We're just a few years into our Single Mom experience, so are constantly wondering how this ish will look when we're not just treading like mofo's in the middle of it all.
Enter Barbara K, seventeen years a single mom since the death of her husband by suicide when their daughter was 9 months old. During that time, she has become a Philosophy professor, a foundation manager, consulting agency CEO, grant writer, and project developer for non-profit companies across the United States.
She's been such a savvy business girl, we wondered how she's balanced the big ol' work-life-love kettlebell all these years. And anyway, now that she's on the other side of it all, what regrets does she regret? We figured if she could help us better navigate the wild-and-murky waters of single mama life, we'd buy her a box of vodka and kiss her feet forever. She liked that idea, and thusly proffered this list.
We hope you love it as much as we do.
Gwen & Lark
In the 17 years that I have been a single mother, I have certainly done some things well. I have provided my daughter a home with a good education and enough life lessons to set her on her way to the Savannah College of Art and Design – one of the best art schools in the United States. So there are certainly some signs that I have been fairly successful as a single mom (not that it is usually my style to pat myself on the back – though if I don’t do it, I am not sure who else will...)
That said, looking back on my life as a single mom, it is clear that my road and relationship with my daughter hasn’t always been a bed of roses. Looking back on it, there are certainly some situations I would have handled differently and some attitudes that I wish I had shed a little earlier. So – what are my 7 biggest regrets as a single mom? And – how did I go about fixing them?
SINGLE MOM REGRET #1: Hurry up and get married again.
Soon after I entered single motherhood I came up with the interesting idea that it was my duty to hurry up and date so that I could meet a man and provide my daughter with a new father figure. Where this hair-brained idea came from is the most likely the feeling that I needed to work hard to make my daughter’s life normal again...as I bought into the traditional bias that a single-mother-headed-household was by definition a den of inequity capable of only producing robbers, drug dealer, addicts, murderers, and the like.
Luckily for me, the dating scene was not productive and I didn’t meet anyone right away...and I didn’t meet anyone for a long time. Long enough for me to realize that just meeting someone was not the right answer. I was capable of making a home for the two of us...and it could be and has been a loving environment in which my daughter has grown to be an independent, self-sufficient (caveat that she is still a teenager) young woman.
SINGLE MOM REGRET #2: Believing that I needed to be both mother and father.
Another interesting idea that I bought into in my early years of single motherhood was that since my daughter didn’t have a mother and a father, I, the mother, needed to be both mother and father. What exactly that entailed I didn’t know? It just seemed to make sense to me.
So there I was...being totally exhausted as I served as soccer coach (what did I know about soccer???), T-ball fan, school trip/trick-or-treating chaperone, building block expert, reading coach, science experiment instigator (Have you tried hatching cocoons into butterflies or catching salamanders under wet logs in the woods?), camping enthusiast, kite and model rocket designer, and backyard teepee builder. That was, until I realized a very important fact. You see, I realized I wasn’t being both mother and father--I was just being a typical single mom, hoping to give my child exposure to as many cool experiences as possible. It was only my thinking that was flawed. To believe that I was being both mother and father only meant that I was still abiding by some outdated, gender-specific role definition of what it meant to be a mother or a father. After coming to my senses, while I was still exhausted, I was happy to be what I really was --an exhausted GREAT single mom.
SINGLE MOM REGRET #3: Expecting my kids to provide for my emotional needs.
I remember the first time I was amazed that my child at age 7 couldn’t provide for my emotional needs. After a long, challenging day, the dog was out in the backyard and wouldn’t come in,even though we needed to leave. As it turned out, the dog didn’t actually come in until 6 hours later.
That was just the straw that broke my back that day. So I sat myself down on the kitchen floor and started to cry. Upon observing this, my daughter just looked at me rather crossed and walked out of the room. At that time, I was incensed about what I perceived was her total lack of concern about my being upset. I then followed her into her room and remember yelling at her, “Don’t you even care that I am upset?”, to which she replied with the same bewildered look on her face that she had had in the kitchen. Out I ran into my room to spend some quality feeling sorry for myself time feeling completely alone and unloved in the world.
