Things I Wish I Knew When I Became a Single Mom
Being a 21-year-old parent wasn't unusual in my grandma's time. Back in the 1940s, she married her high school sweetheart when she turned 18, and she had three children by her early 20s. That was nothing special. But having a child at 21 today is a totally different story, especially when you're doing it alone.
I went ahead and did it anyway.
After years of babysitting, the day-to-day care of an infant was no big deal. It was the rest of it that no one had prepared me for. There are plenty of parenting books telling you how to be a good single mom but none that tell you how to be a happy one. That part is important, too. If I could go back in time and give my younger self a few words of wisdom, this is what I'd say.
Single Motherhood Can Be Isolating, but It Doesn't Have to Be
When my daughter, Lily, was born, the house was initially full of helpers. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors stopped in with food, gifts and offers to babysit. More visitors than I actually wanted. After a few weeks, however, it changed. They stopped requesting visits. Most days, it was my baby and me home alone for hours on end. It quickly became lonely and, quite frankly, boring. Infants are beautiful, but the diaper changing, feeding, burping, tummy-time practicing and nap-taking routine gets monotonous.
I could have gone out, but I didn't. Packing a diaper bag is a nuisance, and it felt like too much effort to go pick up coffee and walk around the park with a stroller alone. At 21, none of my friends had kids of their own, and most were still in college.
That said, being lonely isn't just a young mom problem or even just a single mom problem. After the initial wave of helpers, it's on you to reach out. There are always people who are happy to help out or keep you company, but they won't magically appear. I chose to isolate myself because I had too much pride to just ask. Shelve your insecurities and ego, and ask for the support you need. You'd be surprised how many people will show up for you when you're willing to ask.
Swallow Your Pride, and Take the Help
I had plenty of reasons to be guarded and self-conscious. I looked even younger than I was, so people were quick to assume I was a teen mom. A well-meaning woman followed me through Trader Joe's to ask if I needed help getting home. She thought I was 14. After that, I assumed that people were judging me, and I was always surprised when they weren't.
When Lily was 3, I took her on a day trip to see the snow for the first time. After hours of being stuck in traffic on winding mountain roads, we arrived at the overpriced sledding operation, only for her to have a complete meltdown over putting on winter clothes. In that moment, I felt like nothing I did was enough. By the time a middle-aged dad walked by, my butt-naked preschooler was screaming at me from inside the car while I leaned on the door in resignation. He turned around, gave me a thumbs-up, and said, "You're doing great! Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
I wanted to tell him that he already had.
After the tantrum passed and we made it into the inner tubing area, I learned that 3-year-olds aren't great at climbing up long, snowy stairs. I was trying to carry her while dragging a heavy inner tube when it suddenly got lighter. Another mom had picked up the other side of the inner tube. For the next hour, Lily had a blast with the mom's two kids, and she, her husband and I chatted and took turns on inner tube schlepping duty. They were complete strangers, and they were more than happy to help. The lesson? It takes courage to assume the best of people. Do it anyway, because there are more kind people than it seems.
Your Village Might Not Look How You Think It Will
The concept of a village is great, but no one tells you that you might have to build a village yourself. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a built-in support network, but that's OK. Consider it an opportunity to build one you love. Initially, I went to mommy-and-me classes, hoping to make connections there. Lily didn't hit it off with anyone, and neither did I. I didn't feel like I fit in with the other moms.
I gave up trying until we met a family at her preschool that was amazing. Like, legitimately wonderful. The parents were in their 40s, but they didn't talk down to me. They were down-to-earth, welcoming and treated me like a parenting equal. We've since spent many holidays together, gone on camping trips and taken turns watching the kids to give each other a break. I didn't expect my single friends to be so willing to help, either, but they were and still are. Just last week, I ran out of energy to build Lily the fort I promised to make. Two of my friends gleefully did it for me.
