Why My Single Mom Guilt Isn’t Helping Anyone, Least of All My Kids

With so many iterations of the term “single mom” floating around, allow me to acquaint you with you mine.

I have four daughters, ages 16, 12, 10, and 8. I have physical custody 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, all but two days, twice per month. Logistically speaking, I have no help getting four kids to-and-from three schools. There are no midweek dinners or sleepovers at Dad’s. There’s no live-in boyfriend or fiance’. There are no involved grandparents. There is no help getting my kiddos with cerebral palsy and autism to and from their weekly therapies. I frequently need to be in two, sometimes three, places at once. I work 16 hours per week for $10.50 an hour at their school district, despite having a BS degree, because I a.) need the money and b.) need to be there when they get on and off the bus everyday. I attend IEP meetings and parent-teacher conferences alone. I coordinate every contested meal choice, messy bun, broken heart, load of laundry, misplaced swimsuit, school function, permission slip, clogged toilet, sack lunch, play date, flat tire, broken backpack strap, friend group drama, dead fish, missed bus, outgrown item of clothing, hormonal emotional outburst, lip stick on the tile grout, out of milk, out of bread, out of cereal, dog mess (Did I mention we also have two great danes?), and cat hair ball. (Did I mention we have four cats?) As of today, their dad is $17,483.48 behind in court-ordered support payments and reimbursements to me…year-to-date. My girls and I spent this last weekend selling our furniture so that our lights didn’t get turned off. We were ecstatic when we got $500 for our dining room table, so now we are having our meals as picnics on the floor. That’s the kind of single mother I am. Mama gets shit done.

Don’t pity me. I’m living the dream. I wouldn’t trade being the sun in my kiddos’ universe for all of the Coke-a-Cola in Mexico. I don’t begrudge one moment of the 70% of my waking hours that I devote to caring for them directly, or the other 30% that goes toward everything indirect. Being their mom is the single most fulfilling aspect of my life and the incredible little women they are becoming reminds me every day that I am doing a good fucking job. Scratch that — a great fucking job. Scratch that — I’m goddamn Mother of the Year…two years in a row. I mom so fucking hard.

But here’s the problem: There’s a real conundrum to being everything to your kiddos, see, because you can’t be anyone’s everything. And you shouldn’t be. And that was one of the primary flaws in my reasoning that justified “staying for the kids” for 16 years. Ex didn’t ever participate. He didn’t ever show up, even when we were married. No dr. appts. No at-home therapy exercises. No driving around looking at Christmas lights as a family. He was there but he was rarely there. This isn’t new…I enabled that shit for 16 years thinking, “It’s okay. They will want for nothing. I can do it all. At least they’ll have an intact home. I can make this work. ” Nope. I wish I could go back and slap myself, pack a bag, and GTFO…because I would.

As a result of the “I can do everything…Yes, I can…Yes, I CAN!” position I held fast to for 16 years, I’m now left trying to disentangle the knots in my kiddo’s brains that have, one-by-one, caused anxiety to manifest in them around the age of 8. Why? Well, developmentally, this is about when kids start realizing that their parents are mortal. Now, imagine you have all of the “eggs” that keep you alive, the ones that meet all of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in one proverbial mom-shaped basket. And then imagine how you would feel when you realize, for the first time, that when that basket walks out the front door, there’s a chance that that basket might never come back. You are rapidly learning that the world can be a scary place and you don’t want your basket out there.

“Stay here, basket! Please! I know you’re only running to the grocery store for milk, but what if you get in a fatal car crash? Over 50% of car accidents happen within a mile of home! Wait! Please don’t go! You’re everything I’ve got!”

At this point, I think you, the reader, and I need to be honest and admit that the basket analogy has gone too far (and that it wasn’t very original in the first place) but I do think it’s painting an effective picture. By sheltering my children and providing for everything they’ve ever needed, I have done them a disservice…and they are afraid. And they feel entitled to my everything. And it needs to be fixed. So WTF do I do now?

