It was a long while before I identified with the label of single mother. When I had my first child, I did not usually come across this label, I just considered myself a mother. Some people attempted to define me as some sort of juvenile mother but as a university graduate who had even bagged herself a good job by the time I gave birth to my daughter, I could not understand why. Until I realized that even though we had been in the same year at University some of my friends who were a few years older than me considered me a naïf who had been ensnared by my more worldly-wise boyfriend.
Over time I encountered the single mother label more often. Sometimes it was applied with disdain, other times with admiration, and yet other times with pity.
“I hate it when my husband travels for work. I have told him to limit these travel tips, I don’t want to pick the kids up from school and take care of the tasks at home on my own,” one parent shared with me. The look on my face must have given my feelings away because she quickly added, “I am not as strong as you are!”
I have been a single mother from day one. Okay, from week eight, which is when we buried the previously mentioned boyfriend who had since graduated to fiancé. More than twenty years and two more daughters later, I am yet to experience what it means to parent with a partner.
Now, since my only experience of “normal” parenting is from my own upbringing, or what I observe in other families in my community or the media, why have I tended towards self-pity about this situation? Could it be that all the “I don’t know how you do it” remarks have made me realize what I am missing? Comparison being thrown into my face and stealing my joy?
Or could it be Facebook posts like the one about this woman who was always running late, arriving at events disheveled like a typical single mother? Oh, that one hurt. Was this how people saw me?
All those stories about raising money to help someone who was educating children single handedly, were they affecting how I saw myself? As someone disadvantaged and doomed to remain so?
It is true that recent circumstances have been overwhelming. Whereas Big daughter came with a sort of clean slate and no expectations of help, the situation with the other two was different. Small daughter had a complicated background. Baby daughter came out of a “It’s complicated” situation. Remember those relationship statuses from the early Facebook days? Well, don’t try them at home.
In other words, with Big daughter, there was no choice about being a single mother, it was thrust upon me. With Small daughter, there was a choice to parent her solo but no clue about the traumatic cost that came with it. With Baby daughter, it was sheer foolishness that ended with me multiplying the solo parenting load. I have paid the price. Handsomely.
Perhaps this is where the pity parties have stemmed from. Just the sheer overwhelm of it all. And the shame that comes with not so wise choices whose consequences are obvious for all the world to see.
If I go back to my early days as a single mama, I was not burdened with these attitudes and beliefs about being at a disadvantage.
In the earlier season, I was very pragmatic about what I could and could not do as a solo parent. I prioritized what I could manage, and what was important in the larger scheme of things. For example, I was definitely not going to adopt the same approaches for disciplining my daughter like others who had a good-cop bad-cop partner. So I chose to mainly be the good-cop.
Did that mean that my child was sometimes considered spoiled or was getting away with what Ugandans call “bad-manners”? Maybe. I was not going to force her to kneel before visitors, neither would I die on the hill of making sure she could peel matooke or mingle posho. I chose to make sure she could speak up if someone tried to give her bad touches, or used the orphan label to undermine her capabilities.
So why am I now bent out of shape when all and sundry decide that Small daughter’s behavior issues are a result of my poor parenting skills? Why do I spend the night awake, riddled with self-doubt and shame, when a close friend tells me that she knows a single mother like me, permissive and all, whose children have turned out to be a mess and don’t want anything to do with her?
Why is it hard for me to stick to what I know? That my child has complex trauma which manifests in some problematic behaviors. That the research and learning I have done about how to help her has actually produced great results and that, like with Big daughter, I am constantly choosing my battles with an eye on the bigger picture. That there could be neurological reasons why some things are hard for Small daughter, and that it is my job to understand and protect her while equipping her with the life skills that really matter. Especially those that prevent her from being saddled with more trauma.
Why am I anxious with foreboding about Baby daughter ending up with daddy issues just because the co-parenting thing has been an epic fail? The girls have all experienced heartbreak because of realities beyond their control but so have I and I am still standing. “In this world there will be trials and tribulations,” Jesus said, but He also told us to be of good cheer because He has overcome the world.
Several things I must do.
I must not disregard my experience. This is not my first rodeo. I have experience that many of these parenting advisers do not, and will likely never have. My lane is different from theirs. How they treat the extended family relatives in their care is not how I chose to treat my adopted child. When your eldest child is six years, all you can tell me about raising my teen is just theory. When I have raised someone who is twenty four, independent and wise, pardon me if I don’t pay too much attention to your stories about other single mothers with messed up kids. If you all you know are neurotypical kids, please sit down.
I must not indulge in self-pity. The fact that I have survived through these seasons of overwhelm means that I have gained something valuable and highly sought after. Resilience. This is what will help me crawl out of the hole I find myself in. Knowing that I faced horrific things and came out sane should have me patting my back and not beating my chest. I survived a lot. Now I have the muscle to stand on my strong legs and reach for the juicy fruits of the seeds I planted. I have intimate knowledge of vulnerability and how to state my truth. I am a master of grace, both receiving it and dishing it out. I am so resourceful that even I wonder how I pull some things off. I have sought peace and now know how to cultivate it.
I must stick to my lane. Your priorities cannot be the same as mine, and I will not be shamed for my choices. I will also not spend precious time explaining why I do not have the time to run with you on your lane. I must not let well-meaning but wrong counsel derail me from the path I am on. Raising my children is a priority for me in a way that it may not be for others, and my time and resources will reflect that. It is not because I have turned them into some sort of idol or my raison d’etre. The reality is that the job I have requires choices, intentions and sacrifices that others may not have to make. It is up to me to decide what it is worth to me.
I must banish all shame. Shame is such a bad vibration and I know this must be why I get some of the feedback that I do. This constantly justifying myself and the woe is me attitude definitely attracts negative judgment and even disrespect. And the worst thing I can do to myself is to believe that I am not good enough or capable of doing a good job of parenting just because I am doing it alone.
The circumstances I am facing are not pretty, but they are not an indictment of my worth. Shame is dangerous because it permeates everything else with its toxic odor. I am certain that my reticence about reaching for career and financial goals is tied to this. The falling into the murky hole of borrowing and begging, rather than strategizing how to earn more, is surely tied to low self-worth.
The toxic self-fulfilling story about being a single mother that is needy, insecure and hapless must end with myself. I will not self-stigmatize. Because now I know that being a single mother does not mean that my toolbox for doing life is empty. The contents are just different from what others have in theirs. It is up to me to use the resources I do have, to create the life I really want.