Parents almost twice my age, a figure-skating coach and a large, bearded man in a leather vest were hardly my original vision of a village, but they are so, so much better. If you're in need of a village, my advice is to follow your instincts. Find places and people that feel like home, and your village will build itself brick by brick.
Things That Seem Like a Huge Deal Now? Yeah, They Aren’t That Important
Breastfeeding versus formula feeding, struggling to pump, getting enough tummy time, reading enough, avoiding screen time, choosing a daycare or preschool, blah blah blah. All of these things do matter but not as much as everyone makes them seem. Do your best to make the right choices for yourself and your kid, and it will be enough. Not perfect, but enough.
At the end of the day, the kid who was formula fed from day one will be sitting in a college lecture hall next to a kid who was breastfed until they turned 2. No one will know the difference, so don't lose sleep over every little decision. They won't remember going to a preschool that wasn't the perfect fit, but they will remember if their mom was too anxious and exhausted to be present with them. In those early years, what they need the most is you. You are the important part, so don't wear yourself out trying to be perfect. As a single mom, it's easy to feel like you're not enough. To the baby looking up at you, you are. Don't forget that.
Seriously, This Is All That Matters
I've asked Lily if she remembers her first preschool. She does, and she thought it was great. She had fun, and everyone was nice. It was a last-minute, "this is the only so-so place that has space" situation that kept me up at night, worrying if it was educational enough and if the student-teacher ratio was too high. That's not what she remembers.
What she remembers is how the experiences made her feel. Don't stress about every little detail. Create joyful experiences with your child. The time you spend building pillow forts and laughing together? Those are the little things that count.
Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Speaking of being enough, it's hard to show up for anyone if you don't show up for yourself first. Every single parent's situation is different, and if you're the sole breadwinner, making time for yourself is even more challenging. Do whatever you can to find space in your life to do at least one thing to recharge your battery. Have coffee with a friend, take a yoga class, learn to dance, whatever. For one hour a week, do something you love.
It might feel selfish at first, but you're helping your child in more ways than one. Firstly, when you're happy, you have more patience and emotional availability to offer. Secondly, you're setting a positive example, teaching your child that making self-care and happiness a priority is a good thing.
Unhealthy Stress-Relievers Don’t Help in the Long Run
Life as a single mom, especially in the early days, can be stressful. No, not can be: It is stressful. Beautiful, but stressful. I got in the habit of using "fun" things to ease the stress. Say, staying up late to watch "The Office" even though it was my only opportunity for some actual sleep. Or constantly sipping sickeningly sweet Starbucks drinks to keep me going. Having just one more glass of wine than I probably should have to take the edge off the stress.
Disclaimer: No, I never had an issue with alcoholism, and this should be considered a judgment-free zone. If you do any of the aforementioned things or have some other habits that probably aren't doing you favors, I get it. Really, I do, because I've done the same thing. Eventually, I realized my "treat yourself" choices were making me feel more fatigued, sluggish and grumpy. Not so much of a treat after all.
I replaced those vices with a sport I love, yoga, meditation and cooking healthy, whole foods, and I can begrudgingly report that everything the doctors tell you is right. They weren't lying. Taking care of your health will make you feel better across the board. You can still treat yourself, but try choosing more treats that you'll be thanking yourself for tomorrow.
Don't Let Your Feelings About Your Co-Parent Influence How You Feel About Your Child
If this one stings, consider it a sign to look inward. Some people become single moms by choice, but for others, it's a painful surprise. Whether your pregnancy itself was unplanned or the partner you assumed you'd share it with walked away, the experience can leave bitterness and resentment behind.
Be very, very cautious that you don't let your negative associations with your co-parent (or ex or whatever you want to call them) get in the way of your relationship with your child. Your child will have traits that remind you of their other biological parent. Embrace them, even if it's painful at first. Even if the way they laugh reminds you of someone who hurt you, that person made it possible for you to bring a really cool little person into the world.
