On Christmas day, we sat side-by-side in my bed, the covers pulled up high, as he watched cartoons on an iPad and I held a book in my lap. He was 2, on the cusp of 3, and this was the first Christmas he might actually remember. I told myself that the holidays just weren’t a big deal to me, that I just didn’t want to make a fuss, that I didn’t care to play into any commercialized version of something that had more meaning than gift wrap and forced sentimentality. I told myself a lot of things. What I didn’t tell myself was the truth.
Being a single mom was never my plan. Never one to quit or give up, divorce was never an option. I would stay, and I would pull up my britches and make it work, regardless of any circumstance, regardless of any discomfort. And then one day, divorce became the only logical choice, the best one for my child, and I found myself walking out the door, bags in hand, and a sandy-haired toddler holding on tight, his arms wrapped securely around my neck, exactly where he belonged.
I was doing exactly what I knew I needed to do as his mother, the one who would lay everything down for his sake. Every night in those first few months, I lay beside him for an hour, just to get him to settle and fall asleep. And every night, I watched his little body give in to sleep, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the way the hallway light shone on his eyelashes, and every night, he stole my heart all over again. I felt pride in raising such a sweet and precious boy. I felt joy that he was all mine. And as my thoughts wandered and my heart broke again at the overwhelming love of a mother, the shame would tumble in.
I wish I were a better mother. I wish I had more money for him. I wish I could give him nicer things. I wish I had a whole family for him. I wish I could give him more than just me.
But me is all I could give him, and at my core, I didn’t feel like that was enough.
Raised in a nuclear family, my parents are still married. I was one of three children, and our childhood was fairly standard. We were always well-fed and well-dressed, and while my parents will recount financial struggles in my earliest days, I never was one the wiser. My family was whole, and while it came with its own set of dysfunction, my family was together. My parents fought, but my parents also went to bed in the same room every night.
I had friends whose parents were divorced, and I had friends who lived in difficult home situations. With those friends, we avoided the topics of what was going on with their family, or why their family didn’t work out. There was always a sense of brokenness in the families that didn’t look like mine. I haven’t been able to put my finger on where that came from.
Every parent wants to give their child their best. Every parents wants good health—mental, emotional, physical, spiritual—for their child. And yet, what happens when you worry that the one thing you can’t give them is a healthy family? What happens if the only way to a healthy home is to leave the nuclear model, to bite the bullet, to divorce, and to throw yourself into single parenting because that’s the best option?
I knew in my heart that I would be the one to give my son a healthy home, and yet the shame of not being enough, not being able to give him the traditional, nuclear family model seemed to envelop me with guilt every time my mind wandered.
The day after Christmas, as we drove alone in our car, running errands, the truth that I had been avoiding hit me. I avoided celebration because it doesn’t feel like a family with just the two of us. When I came face to face with my thoughts, I realized exactly what I had done.
I had been the one to place stigma on our family model. I had been the one to put shame where shame did not belong. I had been the one to sell my son short, because I didn’t feel like giving him just me was enough. I had been the one to say that our family of two, a single mom and her son, he and I, were not a family. We were not enough.
And as the thoughts tumbled out, I realized exactly how silly they were. Because a family of two is still a family. And a single mom and her son are no less, simply because they are the smallest family unit. A family is defined by love, not by numbers. A family is defined by togetherness, not by two married parents. He and I have love. He and I have togetherness. He and I have each other.
I simply needed to redefine my definition of what a family was. He and I are a family.