To fail at marriage, especially when there are children involved, tarnishes your self-esteem in manner that is not only pervasive, but achingly public.
You can be married and then become unmarried.
Once divorced, however, you can’t become un-divorced. Once divorced, you’re always a person who went through a divorce, even if you eventually remarry.
The mere fact that you’re divorced highlights that your overall decision-making is questionable at best, as you clearly choose a partner who turned out to be fundamentally incompatible. And the uglier the divorce, the more your mistakes slap you repeatedly in the face–HARD–because life with a high-conflict ex is relentless. You can’t call a truce because you have a deadline or a stomach bug or a client in crisis. In fact, showing weakness only makes you more vulnerable. A therapist once referred to high-conflict ex-spouses as “financial and emotional terrorists.” There is almost never a day when I’m not in a battle–when my kids aren’t being impacted negatively by someone who hates me exponentially more than he loves them. And as that same therapist pointed out, I will always lose the power struggle because I have a much lower threshold for allowing the children to be hurt.
It’s hard not to wobble under the constant strain of trying to co-parent with someone who doesn’t have an overlapping value system or define parenthood in the same way. Jack considers the Dad to be a blight on fatherhood and manhood in a general sense. My ex-husband humiliates him—not because he’s associated with me, Tara, but because they both share the title of “Dad” yet only one represents it with any kind of reverence or integrity.
Jack is a protector. A provider. If you’re part of his pack–that’s it. You’re in. You’re not going to be left out in the cold. You’re not going to go without. You’re not going to be left for dead just because you acted like a jerk yesterday, or because you’re not biologically related, or because he can’t claim you as a dependent on his taxes. I simultaneously love and hate this part of him. I love it because it’s honorable and comforting. I hate it because it because it’s foreign and residual divorce after-shocks mean that I still struggle to discriminate between nurture and control. I’ve never had a partner who conducted himself in this way and there’s part of me that wants to shout, “I’ll do it myself, thank you very much. I don’t want to owe you anything.”
He does not understand or respect my ex-husband, who is the antithesis of protector. From his perspective, my co-parent does not provide for his children. Not emotionally. Not physically. Not financially. Not reliably. Not because he can’t, but because he won’t. He seethes when Dad shames Dylan for this clothing preferences. When he is off of work yet doesn’t show up for graduation. When he won’t pay for a haircut, allow them to wear the clothes he purchased outside his home, or pay for half of the recommended tutoring services. He’s tired of seeing Sydney’s eyes well up with tears when she hears him call her mother a liar on the phone or when he doesn’t call Dylan back after he’s telephoned twice without a response. While he’s pleased/flattered when Sydney grabs his hand and says, “When are you going to ask Mommy to marry you?”, he’s saddened that she’s so clearly looking to him for stability and protection. She shouldn’t need him; she has a father. She should simply want him because he’s fun and kind and always lets her eat ice cream on the couch.
There are times when I’m amazed Jack hasn’t left me and the kids behind due to the day-to-day drama that basically—from his perspective—stems exclusively from Dad’s unwillingness to provide for his kids for fear that it’ll somehow benefit his ex-wife or result in him paying one cent more than his “half” of child-related expenses—as though children and their needs can be neatly divided into halves like slices of pizza or a pile of poker chips. As though there’s not a difference between the 5% of his income he spends on child-related costs and the 75% I spend on those same expenses.
But the thing is, Jack is a protector. So by definition, that means he isn’t going to leave. Not due to drama, anyway. It took me forever to understand that.
Jack doesn’t understand a man–particularly a father—like the Dad. He doesn’t understand how he was given the gift of these children and he just wastes his influence on them by role-modeling self-absorption and entitlement. He doesn’t understand how he fails to comprehend that his children are watching. They look from Dad to Jack and they see that there are differences between these two men. They see that one is filled with laughter and ease and generosity and the other is filled with anger and preoccupation and miserliness. They also see the women who stand beside these two men. They absorb how we respond to the character our men exhibit and whether we’re wilting in their care or flourishing.
I worry constantly that Jack and I won’t be able to leave a significant enough mark on them to counteract the opposite example they see so often–especially when his example is accompanied by trips to Disney, a half-million dollar home, and multiple cars. My mark on this world is so slight, especially to young children who’ve always been able to take my stability for granted.
Recently, while standing in line at a coffee shop, I paid for a woman’s coffee because she–to her embarrassment–left her wallet at home. After I paid for her coffee, I exited the line. Sydney said, “Aren’t we getting a drink?” I was like, “No, we shared our drink money with that lady. We’ll get some another time.” Aside from it being the right thing—the decent thing—to do, I wanted her to see what even though we oftentimes have less than others, we always have enough to share. With anyone who needs it, not simply those we know or love or somehow consider more worthy.
I want them to know that the more you have, the more you share. Having more than everyone else isn’t a sign that you’re superior or more deserving, it simply means that you’ve been granted the privilege to help others in a tangible way.
And who else better than to share your good fortune with than your children? I mean, why not start there? After all, it’s a powerful feeling to be able to give to another.
Conversely, it’s also a powerful feeling to restrict or deny.
So today, I sit here in sadness. However, I’m uncertain whether my sadness comes from my sense of failure for not being able to financially provide more for the children, or because I burdened them with a father who can but won’t.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Claudia from Raising Miss Fancy Pants asked her Facebook friends to weigh in on the common stereotypes encountered by Stay-At-Home-Moms (SAHM), Work-At-Home-Moms (WAHM) and Working Moms (WM).
I struggle to place myself in one of these categories, as I stay home whenever I’m with my kids (I never work past 2pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example), I work at home (in that I don’t have an office) and I’m a working mom (I have a specific number of appointments/hours that I work outside of the home at various schools, child-care centers, and private homes). I don’t have “work friends” because I run my business myself, and even though I usually become very close to my clients, I have to maintain a professional boundary in order to preserve my credibility.