That little person needs to be loved for everything they are, even the parts that remind you of someone else. Throw the bitterness in a dumpster, and set it on fire. Replace it with deep, pure love. It is there, I promise. Lily definitely didn't get her utter adoration of literally anything edible from me. She also didn't get her long legs from me or her incredible sense of direction or the section of her brain that's amazing at math. But I love all of it.
In a similar vein, don't lie to your child about their other parent, whether they're in the picture or not. I didn't learn this one from experience, but I did make a conscious choice to be open with my daughter, always. Give honest, age-appropriate answers to their questions, even when you'd prefer to avoid the subject.
Small Children Pay Way More Attention Than You Think, so Watch Your Face
It sounds funny, but I'm serious. Look at any baby while they're in their mother's arms. They're mesmerized by her face. They're studying it, learning it better than they know their own. They continue looking to her to teach them everything they need to know about the world around them. Is it safe? Is it scary? Mom's face will let us know! The same goes for their view of themselves.
Am I smart? Am I good? Your child will look at your face to answer those questions, so think carefully about what your face is saying. I say this because it hit me one day that I kept responding to a gleeful, "Mama, mama, mama!" call with, "What?!"
I was never mean, but I looked annoyed. Often. I was short-tempered and impatient. I just wanted to finish the work I was doing without interruption, but the look on my face was saying, "I don't have time for this. I don't have time for you. What you're trying to show me is not important."
It is always important. Every poorly executed trick they want to show you, every picture they draw, every spelling test they bring home is important. If it's important to them, make it important to you. If they're excited about it, be excited with them. Even if it seems trivial, if your kid wants to show you something, stop what you're doing and look. Every time you put your laptop aside to look, and every time your face lights up when you see them, you're telling them, "You are important. You matter."
Kids Ask For Stuff Nonstop, but What They Really Need Is You
Practically as soon as they can talk, kids start asking for stuff. Initially, the more demanding Lily was, the more harshly I'd respond. Over time, I noticed that the angrier I seemed, the worse her behavior became. Yes, kids want every obnoxious toy at Target, every sleepover, every extra pudding cup, but what they really need is your attention, especially when the answer to those demands is no.
It's hard to process frustration, disappointment and anger when you haven't been alive for all that long. Kids are still figuring out how to name each feeling, and they need your help, patience and empathy to succeed. When they're being the most obnoxious, don't respond with anger. Stand your ground, but don't fight fire with fire.
Additionally, if your kid seems to be going through a rude, trouble-making phase, it might be a cry for attention. If they can't get it in positive ways, they'll resort to negative ways. Consider the times you were really at a low point yourself. You probably weren't the most pleasant to be around, but those were the times you could have used a helping hand the most. Be that helping hand to your kid, even if your kid's idea of a low point is not getting another tub of slime in the dollar section of the store.
Love Should Be Used as a Verb Whenever You Can Manage It
Love is a remarkable word. It's the most powerful feeling a living being can feel. It's also an action. Feeling love is easy, but choosing to act with love takes strength. It's also what gives the words, "I love you," meaning. Without action to back it, the phrase doesn't mean much at all.
The pic here shows Lily in 2020. She spent two hours refusing to do a homework assignment that should have taken 10 minutes. We were both miserable, and I was mad. When I saw her sitting on the stairs like this, I remembered her school had shut down, she hadn't seen another kid in weeks, and her entire world had changed. She didn't need punishment; she needed a hug.
When you interact with your child, make sure your actions match your words. Enforce consequences to teach them and help them, not to hurt them. Make sure that when you hug them, your mind isn't somewhere else. Hug them like you've been waiting to see them all day. When you're a single mom, there's no other person there to be the loving one when you're having a bad day.
It's hard when you're exhausted, but try to show your love through patience, kindness and affection as much as you possibly can. On the most frustrating days, those hugs might help you just as much as them. If you're really struggling, refer back to No. 2, and take help when you can. The more love and support you have, the better — and if you don't have enough support in person, you have the support of about a million single moms on the internet, me included.