I recently ran into a former colleague whom I worked with 20 years ago. He asked if I had children and I responded that I had four. He smiled and told me, “You always did want to be a mother. I’m so glad that dream came true for you.” I didn’t tell this former colleague that I had been separated from my children’s father for 14 months. Instead, I smiled, took out my phone, and scrolled. Cute kid photos can diffuse even the most uncomfortable situations.
I met the man I would divorce in 2010. We were both in grad school in the Midwest; we dated just three months before I got pregnant. We spent too little time doing new-couple stuff like holding hands while browsing used book stores before our lives became structured around feeding schedules and sleep training. We eventually married, bought a house, and had more children. Most of our “free” time was spent with our children. At the end of day, I was touched out. We were hardly intimate. By the time he moved out, we were more roommates than husband and wife.
Suddenly, I was a single mother, but it took me a while to embrace the term. That’s because I’ve always equated being a single parent with suffering, and I don’t feel like I’ve suffered enough to deserve the title.
After my separation, I joined an online support group for divorced mothers. The stories I heard were horrifying: spouses who emptied joint bank accounts and left them and their children with nothing. Mothers who had always been the primary caregivers and were now fighting for parenting time. Women with no family or friends nearby to help them. Story after story of struggle, despair, and grief. How could I claim to be a single mom when, in comparison, I was lucky?
I have an incredibly supportive family who are always willing to watch my kids while I go to work. My mom is usually the one to notice my daughter’s underwear looks frayed and orders her new ones. My aunt buys cartons of milk or pints of strawberries and slips them into my refrigerator when I’m not looking. I also have a village of supportive friends, the kind that I can call and ask at the last minute to pick up a child from school, or watch my son while I run to an OB/GYN appointment, and who love my kids with the fierceness of family. My ex is also still in the picture. He hasn’t abandoned his kids. He has them one night a week and every other weekend. He sometimes picks them up from their activities when it’s not his night.
That isn’t to say it’s been easy. I teach part-time at three different universities and freelance for two publications. I took over the mortgage and all the bills on our house. I also have my four children (11, 9, 7, and 5) 70% of the time. This means I do almost all the driving, attend all the sports, help with all the homework, do all the cooking, pack all the snacks (seriously, why are there so many snacks?). I also still carry 100% of the mental and emotional load of parenting: Does our son need an IEP? Is our daughter getting in with the wrong crowd? Are they kind in school? Did they do their homework, brush their teeth, clean their fingernails…you understand.
I also felt, weirdly, like I didn’t deserve the title — because I felt like I’d failed at marriage and failed my kids. I repeated this mantra often. Then a close friend told me, “The only thing you failed at was not driving a burning car across the finish line. You managed to get out before you burned to death.” Which actually made me sound… brave, and smart, and capable.
Ultimately, my dream did come true. I am a mother to four amazingly different and wondrous human beings. I also realized that I didn’t need a partner to be a parent. When I am honest with myself, I realize that being a single parent has given me more joy than being in an unfulfilling marriage ever could. As a single mom, it means I am the one my kids talk to at the end of a hard day. It means that I know all of their favorite songs by heart because we are all in the car together so much. It means no one else’s bad mood is going to ruin our kitchen dance party. It means I was filled with so much pride the first time I pulled off Christmas all by myself, knowing that my kids’ smiles were because of me. Being a single parent is a lot of work, yes, but also a lot of joy, because you get to see and experience it all. Being a single parent is not a lack, it is a bounty. It is realizing that you, just as you are, is enough.
Recently, I looked up the word “singular” and it means “exceptionally good or great; remarkable.” That is what being a single parent means. And that definition suits me just fine.
Jill Bodach is a former journalist who spent ten years covering the police beat for a daily newspaper in Connecticut. While she liked the excitement and busyness of the newsroom, she decided to try something new and went to graduate school where she received a MS in English. For the past 16 years, Jill has taught college writing, literature and creative writing courses.