It took a few more incidents like the dog not coming in at the end of a challenging day for me to have an important epiphany. Why did I expect a 7 year old, or a 9 year old, or even a teenager to provide for my emotional needs? How could my daughter understand why I was upset? And how frightening must it have been for her to see me so upset--her beloved mom who was usually laughing, dancing, singing or chasing her around the house as we played indoor tag on really cold days. I realized how unfair it was for me to expect her to meet my emotional needs. What I learned to do from that day on was to seek the counsel and solace of my peers when I was feeling overwhelmed, frightened, uncertain or generically miserable. After all, isn’t that in part why I have other adults in my life?
SINGLE MOM REGRET #4: Feeling guilt over not being two places at the same time.
When my daughter was small, my job required that I travel about once a month. Each time that I was booking a business trip, I did my best to make sure that it didn’t conflict with an important event in my daughter’s life. Business trips were avoided during the run of school plays, concerts, open houses or teacher conferences, as well as dance recitals, horse shows, birthdays, holidays of any sort, camp visitations, and vacations.
However, the inevitable happened one day. An important client meeting was set for the same day as a school musical performance. Tears, tears, and more tears. My daughter really turned on the faucet when I told her that I would have to miss her performance, since she so promptly reminded me, I had NEVER missed anything before and if I could miss a performance, how could I reassure her that I would be there for her BIRTHDAY. Despite the tears and fears, I decided that I had to go. Work was important--not in that it paid the bills, but it was something meaningful in my life that I truly enjoyed and gave me an opportunity to make a significant, positive social impact.
Off I went on the trip and on the day of her presentation, my daughter had plenty of people in the audience that loved her. Sitting where she could easily see them were her beloved babysitter, her local surrogate grandparents, and a few of my friends who were more than happy to be there for her. And more than one of those people recorded her performance (and took her out for ice cream!) so that it could be emailed to me to be listened to later that evening while my daughter gave her own commentary over the phone.
That day, I learned a valuable lesson. I didn’t need to feel guilty about traveling or not being able to be in two places at the same time. There were people in this world who loved and cherished my daughter, each bringing their own treasures to her life. Instead of being devastating, my not being there all the time gave these members of our 'family' the opportunity to become more a part of my daughter’s life. Instead of being harmful, my absences became a wonderful catalyst in my daughter’s emotional growth as she recognized how many people, besides her adoring mom, loved and supported her.
SINGLE MOM REGRET #5: Not spending enough time by myself.
One of the biggest struggles of being a single mom and only parent of an energetic and active daughter was finding time to be by myself. Not that I didn’t appreciate and love being in her company. However, I also liked having time to spend alone with a good book or going out with one of my friends to a non-G-rated movie, for a leisurely dinner, or even just a walk in the park with my dogs. But if I left her all day at daycare, preschool or school to go to work, how could I not spend all the rest of the time with her? Wasn’t it just selfish to want time to myself?
So, for the first couple of years, I left her only occasionally for a special event – a work dinner or a close friend’s birthday. And this was okay for a while. But then I began to long for more. I wanted to do more ‘me’ things – adult things that didn’t revolve around my daughter. As much as I loved her, I also began to realize how important it was for my sanity to have time to myself.
Solution? I worked hard to find a babysitter that my daughter could bond with. I worked with two agencies and then finally word-of-mouth through a network of college students from a local university. After many failed attempts and lots of DON'T EVER LEAVE ME WITH HER AGAINs, I finally came across a young art student who was perfect. My daughter’s beloved babysitter who became so much more. Part older sister, part confidante, part art teacher, and all around playmate, this young woman became a part of our family for the 5 years she was with us before departing for graduate school. In fact, even after she left for graduate school and to this day (10 years later), she is still in touch with my daughter. They have built an important and life-long connection. I got my free time and my daughter got a companion and role model for life. Not a bad deal.
SINGLE MOM REGRET #6: Tried too hard to maintain a ‘two parent’ life style.
