Working Single Parent -- Another story

Cathy Arnst

I got a shout-out the other day from fellow blogger Lauren in her insightful post on her single mother friend. Because of her, I checked out the Washington Post’s On Balance blog, and its own forum on single parenting. I was stunned by one of the comments there:

I'm a single parent. I believe there are two subsets of single parents - those who may have the bulk of the child-rearing responsibilities but do have the part-time help from another parent, and those for whom there is no other parent involved. I'm one of the 2nd subset. There were no "every-other-weekend" windows of time for myself. There was no financial help. There was the guilt of not having a father for my son. There was the guilt of knowing I wasn't giving 100% to either my career OR my son, and shortchanging both. I think anyone who makes the decision to be a single parent purposefully is being naive and selfish.
Naïve and selfish!!! Good grief, that feels harsh.

You see, I am a single mother by choice. I’m not crazy about that description, to tell you the truth, because none of the many single mothers I know thought having a child on their own was the preferable course. They just hadn't met a man to have a child with, and decided to go it alone rather than forgo the joys of a family altogether.

That’s my story—sort of. I did find the perfect partner, my husband, Peter Sleeper. But he died of a brain tumor at the age of 42. We both desperately wanted kids, and were waiting until he recovered before starting a family. I was 37 when Peter died, and it took me a few years to regain my equilibrium. I had moved to New York to work for BusinessWeek by then, and was more than willing to meet someone new and start again. But dating in New York is not exactly “Sex and the City” for most of the women here, and the years were slipping away. I finally decided that I did not have to forgo all my dreams—I might not be able to have a child with the man I love, but I could have a child on my own. I could still have a family.

So in Nov. 1999 I came home from China with my life’s greatest joy, my daughter Jesse. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

When I started the adoption process I was surprised by how many people (people who didn’t know me well, admittedly) said they couldn’t understand why I wanted to give up the great life I had, and all my freedom, for a child. And these were usually people with children! As most of you must know, of course, Kristofferson was right: freedom is another word for nothing left to lose, and my life felt full of nothing. Not so anymore. The other comment I hear constantly is “how hard it must be to be a single mother.” This I don’t get. Watching someone you love go through a long and painful illness is hard. Raising a delightful child—that ain’t hard.

There are downsides to doing it on your own, of course. The debate that has raged here and elsewhere about working vs. non-working mothers means nothing to me, because I don’t have a choice. I am the sole support of my family. I don’t have any extended family to fall back on, either. so all childcare must be paid for—and it’s expensive. I often wonder what I did with all the money I now spend on childcare before I had Jesse. Traveling for my job, or staying late at work, is a major expense for me, whereas the married parents on staff can usually expect their spouse to fill in.

And it can get lonely. I don’t have anyone to turn to at the end of the day to discuss the cute things she did, or the infuriating things. Vacations and holidays are a struggle, because just the two of us feels a little too small of a family unit. Luckily I have a lot of close friends who always seem happy to have us join them. My friends have become Jesse's family, and a more loving one I can't imagine.

All and all, it’s a great gig. Jesse and I have a wonderful, close relationship; I can’t believe my good fortune. My husband and I realized we might have to adopt as a result of his illness, so I often think that this is the child we might have had together—the child I was meant to have. She can be a handful, but it’s the kind of handful that brings more pleasure than pain. I don’t have to negotiate with anyone else over how I choose to raise her (one small advantage, I suppose, to doing it on your own), and unlike divorced parents, I don’t have to deal with a lot of anger or sadness around the absent parent.

So, am I selfish? Maybe. My daughter seems incredibly happy right now, but when she’s 15 I’m sure she’ll go through periods of hating me (I’ve already gotten the ‘I wish I never left China’ zinger during an argument, thought she’d be at least 10 before I heard that). I often feel incredibly guilty that I haven’t provided her with a father. But if the alternative is that we would never have found each other, that I would still be alone and she would still be in China, well then, give me selfish any day.

I’d love to hear from other single parents about the joys and challenges of their lives. Any tips on how to make it easier would also be appreciated. And if you are single and thinking about this path, read Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, a chronicle of her first year as a single mother. Hilarious and inspiring all at once.

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