When I say about how long it’s been since I’ve had a night off (over a year, and I add a cryface), he replies, can’t you just get a babysitter?
I’m surprised, because he’s a single parent, too. His kids are older, though, and in general he’s seemed less anxious about the pandemic than me. I am very anxious, in general. But something about the question really galls me. The simplicity of his formulation of the problem. The word just. The apparent lack of empathy, even though earlier he’d noted single parenting is tough. I’m kind of a complainer, though, so I’m sure people are tired of hearing it, and I know a lot of people think my problems would be less problematic if I adopted a more positive outlook. Would I feel better about things if I complained less? But wait, is it complaining to state the facts, punctuated with a weeping emoji? I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I want to tell the truth, that’s all. I want to be seen. I want my lived experience to be understood by those around me.
I’m anxious and maybe I’m a complainer but I’m also determined as fuck to find joy and be a good parent. I fight like hell every single day for life and art and love and my babies.
And I’m also keenly aware of the social norms that mark me as a failure for “complaining” about the difficulties of my single motherhood, but make him (any him) a hero just for showing up for his kids at all in any way.
People like to remind me that it’s difficult for two-parent families, too. As though it’s a competition or someone else’s difficulties make ours less. And there’s always the unspoken questions, anytime I state the facts. If it’s so hard, why did you even have kids? Why did you have kids if you can’t take care of them? Really, the answers to these unspoken questions make no fucking difference, because whether it’s me or whoever, the kids have been had. Single motherhood is a reality for whoever you might be directing these unspoken questions at, and the single mother in front of you, whoever she is and whatever she did, if she’s trying to raise this kid by herself, she deserves unconditional kindness and support, because it is fucking hard. It is the reality, and the kid needs her, and the kid needs her to be supported by community. That’s you.
But just because I know some of you can’t help but secretly inside yourself kinda judge and kinda ask, and maybe it’ll give you an idea of what some women might be up against and potentially make you more empathetic and thus more supportive towards single moms, I’ll answer. I can tell you, I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know it would be this fuckin hard. When I got pregnant with my second, my first was already grown. I’d raised one kid mostly by myself already, and this time around I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I was prepared, and I thought that even if my partner didn’t stick around (obviously, he didn’t), that I could handle single motherhood. I was in grad school, had longterm sobriety, a great community of friends, and a stable living situation. My life was on track and I felt ready.
I didn’t expect a traumatic birth, or an emergency c-section that left my body wrecked, or a long stay in the NICU, or to bring home a baby on oxygen.
I didn’t expect PTSD as a result of that traumatic birth. I didn’t expect three years of flashbacks and nightmares and panic attacks.
I didn’t expect to finish a master’s degree while battling PTSD while raising an infant alone.
I didn’t expect to get a job making $11 an hour after finishing that degree.
I didn’t expect an unimaginable grief I won’t describe here.
I didn’t expect a pandemic.
I want to try to tell you how it’s been, but it’s so hard to say, and you’ll probably just think I’m complaining.
My children are a joy. They’re my favorite people in the world.
And it takes a village. And our villages are fucked. Before this disaster, and even more now.
Being a single parent during pandemic or PTSD or poverty means you escape certain pains: the ravages of loneliness, purposelessness, boredom. Single parenting means you are never bored, never without a purpose, never lonely. If you’re extra lucky like me, you’ve got a kid that is relentlessly cheerful, easy to get along with, and endlessly entertaining. If you’re extra lucky like me, you’ve got great friends and family who will, at minimum, videochat to check on you, and at maximum, cook you dinner or take the kid for a couple hours. If you’re extra lucky, like me, you finally get a job making $22 an hour.
That feels like a fortune to me. I shrink to state the figure, because minimum wage is still SEVEN FUCKING DOLLARS. And twenty five cents. Per hour. $22 an hour is a fortune. But guess what? I decided to pay a babysitter twenty dollars an hour to watch my kid for part of the time I’m earning that. Because she deserves a living wage for doing the hard work of helping to raise my child. She, like me and everyone else on the planet, deserves a living wage, period. I could probably find (slightly) cheaper childcare but I adore her and trust her and it’s worth it to me. I pay for the babysitter for 8 hours a week so I can work those hours uninterrupted. That was a difficult decision, to spend time around other people, because of the increased risk of covid exposure. Same with school, but that decision was slightly easier, because I knew how desperately my kid needed to be around other kids. Choosing inperson school meant giving up the only other support I had-her grandparents. Now, I rely on public school for 20 hours of childcare a week. The rest of my work week, around 12 hours, is accomplished while my daughter is home with me, ideally while she’s doing some educational or enriching activity but often while she’s in front of the TV. And I feel guilty about every minute of it. I feel like I’m failing at my work and failing at parenting. And I’m tired when the day is done. Fuck, I’m tired when I wake up. Constant interruptions. Complex tasks that require focused concentration. Hunger. Noise. Messes. Fuckups. Needs. A child and a job that both require almost all of my attention. At the same time. And that’s just on a regular week. That’s not even going into the two months school was closed last year, or if there’s a quarantine or blizzard or spring break.
I got an email from my kid’s teacher last week that said she’s performing below grade level in all subjects. She needs more support, the email said.
No fuckin shit.
This week, inperson school was cancelled for two days because of the weather. I tried to work and guide her through her online lessons and take her outside for exercise and sunshine, and I sort of managed to do all that. That’s how it is every Friday, but this week was two extra days of it. Early yesterday evening, I was planning to finish up some complex work tasks in the quiet after I put her to bed. By the time I’d finished the bedtime story, I’d given up on that idea and decided I’d just read or watch a movie. By the time I turned out her light and crawled into my bed, I found I didn’t have the energy to open a book or a laptop or my eyelids. Definitely not for work, and not even for a movie. I just lay there, conscious but unmoving. Awake but thoughtless. Then, blessed sleep. It was 8pm.
Life is hard for everyone right now. Life is generally pretty hard but especially now. I have a lot of privilege and I have it really good in a lot of ways. We’re never hungry, we’re never cold, and now I can pay my rent with two weeks’ salary instead of three. I can afford an excellent and trustworthy caregiver for my child a couple of times a week. I can do a lot of my job remotely. And, I got vaccinated recently.
As soon as I got the vaccination appointment, I found myself weeping. The truth is, I’m afraid of dying. Not because I’m afraid of dying, but because I’m afraid of leaving my small child behind. I may do a shitty job some days, but I’m the only parent she has. There’s a lot more ways to die than covid, and I’m not very high risk, but goddamn. The relief I felt at getting vaccinated made me realize what a weight I’ve been carrying. And that let me notice, again, the heaviness of the calculations that are my everyday life, even in a normal time. While she’s sleeping or playing quietly, should I read that book that’s been on my bedside table for two months or write that poem that’s been singing in my head all day or call a friend or exercise or catch up on work or just sleep? What should I do with this grand expanse of free time?
Perhaps just lie here making a list in my head of all the things I need to do, haven’t done, fucked up, coulda done better?
Or. I could write an essay that honors my lived experience. I could give myself a break, and cut myself some slack, and give myself a pat on the back. Take a minute to acknowledge that it’s hard to go a long time without time off or time away. It’s hard to live without solitude. It’s hard to be someone else’s only one, no matter how much joy there is in it.
So, no, mister, for the last year I couldn’t just get a babysitter.
Now maybe I can, but definitely not to go on a date with someone who doesn’t understand what it costs.