Through a series of events (some interesting and some not), my daughter attended a private school starting in Kindergarten until 4th grade. During her time there, she was surrounded by the children of many affluent people with wildly different lifestyles than ours. The girls in her grade spent Winter Break in warm places, Spring Break in Europe, Asia, or another exotic destination, and Summer Break attending one or more highly selective camps where they pursued their equestrian interests.
Needless to say, while we were not badly off, our lifestyle was far from that of most of the other girls in her school. We didn’t fly off to many exotic locations and I kept my daughter amused by buying season passes to local museums and attractions that enabled us to visit as often as we liked for one low price (it was even better when we packed our own food and drinks to avoid high concession stand prices). Lots of our trips were taken in the car with the dogs and the times we traveled far were piggybacked on one of my work trips that paid my airfare and our whole hotel bill. When we did fly places, it was mostly when my parents bought us tickets to visit them.
However, soon after my daughter began attending the private school, I started to feel bad that she couldn’t do some of the same things the other kids could do. So I started to live beyond our means – more to the style I had known in my married years when there were two incomes. As the credit card bills piled up, I continued making the minimum payments and charging more as I bought my daughter lots of name brand clothes and planned a few truly remarkable (by the price tags and thankfully the memories) vacations.
Then one day, I woke up to too many bills and GREAT financial stress. I quickly realized that all of spending wasn’t getting us anywhere but in debt...a truly uncomfortable place to be. Right then and there I made a decision to change our spending habits to better reflect our economic position.
What exactly did that entail? It meant that we shopped clearance racks and thrift and discount stores for my daughter’s clothes. She could have the designer clothes if we could find them at a price we could afford. I also made it into a game of sorts and my daughter and I would delight in trying to outdo each other by finding a coveted item cheaper than the other one (a game we still play to this day).
As for vacations, I managed to still take my daughter warm places, but it was places we could go in the car. Most times we went with other families and that cut down costs even more. I also saved all of my frequent flyer miles from work to pay for plane tickets if we wanted to fly somewhere. Or if we did travel far, I made sure that it was someplace we could stay with friends or family to cut out the price of hotels and reduce food costs. That way we got to take some wonderful, memorable trips and keep within budget.
So while we didn’t live the high life like those girls she was surrounded by, we learned to live our own good life within our means. And it was a life filled with lots of joy and lessons learned. How many other kids can say that they have been to 38 of the 50 states by age 12?
SINGLE MOM REGRET #7: Thinking the world should revolve around my needs
(Because after all, as a single mom, didn’t I have bigger and more important needs than other non-single mom people?). I need to face it. When I first became a single mom, I was much more self-centered than I am now. I was even terribly self-centered when taking care of other people. How so? Because at the beginning of my single motherhood, I, in part, played the victim, the martyr, thinking that because I was a single mom my needs were bigger and more important than other non-single mom people.
Looking back on that now, it makes me cringe to think that I had been that self-centered. I really applaud the friends of mine that stood with me through that time and didn’t run away from the energy-sapping, attention-seeking person that I was. I had to raise my daughter all alone, so my needs and wants had to come first before all those people out there who had other supports that I didn’t have or who had less responsibility than I had.
Oh, how arrogant that was! How shallow (and a few other less kind words that I won’t include)!!! Here I was with a beautiful, smart and talented daughter, a job I loved, pets I adored, supportive friends and family members, a roof over my head, enough money to eat and pay my bills...what did I have to feel so sorry about? What gave me the right to expect people to just drop everything and come help me? Where was my respect for their needs and wants? Where was my understanding and respect for about their hardships, challenges, and joys? Why had my becoming a single mother allowed me to disregard all of our differences and insist on putting myself first?
I am glad to say that my selfishness didn’t last long. After a couple of quite sobering reality checks, I began to see just how lucky I was – how lucky my daughter and I were. I started to put the boundaries back in my life where they should have been all along and began to do better about pursuing the fulfillment of my needs and wants in a different way...instead of just leeching off other people. And I am happy to report that it worked. As a result, I am a stronger person and a better single mom and role model for my daughter.
So where does all of this bring me? I suppose to the realization that each regret became an opportunity for growth, to realize how independent, strong, resilient and creative I could be. Which all has led me to become a better person and, in turn, a better single mom.