No one is ever prepared to be a single parent. Whether by divorce or calamity, it’s a tornado that unloads and twists and turns your expectations of what the word parent means entirely. Suddenly there is twice the work. Half the time. A quarter of the resources. Ten times the judgment. It’s a numbers game akin to the predictability of the casino.
It’s a numbers game that feels all too easy to lose.
The odd thing, though, is that the tough moments are actually the easiest ones. When you’re being pulled in eighteen directions and you realize that you are the first and last line of defense, a ferocity evolves. When situations are handled, even sloppily, there is a rush. A heroic vibe. You are a super parent because there is no failing, and even in the failures tiny triumphs emerge. One day I completely bombed getting either of my children motivated or transported to any of their activities, but in defense of feeling totally inadequate, we turned an entire room into a blanket fort complete with an indoor fire (orange balloons tied together around a flashlight) and shadow stories that carried us well into the night. It wasn’t a failure. It was a repositioning of expectations.
What I wasn’t ready for as a divorced parent was the silence of the children away. With full custody this is a rare occurrence, and when it happened for the first few times, everyone offered guidelines for what I should be doing.
Get a manicure.
Get a glass of wine and relax.
Get a ticket to NYC and see a show.
Get over yourself and stop acting like being a mom is your only job.
That last one is a direct quote, and while the intentions were pure, it burned. Because as much as my married friends saw this time as a blessing, as something they didn’t get because they were married, I had a different point of view. I saw it as theft. I saw it as a stripping of my motherhood badge because I wasn’t choosing to take time off. I was being paroled from parenthood against my will.
For the first few free weekends I took everyone’s advice and ran like mad, whether it was dating or hiking or varnishing lawn furniture. I didn’t write much because that didn’t feel like a luxury. I even bought a ticket to New Orleans, a ticket that sat in my dresser and never made it to fruition. After a few forced vacations, I realized that I had to shift my expectations on my own terms. I packed up the fun plans, I spent a staycation in, and I mourned the loss of my parenting duties. There were tears, and there was the realization that motherhood wasn’t my only job but it was the one that most touched my heart. It was the one that brought me the most joy. I embraced the truth that I had every right to be pissed off and sad and mope in my Star Wars pajamas for two days until my babies returned.
As all tough things do, it became easier when they went away. I discovered little chores I could complete for them in their absence. I smuggled my daughter’s never-played-with toys to yard sales and organized my son’s epic sock collection. And I found my way to those manicures and adult playdates when my brain and my heart shifted to understand how life had to be.
At the end of the day, parenting is always an enormous gamble whether you’re doing it solo or in tandem. We enter thinking we know the rules, and if we don’t there are a thousand eager voices ready to tell us how to play. In my case it took a few bumps and bruises to understand that while the house has a tendency to score, it’s ultimately my house and my rules. Once I made that shift, it was a win-win situation.
Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared in the Threepenny Review, Literary Orphans, and StoryChord, among other journals. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and currently works as an American Literature and Creative Writing teacher. Read her work at SarahSaysWrite.com or follow her on Twitter @SarahSaysWrite.