What It's Really Like To Be A Single Mom With Primary Custody

by Haley Burks
Originally Published: 
Single mom in a bedroom lying in bed with her daughter

What is it like to be a single mom with primary custody? I thought you’d never ask.

It is a lot like the first paragraph of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is all. the. things.

Being a single mom is a lot like being any kind of mom in the sense that you have overwhelming love for these incredibly innocent, vulnerable, and beautiful creatures that are entirely dependent on you.

Being a single mom comes with a little bit of extra mom guilt because you feel bad that your children are living in a split home even though you know in your mind it is better than what their reality was before the divorce. But you know the ideal would be a together happy peaceful family, and it breaks your heart because you cannot provide them the ideal.

It is extremely physically exhausting. You wake up at 5:00 am or so and you do not sit down until 9:30 pm. You suddenly have to do everything, like literally everything, on your own. Before you got divorced, you probably thought you did everything. And goodness knows you probably did 90% of the things because if there is one place that still has a glass ceiling, it is most definitely the institution of marriage, amirite?

But now you are literally doing everything. You are the one taking out the trash. You are the one writing the checks. You are the one cleaning out the carseats. You are the one getting the mail. You are the one pulling the barrels to the road. And sometimes you are so exhausted you can not even make yourself get up to turn out the light.

Suddenly money matters more because you are now financially dependent only on yourself and whatever child support you are receiving, which likely barely even pays for daycare. But, you also suddenly have less time to work to make that money. Being a single mom impacts your career even more than before when you were a married mom. You are the one taking off for the sick days every single time. You are the one doing doctor’s appointments. You have to leave when daycare closes, no exceptions. You have zero backup and little flexibility to stay late or work on the weekends because you do not have a partner to keep your kids.

You have to pay someone cash to even be able to exercise for an hour. It starts to make you feel a little bonkers, like the walls are closing in.

But even with the exhaustion, on the rare nights when your children are away with their father, you miss them deeply. You ache for them. Your house is suddenly quiet and lonely and dull. You cannot sleep when they are gone. You remember the last ten days when you have been desperate for one single second without someone needing you and crying for you and crawling on you, and you kick yourself for ever feeling that way because your children are gone and you want them back.

You grow as a human being more rapidly than you could ever imagine. Your children are the iron, and they are sharpening you. You develop a pride in yourself like you have never had because you are doing things you could never imagine. You wake up at 5:00 am to exercise and pay a babysitter so you can. You cook the kids’ breakfast. You dress them. You pack their lunch. You take them to daycare. You go do your job. You pick them up. You make them amazing memories. Then you give them their baths. You put them in their pajamas. You read to them and say their prayers. You rock them to sleep. And then you fold the laundry. And you empty the dishwasher. And you sweep the floors. And then it is 9:30. And you know, you absolutely know, that you have lived today.

You feel sad that no on else is witnessing the perfection unraveling before your eyes when your children do something exceptionally sweet, which is all the time. You dream of maybe one day having a partner you can sit down and show every picture you have taken of your children to and tell him every story of what has been missed.

You have the freedom to make the environment that you want for your children in your own home. You get to make things happy and peaceful and fun, and that is a luxury for which you are extremely grateful.

You are, by far and away, the primary person developing your children as people. You lay awake worrying if you are shaping them in the right way. You wonder how the divorce is going to affect them for the rest of their lives. One of their hairstyles is growing funny and you wonder did you not treat their cradle cap as well as you should have. The other cries every time you sit her down or leave a room and you wonder did she not feel connected enough to you after she was born.

You feel an intense pressure to stay alive. You feel yourself bargaining with God. Do not let anything happen to me until they graduate. I have to be here. I am essential to this process. They need me; they need me; they need me; they need me. Lord, please let me stay alive long enough to shepherd them. You know the purpose for your life more clearly than you have ever known it because it is so pressing. These tiny innocent creatures are depending on you and you must rise to the challenge. You have to put away your childhood things. Life has called you to the big leagues and you have to show up.

(Note: for some of us, this may cause you to feel extreme anxiety when you have to leave your children or fly on a plane. You have told everyone you know that if you die you want to make sure your children know that Nancy Tillman’s book Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You is all the things you feel for them and they are perfect and precious and so, so loved. No? Just me on that one? Okay, moving on….)

Then you watch them. You see their beautiful little souls. You see their perfect little eyes. You see them developing empathy and compassion. You hear them say “Tell me about Mary and Joseph, Mommy.” Or “Cain was not a very nice boy, Mommy.” You see them pet your cats and cuddle each other. You see them embrace strangers. You hear your enthusiasm and love of life in the way they interact with their world. You see them love freely. You see that they are happy. You see that they are good. You are so incredibly proud of them that it breaks your heart in half. You love them so much that your eyes leak with tears thinking about them growing up. Sometimes the thought is paralyzing.

And you are proud of you, too. You know no matter what else you accomplish or don’t accomplish in your life, you have fought the good fight and you ran your race. You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a good, good mother.

You also know that your children are the very best thing you have ever done and will ever do. They are all the good things of you and none of the bad. They are perfection. They are your hope, and the future. In them, you see all of God’s promises coming true in your life. And you weep with joy and gratitude for your undeserved blessings.

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