If You're Not A Single Parent, You Truly Have No Idea What It's Like

by Erynne DeVore
Originally Published: 
Single mother multitasking in kitchen while her little daughter is standing next to her and son is p...
Sean Justice/Getty

Please stop calling yourself a single parent if you aren’t one. And please stop telling single parents who share custody that they are not truly single parents – if you have to attempt to co-parent with someone you divorced, you’re a single parent, whether they have your kids 50% of the time, 25% of the time, or none of the time. If your spouse died, you are a single parent. If you have a great relationship with your ex, or if you wish the flaming pile of shit that is half of our country would open up and swallow them whole, you are a single parent.

If your spouse is out of town for work, if they’re on deployment, if they’re having a weekend away with their friends – you are not a single parent. If you are remarried, you are not a single parent. If your partner is a shittastic parent, you are not a single parent (but you might consider it … it’s not so bad, considering the alternative). If you have someone who calls your home their home, if you have someone who is financially contributing to your household, if after they come home from a business trip your child’s other parent will do a load of laundry or be physically present in your home so you can get the oil changed, go to the dentist, or pick up groceries alone, you are not a single parent. If you have someone you can call or text pictures of your child to and not have to include shared custody logistics in that text, you are not a single parent.

This does not mean that your situation isn’t hard. It might even be harder, in some cases, than a few single parents; I don’t know. But you are not a single parent.

I have been a lot of labels as a parent – a working mom, a stay at home mom, a stay at home mom whose spouse worked out of town for six weeks on/two weeks off, a part time working mom, a full time single working mom, and a full time single working mom who is a student.

It is all hard. This is not a competition on what is the hardest. For some parents, working away from the home gives them the mental capacity to be better parents once home (or, during COVID, just one more thing to juggle from your home office) and for some parents anything outside of being a parent is a nightmare and a necessity. Some stay at home parents have supportive partners who recognize their role as parents in their children’s lives, and some stay at home parents are relied upon to do all of the childcare and household management, all the time. Some parents have shitty spouses, some have fabulous ones. But again, having a shitty spouse does not make you a single parent.

I would like to reiterate, none of this means that your situation isn’t difficult, or that you’re not allowed to struggle. Your situation might be horrific. My marriage was terribly toxic, and I was miserable, and I am one hundred times a better mom now that I am single.

But every time someone who is married or in a long term committed relationship calls themselves a single parent, it stings a little. I know they don’t mean anything by it. They might even think they’re empathizing with me because they got a small preview of what it was like to live my life. The thing is, you’re not.

If you aren’t a single parent, you don’t know what it’s like to watch your children drive away with your ex, and have no control over what they’re exposed to or how they’re treated to for hours, days, weeks (depending on your situation) at a time.

You don’t know what it’s like to not have to save a seat at your child’s piano recital, or worse, to save one and have your ex’s “new family” refuse to sit next to you.

You don’t know what it’s like to have to communicate through a third party – therapists, mediators, lawyers.

You don’t know what it’s like to spend time with your ex on the holidays, or spend holidays alone, away from your children.

You don’t know what it’s like to hold your children as they cry for their other parent, or as they ask you, again in different ways as they age, why you got a divorce.

You don’t know what it’s like to consider the other parent’s schedule when scheduling school conferences, therapy appointments, dance classes, or vacations – and worry the entire time if they’ll change their mind about plans or show up at all.

You don’t know what it’s like to crave alone time in a way that is indescribable, for days, weeks, months, or years at a time — and the second you get it, feel lonelier than you knew was possible.

You don’t know what it’s like to navigate dating while raising children, or grapple with the decision to possibly not date while the kids are still young.

You don’t know what it’s like to curl up in your child’s empty bed when they’re at the other parent’s house, or to guide your child through the grief of one home becoming two.

You don’t know what it’s like to carry the sole financial burden of a household on your shoulders.

You don’t know what it’s like to be unsure who to text at the end of the day when you want to share a funny story about your child.

You don’t know the pride that comes when you realize you’ve taken your children on vacation alone, accomplished a difficult work project while single parenting, or watch your child reach a milestone you know they reached with your help.

So I know you don’t mean anything by it. But you don’t know. And other single parents? They do. They know.

Just like no two parent household is alike, no single parent household is alike either. My situation is not the same as my friends who are single parents. But I know, they know. Our experiences as single parents might be drastically different, but when we find someone else who is, who really is a single parent, you know the depths of their heart have reached deep levels of grief, joy, understanding, and fear that only a single parent can know.

It is a club very few of us asked to or expected join, and in it, we are seen by one another. And when people who are not single parents use call themselves single parents – it’s like you don’t see that. You don’t see us. This group of people who remain unseen in their own homes most of the time, are not seen in their friend groups, either. All of our lives, single parenting our children, are spent not being seen by another adult for our efforts, for our failures, for our obstacles and for our wins. We parent alone, and no one else really knows what it’s like.

So when you say you’re a single parent because your spouse is out of town? It is just another reminder that you’re just one more person who doesn’t really know.

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