We’ve all been living in various states of high stress since the pandemic began. From the very earliest days when going to the grocery store was a mission fraught in peril to now, when cases are again rising and the divisions among us have devolved into something vicious and the entire world alternates between flames and floods and violence, there are probably few people who can shrug their shoulders without feeling the weight of it all settled there. But for solo parents — people like me who have no co-parent at all—that stress looks different.
Let me explain.
I owe my childhood friend a phone call. To be perfectly honest, I probably owe a lot of people a lot of phone calls. If you ask why I haven’t called, I would say that I’m busy. It wouldn’t be a lie. I am “busy” in the traditional sense of the word. As a solo parent attempting to rebuild a life and career with two tweens starting school while a dangerous virus circulates, I do have a lot on my “to-do” list. Whenever I manage to whittle that list down to something manageable, it doubles in size, like those monsters in fairy-tales—cut off one head and two grow back.
But that’s not why I haven’t called. I could call as I’m driving to the grocery store. Or, I could chat on the phone as I’m folding laundry or making dinner or doing any of the many chores that I can do on auto-pilot. I haven’t. Because I’ve also been busy in the non-traditional sense of the word.
I’ve been busy trying to convince myself that I’m not failing the kids at every turn. I’ve been busy trying to figure out how to keep my kids safe, how to balance their mental health with their physical health. Mostly, I’ve just been busy making every decision for my little family of three—from the major life ones to the trivial-won’t-matter-tomorrow ones—and second guessing every single one of those decisions.
It’s a busy-ness that’s unique to solo parents. It’s decision-making fatigue amplified to the billionth degree because parenting through a pandemic means that every decision is nuanced and calculated and takes up all my bandwidth, leaving next to nothing for anything else.
Eighteen months of that kind of busy means things are falling through the cracks. So many things that the cracks look more like craters.
Which isn’t a call for pity. But it is a call for empathy. It’s a call to reach in, even if the solo parent in your life hasn’t reached out.
The difference between empathy and pity might be difficult to spot, but a recent text message I received from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in months highlighted it perfectly.
The message consisted of, “hey, how are you? Did you see this? Your name wasn’t there.” It was followed by a screenshot of a communication from my daughter’s school. And, unsurprisingly, I hadn’t seen that email. Somehow I’d missed the memo on how to sign up for the emails—remember all those things falling through the cracks that look more like craters? That was one of those things.
The message made me tear up. Because even though this (arguably huge) thing had fallen through the cracks, someone had helped me catch it. This friend had reached in, even though I’d completely failed to reach out. She’d seen that maybe I was beginning to fall through those cracks that look like craters, too.
I texted back, grateful for her empathy, which was rooted in an awareness of how much was on my solo parent shoulders, and not in pity. I felt seen, and that means everything.
To be clear: when I say solo parents need empathy right now, I am very much not saying other parents don’t need empathy, too. Acknowledging the difficulty of solo parenting eighteen months into a pandemic takes nothing away from the difficulty non-solo parents are experiencing.
I’m well-aware that maybe you can’t reach out right now because you’re busy trying to compromise with a difficult or toxic co-parent or busy trying to hold onto a part of you that is just “you” separate from being the “you” that’s available to another adult.
Relationships, friendships, are two-way. I know that. But the truth is sometimes, one person in a relationship needs a little more and that makes the relationship slightly off balance. Or, very off balance—that’s okay. During the pandemic, the solo parents in your life probably need a little more. It’ll even out, eventually. And in the meantime, that bit of empathy, that moment when you reach out, will feel like a welcome safety net to a solo parent who needs to feel seen, who maybe feels like they’re falling through the cracks that have begun to look like craters.