This story springs from 15 minutes ago when my 12 year old wandered into my room at 11:30 at night, like she had been doing every 15 minutes since about 8:30 when I put her little sisters to bed. She wanted to tell me a joke or to ask me something about her homework that I knew she already knew. And she’s been doing this every night for weeks. I had to finally tell her, “Kiddo, you need to go to bed now. I have work to do and I can’t have these repeated interruptions.” Sweet girl listened and Charlie Brown-ed her ass out of here, but, oh!…the guilt I felt….holy fuck. I mean, BFD, right? So, I forced my kid to go to bed at 11:30pm on a school night? That’s good parenting. And, cognitively, I know that. But, as a single mom, all I could think was, “Oh shit. My baby has an emotional need that I’m not meeting and she has no one else to meet it for her. And I just dismissed her so that I could selfishly do what I want to do. I have to be there at all costs to me. I’m all she’s got.” My feeling of guilt was overwhelming. So, I’m writing this shit out.

I must be the worst mom in the world, right? That’s what my brain is telling me. How dare I not be accessible to her 24 hours per day? How dare I take time to myself to hone my craft that I am hoping some day will pay the bills, thus directly benefiting her? How dare I have a private conversation with my lover who fulfills me in ways that I so desperately need as a woman? Shame on me for not being the bottomless, limitless supplier of all things and everything that they want/need/desire/wish/crave?

This isnt their fault. They’re not audacious, little, entitled brats. They didn’t ask me to be their everything…I volunteered. The audacity was in me. In raising them, I taught them that that’s what they could expect. I taught them that shelter is love…and that I’m the only one who can provide it. I made a misake.

In doing this, I not only dumped all of their (sloppily analogous) eggs into my one basket, but I created a no-win situation for all of us. I wasn’t growing as a person because I had no energy to devote to myself, and they weren’t growing as little people because growth causes pain and I wasn’t willing to work through the guilt I feel watching them struggle. It’s okay to tell a 12 year old that you need some time to yourself to work or have an adult conversation. It’s okay to not be able to be two places at once and instruct your teen to find a ride if you can’t get there in time to take them to dinner with their friends. I will still feel that guilt for awhile, but I’m learning to not give in to it.

See, I’m changing the way I love and I think this is important for all mamas, expecially single mamas, to hear. I am learning to love my kids through challenging them. People grow from challenge. They stagnate from perpetual shelter. I want my kids to grow. I want them to become the independent, mature, emotionally stable, confident, capable women I know they can be. And I need to suck it up and manage the feelings of guilt that come when I tell them to do things that are a means to that end. They won’t grow if I’m always standing there holding their umbrellas for them. They need to learn to hold their own umbrellas and keep the rain off by themselves, or even what to do when they hold that umbrella into the wind, it flips inside out, and they get the full force of that downpour right on their sweet little heads.

WTF is my point? My point is to acknowledge that it’s easy, especially as a single-mom, to feel guilt when you can’t or won’t meet a need for your kid. It’s tough to watch any kind of struggle, whether it’s instituting chores that were never required before because, good goddamn, you don’t have the capacity to be a maid along with everything else, or making them walk into the AP Physics test, despite being mid-panic attack, because you know there are several important lessons to be learned there that won’t happen if you allow them to bail in the interest of mutual comfort.

Dont get me wrong. There is a role for shelter in parenting. There is a difference between eustress and distress. Eustress challenges people and that’s when you go outside your comfort zone and learn lessons that lead to you becoming a more capable individual. Distress is when the trauma and maladaptive coping mechanisms begin to kick in and that, my friends, is the time when your love for your kids should take the form of shelter.

You can encourage independence and self-reliance without emotionally abandoning your babies. Really loving someone, including your kids and progressively as they get older, is being willing to regulate the negative emotions that come with doing what is truly best for them. When that means allowing them to be uncomfortable and struggle, you will feel guilt about it until you evolve past this stage. Your job at this point is to not let the guilt rule you and make your parenting decisions based on that fleeting, maladative emotion. You job is to love them. Love them with challenges that help them grow as a person…even if it’s as simple as insisting that you need time to yourself to grow as a person, too, because that benefits all of you. Encouraging this capacity will not only allow all of you to grow, but it will decrease their anxiety by teaching them that there are other people in the world they can depend on…the most important being themselves.

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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