"What’s hard about solo parenting a teenager right now? Everything that is hard about parenting a teenager during a pandemic for two parent families."
Oh, definitions. So tricky.
I have read numerous articles and posts over the years from the perspective of a “single parent”. During Covid-19, I have seen a few more.
Sometimes, those articles are written by parents who are indeed single, though they co-parent with the child’s other parent and have shared custody. Other times, they have sole custody, but every other weekend, or another given block of time, goes to another parent. Different still, there are those who raised their child as a single mother, and then re-married - but they still identify with this term and they still parent much as they always have, very much independently despite their new relationship status. And sometimes, a single parent is the only parent in a child’s life, all of the time, 100%. I belong to that last category.
Yet occasionally, the articles come from those who don’t belong to any of those categories - from those who are actually not a single parent at all. This often includes those who live apart from their spouse for any number of given reasons, or for a certain length of time. While the term “single mother” does encompass all sorts of realities - this is not okay.
While I firmly believe that every person is entitled to process the various experiences they go through in ways that will help them, I also believe that co-opting the term “single parent” is unhelpful. As a single/lone mother, when I originally read the headline, “The relentless anxiety of being a single parent right now”, I thought with pleasure that I was about to read relevant material about what it is like to be a parent like myself who is going through this pandemic solo - beginning, middle, and end. But as too often occurs, it was not written by a single parent at all - it was written by a parent in a nuclear family, whose partner was currently away. As an actual single parent - I find this truly problematic.
I don’t say this to diminish the experience of having to do it all while your military spouse is away while a pandemic begins to unfold, but I say this as a person who has no spouse to come back to help, ever. We are it. As I consistently tell my students - words are powerful. We need to use them appropriately, and with care.
And you know what, I’d like to actually share a different narrative of a single parent during this time - not that it can’t be scary and terrifying to do all on your own (it can), but that we are actually enough. Single mothers are actually just plenty without another parent around to help.
Let me be clear - this does NOT mean that there are no single/lone mothers who are currently struggling out there. Absolutely there are, and especially right now - not because of any failing on their part, so much as a real lack of systemic equity and support.
We hear constantly that one person cannot speak for a whole group of people. Let me be clear, I am not here to speak on behalf of other single mothers who have their own story to tell. I am here to speak only on behalf of myself, full well knowing that there are others like me.
The term “single mother” typically has a given narrative attached to it, and I’m looking to disrupt that narrative, because it just doesn’t fit me. And because I don’t like seeing a term that is continuously used to stigmatize women like myself being picked up and dropped off at whim without consequence.
My story is that at 19 years of age, I brought into the world this incredible little human. That little human is now much bigger than I am - 6’2 at 16 years old. He and I navigate this pandemic as best we can, while he celebrates his 6 month anniversary six feet away from his first girlfriend. I am so proud of him.
This pandemic started with so many low lows that I could not fathom getting through it with our relationship still meaningfully intact in any way. Two people, stuck in their tiny 700 square foot apartment - one with developing executive functions, and the other with not nearly as much patience as the situation required. Hardly ideal.
And with a 16-year-old in self-isolation, it is true that I don’t need to have the energy levels of parents with small children. I know that there are many single/lone mom’s out there who are single-handedly surviving a situation that requires energy levels that are exhausting for me to imagine. No other partner to tag you out for a brief respite or to get some work from home done - or to go grocery shopping. I remember the exhaustion of being a solo working mom, and envisioning it while during a pandemic...well, I just took a deep breath to steady myself. So in some ways, I do not envy the single parents with young ones right now.
But there have been many times throughout this pandemic that I would have traded with them in a heartbeat. Parents of teenagers, or those who remember being one yourself - you know what I’m talking about.
What’s hard about solo parenting a teenager right now? Everything that is hard about parenting a teenager during a pandemic for two parent families, only with no other adult present in the home to reassure you and comfort you and love you while you move through it.
But I also get other things, and those things truly are enough.
I get to read, side by side with my teen - the guy I spent 16 years reading to and with, after a six-month hiatus. Those first moments in the morning (okay, very late morning, when he eventually wakes up), reading side by side with our dog snuggled up, and tea and cookies ready to go? Absolutely one of my favourite parts of each day.
I get a kid who knows what it means to be responsible. Zac does his chores and cooks fairly consistently for the most part, which means I am free to mainly focus on a few little decluttering projects, organizing, disinfecting the groceries that come into the house (a bigger job than I thought it would be!), and trying to figure out how to put up shelves on my own so that everything doesn’t slide straight off of them.
I get a kid who, despite having the ability to stay locked in his room for an entire day, makes real attempts at balance (if only for my sake) in a time where only so much is within our control.
I get a kid who does his schoolwork each day and jokes that going back to a regular course load - or life - after this is going to be hard and take some serious time getting (re) used to. Because I’m not helping a younger child navigate his schoolwork, I get the best of both worlds, really - I’m a stay at home mom when I want to be, checking in to offer drinks or a snack, but the rest of the time I can be found where I am now, in my bedroom, working or writing or worrying or reading.
I get breaks from others who love this kid so much. He walks with my mom - at least 6 feet apart of course - and they continue to banter and to share a close relationship that I am so grateful for - a reflection of her involvement with Zac from day one. With a teen, I am also able to leave for my own breaks, taking our dog for walks that sometimes last up to 3 hours.
We have virtual hangouts with others throughout the week - from family overseas that we will no longer be able to visit this year, to close friends who are now scattered around the world. We compare quarantine experiences and stories - including with those who are still living in Wuhan, China, where we once lived – and we enjoy virtual movie nights, game nights, and house-bound challenges with those closer to home in my attempts to continue to prioritize family time.
And though we can no longer get too close, we get to continue our visits to my 91 year old Grandad - one of our most favourite people on the planet. One day, we went by to rake the leaves in his front yard (ever the gardener, his yard has always been important to him). Half way through, he surprised us by bringing out a paper plate of the rock cakes he bakes that we love so much. I’ve tried to convince him that rhubarb pie should be there the next time we visit (with the rhubarb that he picks from his garden!).
Most importantly right now, I get a kid who stays away from his friends and his girlfriend and anyone else, because he gets it.
This new normal - and I can’t stress enough that this is an extremely privileged experience of a pandemic – has, overall, forced a more manageable and relaxed lifestyle for us both - one that it turns out, we both really needed, despite its real difficulties.
Because it turns out - there is both joy and relentless resilience in being a single parent right now - just as there always is.