What makes a single parent?

Am I a single parent? It is a question I’ve grappled with many times in my life, most recently when looking at my bio on this very blog where I have self described myself as a single mother.

I don’t feel like a single parent. It is true that I’m not married and therefore by definition am I single? But I’m engaged to a partner who often does more of the parenting than I actually do. We live together, we parent together, and we share a family together. Was I a single parent before he moved in? When it was just the girls and I filling this house with love? Was I a single parent when he had to travel all the time? When we would see him for a week then he’d be gone for two weeks?

Was I a single parent before I met him? Even though I have a co-parent who I love and who I know I can count on anytime I need something? I know many single parents aren’t this lucky. They don’t speak to their children’s other parent, and certainly most don’t talk to each other every day. They don’t run to Albertsons at 10:00 PM to grab Advil for each other or text “Happy New Year!” at midnight on Jan 1st. They don’t call each other when they get dumped and consider each other friends. Are the ones who can’t do that the real single parents?

Was I a single parent when I was pregnant with my first child? I wasn’t together with her father although he was supportive and always around. I lived in a house full of friends who became my community. They went to appointments, brought me milkshakes, and told me I didn’t look like a bloated whale. They lied, but they also surrounded me with love, laughter, and stretch mark lotion.

Was I a single parent when I moved out of that house into my own apartment? Where I lived and worked on campus in family apartments even though I wasn’t certain myself that me and my growing belly constituted a family. I think I was certainly a single parent when I collapsed on the floor of my unborn child’s room, overwhelmed with all the tiny clothes I was hanging up. Truly I was overwhelmed by all the tiny responsibilities I was about to unfold. And the reality that I somehow had to get myself off the floor.

Was I a single parent when my child was only a few months old and her dad and I decided since we were always together anyway he might as well move in? Did I lose my single parent card when I wasn’t the only one woken up every hour of the night? Did I gain it back on nights when I was the only one woken up?

We still lived together when I became pregnant with my second. I shouldn’t by any definition have felt like a single parent then. However fueled by depression, loneliness, and a daily climb up three flights of concrete stairs while carrying a toddler on my hip, I felt more like a single parent than ever before.

After my second child was born we gave up our experiment and realized parenting together doesn’t have to be done under the same roof.  With a two year old and a two week old in tow I moved in with my own parents. Was I a single parent when my dad got up at midnight to pace the halls with my fussy infant? Or when my mom woke up with my older child every morning so I could get some rest. For five months I lived with more support than most parents will ever have. What kind of parent was I then?

When I finally moved out, my sister and brother-in-law moved in with me to help pay rent. I probably was even less than a single parent during this time of my life. With 3 children under the age of three in one house I almost ceased parenting completely. When they moved out after a year I had no choice but to pick up all the slack I was given with them being there. I had to truly parent solo for extended periods of time for the first time in my life. I filled my house with friends whenever possible, music at all times of the day, and lots and lots of wine.

I was struck not by how difficult being a single parent was, but instead by how lonely it was. How I looked for someone to commiserate with when my kid smeared spaghetti all over her clothes. How I looked for someone to celebrate with when potty training became a reality. My neck grew sore from constantly spinning around to see if anyone else was watching this with me. If anyone else was feeling this with me. If anyone else even cared.

So I posted 8,000 pictures of us on social media so I could feel like I wasn’t alone in all of this. If nobody was watching my children grow with me, they would be forced to experience it virtually.

Being a single parent wasn’t all bad for me. I discovered a fierceness I hope I’ll never lose. In tough times I learned I was stronger than I ever could have imagined. I learned I was a better parent than I ever could have imagined, because I had to be. It was lonely and life changing, all at the same time.

For me I think being a single parent is more of a feeling than it is a situation. I’ve been in almost every type of parenting scenario imaginable and I only really felt “single” in it all when I wasn’t surrounded by family and friends. It had little to do with my relationship status and everything to do with my emotional status.

So I don’t think I’m a single parent anymore, even though it is a lasting tattoo I will always wear proudly. I don’t feel like a single parent anymore but I certainly remember what it felt like when I was. It felt challenging, frustrating, and isolating. It also felt deeply rewarding, fulfilling, and life altering.

I hope people can understand the multitude of situations that can create someone parenting solo. Sometimes it is a choice. Sometimes it is a lack of a choice. Always it is not an easy decision to come to. I also hope they can understand the efforts that can make them feel so much less alone in all of it. A phone call. A hug. A babysitter. Liking their 200th post about the funny things their kid said. Being part of the wide net that makes a parent feel like they aren’t facing this gigantic challenge alone.


On our own. With brushed hair and everything. 2010.

*I’m going to continue to be a “single parent” on this blog because I can’t figure out how to change my bio!


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