process of whatever was my “big and important thing.” I did a lot of volunteer work, studying, and I had quite a few commitments to big projects and events.
Over time, I prioritized my work over the “fun stuff.” What was taking me away from the children when it didn’t have to and wouldn’t benefit our family? Slowly, I worked toward ending commitments, studying, rerouting goals, and finding new ways to engage with the world that was more inclusive of my children.
I will still take time for myself, but I am no longer in a space to take on big-and-broad challenges.
Lesson 6: My children are not responsible for my emotions.
I’ve only just started telling my children I missed them. They are big enough to grasp the concept and hopefully small enough to not conjure images of me crying on the couch awaiting their return (rare, but not impossible).
I don’t tell them they are my best friend: to me, a best friend is someone you are reasonably evenly yoked with where the balance of power is level. I don’t want them to feel like they have to love me the way I love them or that they need to make me happy.
What I do is love them fiercely. I play them pop music I love, and I hope they understand it someday. I tell them stories about their dad. I keep their memories for them. I scrapbook, write letters, make them do things like brush their teeth, swim lessons, and eat lots of fruit.
My love is a loud love. My footfalls wake them up at times. But I’ll sit with them until they fall back to sleep, and that’s something.
Lesson 7: No one owes me friendship beyond this point.
I was at the hairdresser’s, and the young woman cutting my hair asked who the person standing with my daughter was. They had both been waiting patiently for 15 minutes.
“Oh, that’s my mother-in-law,” I said.
“Me and my boyfriend’s mum are like best friends. We always say that if we broke up, we’d still catch up for coffee and stuff.”
I didn’t want to tell her the hard truth. Living through a divorce has taught me that we don’t ever really know where we stand with people. If we want to continue a relationship with people we have in our lives, both parties need to be prepared to put in a lot of effort.
It’s hard, it’s worth it, but it isn’t as automatic as we’d like to believe. Sometimes circumstance plays a part in it—if we see the person often, then it is possible, but it truly is a careful balance.
Lesson 8: I got professional help.
This stuff was tough, and from the beginning, I worked with some counselors. My favorite counselor left the practice and I started seeing a psychologist instead. It helped—a lot.
Not only to work through the marriage ending but also to prioritize my family time, choosing things to focus on, dealing with everything from intrusive thoughts to post-natal anxiety I’d never been treated for. It’s a process I’m still in, and it has been worth it. Hard, but worth it.
When things have become tough, I often reach out to telephone counseling hotlines to help with my children and take care of my mental health. I can now identify these times, usually around holidays, if the children are away, or if I have too many pressures and not enough solutions to stop it.
In Australia, we can access a psychologist with a visit to our doctor to set up a mental health care plan. Other services, such as a parenting information line, can link you up with counselors in your area.
One thing my psychologist has reminded me about is the ebb and flow of grief that comes with a marriage ending. I’ve slowly learned to expect the waves. I’m not riding them yet, but one day I might.
I didn’t have anyone to show me the way—I had to learn it for myself. And, if you’re a single parent too, you might find yourself in the same boat. The lessons have been challenging but oh, so worth it.