Each year, my children’s elementary school puts on a winter concert. Each grade performs three or four songs, sometimes with a few dance moves, sometimes with a few instruments. It’s always cute, and always full of parents in the audience sharing meaningful looks, either full of pride or laughter or horror.
Once upon a time, I attended that concert with my husband, and we shared meaningful looks. Once upon a time, I attended by myself and texted my husband pictures and videos while he was away on a business trip. Once upon a time, I attended alone.
I remember that first year attending by myself. My husband had died just weeks before and everything was painful. Waking up, breathing, smiling, existing—it was all painful. But stepping into that gym-turned-auditorium surrounded by other parents was excruciating. For any one of a million reasons, and specifically because it was the first time I had walked into a room, looked around, and realized no one else in this room loves my child the way I do. No one else is going to swell up with pride the way a parent does when I text them a video. No one else is going to laugh at the quirk that only a parent could know. No one else is going to come home and gush to my child about how well she did.
That concert was the first time I realized how very, very alone I was in this parenting journey. That there was no co-parent to celebrate my daughter, to exchange photographs and videos with. It was just me. Because I was a solo parent.
I’m not generally a stickler on most things. If a client I’m working with mispronounces my name, or calls me the wrong name (always Eileen, I don’t get it), I probably won’t correct them. I’m not generally one to require precise language and I don’t let most things get to me. And yet, being called a single parent felt like trying to fit into a too small, too scratchy wool sweater, in a way that being called the wrong name doesn’t. It felt like being looked, and overlooked. It felt like being seen, and yet remaining completely invisible.
It wasn’t until I heard, likely from another widow, the term solo parent, that I realized I wasn’t single parenting and there was a name to the kind of parenting I was engaged in, which is different than single parenting in subtle but important ways. And it’s not just relevant to widows and widowers, but to any parent whose partner is completely out of the picture for whatever reason.
Solo parenting means more than that I have no days to myself while the kids are with their dad. It means the full mental, emotional, financial weight of raising children is on my shoulders alone. It means that when there are two uncertain paths in front of me, I have no co-parent to debate and help decide which road to follow. It means there is no one to share the blame when things go wrong, or to celebrate the victories when things go right.
It means I am the only person standing between me and my children and whatever storm threatens to batter us. It means at any given moment I am starkly aware of the fact that if I get hurt or sick, they will be left completely alone.
It means I have to give them twice as much, even if I feel half as capable. It means they only get me, when they should have gotten us.
To be clear, I don’t believe and am not saying that solo parenting is harder than single parenting. When it comes to the relationship between divorced couples or separated couples or whatever other dynamics exist in between, I can imagine scenarios where the two parents struggle to find any common ground and even the simplest of decisions become lengthy battles. In that situation, one might look to me, who has to consult no one else, who has no vengeful, hateful partner to deal with, as having the easier situation.
But I’m not writing to win a “who is suffering more” contest. I’m writing because solo parenting is not single parenting, and there’s so much value in being seen, in having your particular struggles validated. I’m writing because once upon a time, I called myself a single parent, and the title simply didn’t fit, and when I found a title that fit better, it was a little easier to breathe, and I felt a little less alone in my experience, a little less lonely. And I can only hope that sharing the distinction between solo and single parenting with someone reading along will also make her singular experience feel just a little bit less lonely.
I hope it helps.