As a divorced mother of three children, I am often accorded a status just shy of sainthood. "How do you do it?" friends ask, with that mixture of pity and awe that single moms seems to elicit. I sigh deeply and murmur bravely, "You do what you have to do." There's no question that single mothers face significant difficulties, not the least of which is financial hardship. And there's no question that kids miss the parent who's not with them. If you've got children, being married is undoubtedly better -- but not at all costs. Being a single mom is infinitely preferable to living in a bad marriage, and it even has some things worth celebrating. Here are a few of them.
No more fighting about who does what. Theoretically, the workload required to raise kids alone should be twice as heavy as when two parents are present. But in fact, the energy it takes to argue over who does what can be far more draining than the task itself. Consider all the time and effort that goes into figuring out a system of sharing chores, nagging your spouse to fulfill his part of the bargain, resenting him for not doing it, and then figuring out a new system that probably won't work either. I promise you, doing it alone is far easier.
There's no one to undermine my authority. When I say the word, it's the word. When I call out, "Bedtime," there's no one to say, "Aw, let them stay up another half hour." It's a big responsibility to make all the choices yourself, but decision making is a big responsibility whether you're married or single. When you're single, you understand how enormous your charge is and you take it more seriously because you know there isn't anyone else around to defer to.
The closet is all mine. As a single parent, you are free to indulge all those little idiosyncrasies that you try to rein in when you live with someone else. If you're a neatnik, you can give in to your compulsions and hang things in military order by color, size, or type of garment; if you're not, you can wallow in disarray. You can sleep late or retire early, eat crackers in bed, watch old movies, leave all the windows open, let the dog sleep next to you. After years of tenuously maintained compromise, you get to do what you want when you want.
I get every other weekend to myself. I almost hate to bring this up -- because if everyone really understood the magnitude of this benefit, even happily married women might be tempted to race to the lawyer's office. Until I started sharing custody of the kids, I never knew the bliss of an uninterrupted afternoon -- never mind a whole weekend -- alone in my apartment. Just imagine: every other weekend on your own, in your own house. If you clean, it stays clean. Nothing moves that hasn't been moved by you. You don't have to cook. You don't even have to get out of bed if you don't want to -- except, of course, to replenish that supply of Snickers.
The kids are all right. Contrary to the predictions of some know-it-alls, my children have made it thus far without stealing hubcaps, selling crack cocaine, or joining a cult -- and there is every indication that they will reach adulthood without any such problems. In fact, I'm guessing that the kids are better off than if they had spent these years listening to Mom and Dad exchanging angry words or, worse, engulfed by icy silence or crackling resentment. I won't kid you -- or myself -- by saying divorce is easy on them, but perhaps the experience has taught them some valuable life lessons. I've noticed that my kids are more competent, more observant, and kinder than many of their friends who live in two-parent households. One reason for this, I believe, is that they have more responsibility -- for themselves, for each other, for the household. They help out with chores and errands. They look out for each other. They understand when I'm tired. They realize that if they want more than the meager allowance I supply them, they need to arrange baby-sitting or dog-walking jobs to earn extra money. Sure, they have their share of problems, but the point is, they don't have more than their share. By the way, all my kids are honor students.
I can break the rules. I am already different by virtue of being a single mom, so what do I risk by not conforming to relatively unimportant traditions? For example, I can look you straight in the eye and say, "Yes, after dinner, I bathe them and dress them in their sweats for the next day and put them to bed. When they get up, all I have to do is put shoes and socks on them. You got a problem with that?" Is my living room untidy? I'm a single mom; I have better things to do. Ask me what I cooked for dinner last night and I'm likely to say cereal. Am I late for church? Well, you know -- I have to get three kids ready, all on my own.
I like their father again. This one took some work, but now that we're not engaged in hand-to-hand combat, I can remember all the things that made me fall in love with him in the first place. He's smart, he's funny, and he doesn't have a mean bone in his body -- thoughtless, yes, and sometimes maddening, but never mean. And I think I couldn't do better than to convey to our children that their dad is a terrific person.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2002 issue of Parents magazine.