What Being A Single Mom Taught Me About My Own Mother

The reason my mom has been such an incredible support to me is that she knows exactly what I am going through.

My mother wore single parenting well; everyone said so. “She is amazing!” “What a role model!” “I just don’t know how she does it!” It was the mid-80s, and to me, my mom was living her best life.

I was 13 when my parents separated, and my mom, my three siblings and I moved into a big old house filled with a strange mixture of furniture from the charity shop and pieces my mom had taken with her from the marriage. We had no money, and for years we were without a sofa and all sat around in beanbags.

Mom, who had not worked for 15 years, got a job with an NGO and worked long hours to secure a position that paid enough to support a family of five. She began mixing with interesting people and doing exciting things.

For the adolescent me, it was a fun, bohemian lifestyle, and in many ways we were the envy of our friends. I knew we had no money, but somehow we didn’t care, beyond the momentary disappointment when we couldn’t buy the “it” toy all our friends had, or the latest fashions.

Decades later, as I stood in the laundry room, tears streaming down my face, yelling out to my kids in my best fake-cheerful voice, “Mommy’s OK, she’s just putting some washing on,” I began to understand the life my mom had lived as a single mother.

Our journeys to single motherhood had been completely different. For the first decade of her kids’ lives she had been a stay-at-home mom, with a husband and a house in the suburbs. I have never been married and I am mom to two daughters, Greta and Aurora, who were conceived via IVF and with the help of an anonymous donor.

While my mom had to build a career from scratch, by the time I became a parent I already had a successful career and had bought my own home.

Mom loves being a mom, and she was thrilled that I wasn’t going to let my single status rob me of my dream of motherhood. Far from being shocked that I was using an anonymous donor, she celebrated the advances in science and society that gave me the choice. Mom was retired and promised me she would be with me every step of the way. And she was.

She was with me at the hospital when the embryos were transferred into my body, and she was with me when I gave birth, cutting the umbilical cords of both my daughters. For the first years of their lives, Mom lived with me and the kids, helping me keep it all together.

She cooked for us; she taught me how to breastfeed; she stroked my hair and told me everything was going to be all right when sleep deprivation and the relentless demands of new motherhood grew too much.

But as my girls grew, there were many times when it wasn’t all right. When Aurora was a baby, my gall bladder suddenly died and in the middle of the night I collapsed into semi-consciousness, holding my newborn. Luckily, Mom was there and she called the ambulance and cared for the girls the following days while I was in hospital.

But from that moment I was haunted by what ifs. As a single mom, you are entirely responsible for the care of your children. The fear and stress that something should happen to me was never-ending.

So was the burden of financial responsibility. As the only breadwinner in our family, whether we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, depends entirely on my ability to make money.

I absolutely love my life with my kids and there’s not much I would change, but there is something about the support of a partner that you don’t really understand until it’s not there.

It’s a million tiny things. Like when Aurora was at pre-school and her teachers were concerned that she was having trouble sitting still on the carpet; or when she went onto a special curriculum at primary school because she was so ahead of her class.

These moments, discussed, worried about and celebrated by couples out loud, were conversations that I quietly carried out in my head.

As the stress of the years of relentless pressure built up, I began to see my childhood through a different filter. I began to realize that during those “bohemian years,” mom was experiencing what I was now.

When she would come home from work late at night exhausted, only to have to cook dinner, clean up and adjudicate arguments, was every fiber of her being screaming for some physical and mental respite?

I remember on the weekends, Mom would stay in bed until lunchtime. I used to think, wow, she really likes her bed, and that was the end of it. But now I wonder, underneath those covers was she feeling momentarily safe from a life that could crumble in a moment?

It wasn’t just me revisiting Mom’s single parenting days. One Christmas, while my kids were tearing open their presents, screaming with joy, I noticed Mom silently shedding a tear. When pressed, she said to me, “I just wish I could have bought you all these presents when you were young.”

For the first time I could see in her the guilt that many single mothers know well. My mom wasn’t just a mother, she was a person, too.

The reason my mom has been such an incredible support to me is that she knows exactly what I am going through. She understands the fantastic things about being a single mom – the freedom to be spontaneous, the joy of being able to have the kids in my bed. She also understands the stresses and pressures that are a constant feature in my life. She is able to tell me what I need to hear, because I am living the life she also led.

Except I’m not. She never had a her.

When Mom was a single mother she was truly alone. Both her parents were dead and her sisters lived far away. Friends had fallen by the wayside due to the breakdown of the marriage and by the long hours she had to work. Her colleagues were younger, mostly single women. It was the ’80s, and mental health and emotional support were yet to become buzzwords.

I might be a single mom, but I know if I am tired or have had a bad day, one phone call to Mom and she’ll be over to take the girls shopping. If I’m freaking out because Greta has a fever, Mom will calmly monitor the situation and give me advice that only comes from years of experience.

When an unexpected bill arrives, Mom will casually mention that I shouldn’t forget that I can call on her if ever I should need it.

Mom never had that.

What she does have is four kids who have all grown up to have successful careers and happy and thriving families of their own. My kids have no idea that when I am up working in the middle of the night it’s because I need to make the money to pay for their new bikes; they think I’m just a writer living my best life.

But one day they’ll understand. Maybe.

Photo of the author and her mother.

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