When I saw her post, I was all, “Are you going to talk about the stereotypes of single motherhood?” She responded that she wasn’t able to speak to any particular stereotype, and encouraged me to take up the cause on my blog.
So, from my experience (and those of some of my clients and friends), here are some of the assumptions associated with single motherhood.
We’re poor, probably uneducated, and can’t support our children.
Obviously, this is sometimes true. Sometimes women become single moms by choice (pregnancy via IVF, for example), which lends itself to considerable forethought, but many moms become unexpectedly single. Maybe they’re divorced. Maybe their partner died. Maybe they had a surprise pregnancy with a man who isn’t father material. Regardless, if singlehood came about unexpectedly, a woman can be placed in a very unfortunate situation financially, particularly if they didn’t have a paying job or their income was more supplemental than primary. But I do resent the assumption that single mothers can’t support their children with the tools that their partner didn’t take with him, such as their intelligence, good social skills, education, and overall resilience and resourcefulness.
We desperately want to find another husband.
When Drew and I were negotiating our parenting agreement, he seemed so certain that I’d quickly remarry. Jack was already in my life at that point, and he wrongly assumed that we’d become discontented with slowly re-entering a partnership after divorce. Internally, I was flabbergasted, as research shows that second marriages have a higher likelihood of ending in divorce than first marriages. Um, shouldn’t you avoid rushing into something that you just failed at miserably? Marriage is not like getting back on a horse–you don’t do it quickly to prevent fear from setting in. And going through a divorce completely disabuses one of the notion that marriage is tantamount to security. No, I am my own security. The right man is simply a wonderful addition to the security that I’ve established.
We work harder than the married moms.
Sure. We work hard. We have to juggle our professional life, the needs of our children, the demands of the home, and our personal life. But so does everyone else. From my perspective, how “successful” you feel at juggling all these demands depends on 1) your overall level of organization and ability to prioritize your time 2) the quality of your support system, and 3) your ability to use healthy, effective emotional coping strategies. Typically, it is not based on your marital status. In fact, having the wrong spouse can sometimes create more work and stress. However, if you are even missing one of the above things, life easily becomes overwhelming and these feelings of defeat can be exacerbated by the “but I’m a single mother and I’m doing this alone” thought cycle.
We either party a lot or we sit home in our sweatpants eating ice cream.
Sometimes the word “single” elicits images of us dropping off the kids with Dad, shimmying into our shortest skirt, and sauntering up to the nearest cougar bar and batting our lashes at the first man who makes us feel attractive. Conversely, others assume that we’re pathetic and lonely, cuddling up with our cats as we shovel spoonfuls of melted chocolate into our mouths. In general, I think the assumptions that people make are based on what they imagine their single life would look like had they been launched into singlehood. The reality, for me, is somewhere in between. I don’t even own a pair of sweatpants, but my desire for human contact consists of a desire for a laugh and some good conversation, regardless of whether my company is male or female.
We think about our exes.
Sure. Maybe in the first few weeks or months after the split, while you’re still harboring thoughts of reconciliation. But then you realize that life is better without your ex and you get this sense of emotional closure and it’s all just sort of vaguely sad and in the past. Very little time is spent reminiscing about old times or wondering what the ex is doing now. When you share children, however, life naturally overlaps a bit, but it’s not in an “omg, what’s he doing? way, but rather a “wait, is this going to impact me and/or the kids?” way.
We need a man to fix stuff.
Sure. Men can lift heavier stuff. They are also more likely to have been taught how to use specific tools or complete specific household tasks. But you know what? These days, nearly everything can be explained via a youtube video. Computer problems, minor plumbing issues, and simple household tasks can be addressed by spending 15 minutes watching some nerd on the internet. And if the nerd on the internet can’t help, then most women are happy to allocate a portion of her paycheck to hire the appropriate professional. There’s no pride lost by recognizing that while you’re good at many things, replacing a broken toilet is not one of them. But there is pride to be gained by solving a problem independently, particularly when your children are there to witness it.
Many women would agree that entertaining themselves is preferable to suffering through another evening with a horrid husband who chews like a spastic moose and spends his time viewing internet porn. Many women who also agree that an unhappy marriage is much lonelier than a relatively contented singlehood. The isolated feeling that you get when you look over at your disinterested partner and think, “He so does not get me” is a loneliness like no other. At least when you’re single, there’s hope that circumstances can change.
There’s something inherently wrong with us.
We don’t have a husband. There’s probably a reason for that. The reason is probably negative, right? Sometimes, sure. But not always. Sometimes single motherhood is more about strength than weakness.
We’re judging your relationship.
Sure we are. But no more than your married friends and certainly way less than your mother. I don’t know of any single women who think they are more or less of an authority on relationships because they were once married and then became unmarried.
All our exes are deadbeat dads.
Nope. Oftentimes dads are interested and involved and supportive. Some pay child-support faithfully, prioritize the needs of the kids, and do what they need to do to become/remain healthy, productive citizens. The fact that we’re not married to the dad is probably not because he went to jail for drug charges or drank himself into a stupor each night. In fact, the reasons were probably not particularly unique.
We’re either emotionally fragile or tough as nails.
When people find out you’re a single-mother, they tend to have one of two reactions: 1) assume you’re about 10 minutes away from cracking under the responsibility and pressure because you’re poor and lonely and you can’t get your remote control to work or 2) You are angry and fiercely independent like some sort of left-breasted amazon warrior. Neither is true. Both are true. It depends on the day. But most of the time, we’re just as emotionally strong or weak as the rest of you.