Surviving (and Thriving) as a Single Mom

Four common challenges and how you can overcome them.

You're Not Alone

single moms

Sarajo Frieden

When my daughter, Mae, was 7 months old, her father and I split up. He left the country -- without saying goodbye, I might add -- to start a new life. I was a hormonal, heartbroken 28-year-old, and in between work hours spent editing textbooks, I nursed Mae and mashed up baby food.

That first year was chaos. It didn't help that there were no single-mom role models in my life -- except, say, Madonna, who was also parenting solo at the time. If she can do it, I can, I used to think, but I hardly had a superstar's life. Fortunately, I had a fantastic group of friends who helped. Maybe none of them knew exactly what I was going through, but they babysat and showered Mae with love, which I appreciate to this day.

After a time, I got back on my feet and ventured out. And what did I see? A lot more single moms than I had ever noticed before. In fact, in 2005, nearly 4 in 10 babies in the U.S. were born outside of marriage, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It's an all-time high -- and it's not due to teen moms (teen motherhood is at its lowest rate in 65 years). Births to unmarried women ages 25 to 29 are up 30 percent since 1991; births to unmarried women ages 30 to 44 are up 17 percent. One caveat: Statistics don't tell how many single moms are with a partner (and choosing not to get married), how many live with family (so they have some help around), and how many are truly alone. But the point is, there are a lot of single moms out there.

Day-to-day duties for a solo parent are no different than they are for a married one: coping with sleeplessness, finding child care, paying bills. But... you're on your own. Even so, single mothers agree that even when overwhelmed, there's usually a way to work out problems. Here are some of the biggest worries of new single moms, and a few words of wisdom.

Am I Up to the Challenge?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that parenthood is the biggest undertaking you'll ever face. But that's true even if you're married! You will get past the fear.

"You can survive this, or you can lie down and die," is what Christina Ann Zola, of Washington, D.C., told herself when she and her husband split up. They'd moved out of the country and had a baby, and then their marriage fell apart. Zola returned to the U.S. with a toddler, four suitcases, and four hundred dollars. "My life has been this series of 'oh, that was hard' crises, but I just keep going," Zola says. "You can't let things stop you."

One way to calm yourself: take life one step at a time. Concentrate on giving birth, then caring for a newborn, then looking for work and daycare. "Forget long-term planning or strategy during those first sleep-deprived weeks," says Leah Klungness, a psychologist in New York City and coauthor of The Complete Single Mother (Adams). "You have the rest of your life to plot and plan."

You'll still have fears, of course, so confide in friends and family who give you sound advice and who don't panic. The fact that her mother was calm about her pregnancy lowered the stress for single mom Kali Kimberlin, of Pittsburgh. "When I started to get scared, she'd say to me, 'It will all work out,'" says Kimberlin, who gave birth to daughter McKenna Grace in April. "And she was right."

Can I Support Us?

There are single moms who get reliable, substantial child-support payments from the baby's father. But if reading that sentence makes you laugh ruefully, you're probably one of the majority of women who have become the breadwinner.

"My son counts on me and only me," Zola says. She was smart -- and fortunate: When she first moved to D.C., she explained her situation in a note that she posted on an Internet Listserv for city residents. "One single mom wrote to say that we could stay with her, and another offered clothes," Zola remembers. But the real boon was when a mom forwarded Zola's resume to an architectural firm, which hired her for her current job. "I'm the go-to girl for the CEO," she says.

Amy Anderson, of Seattle, says that when she split with the father of her daughter, Hailey, soon after Hailey's first birthday, she had to borrow money from her family to stay afloat. But she had taken a computer course when she was pregnant, and even though her preterm labor prevented her from finishing it, she parlayed her new skills into a contracting job with Intel. "Having Hailey was my motivation to make it happen," she says.

There will be days when working -- you have no choice! -- will fill you with resentment. Zola, who sometimes works 60-hour weeks, fights frustration by reminding herself what a good model she is for her son. Lesley Grider, of Milwaukee, agrees. She works full-time at a healthcare organization while her 2-year-old stays with Grandpa. "The best thing I can do for my daughter is show her how to be a strong, resourceful individual," Grider says. Her work ethic has paid off: She just bought her first home. "I've found an incredible source of independence and strength through this situation," she adds.

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