During the work week, I am usually the only parent my kids have in this state.
My friends who parent without the benefit of a permanent partner react very strongly when a mom or dad who is in a couple describes their experience being home alone with their kids as “single parenting”. This makes perfect sense – that term belongs to the people who live that challenge everyday. A parent who is part of an established team does not face the same obstacles as a parent who is solely responsible, or who has to navigate the murky waters of joint custody. I love and respect those single folks far too much to ever claim my experience has any equivalence. Instead, I describe my lifestyle with the expression solo parenting.
Solo parenting is like flying solo.
Think of an airplane that is set up for two crew members. When everyone is present and on the job, the two crew members work in tandem to keep the plane flying smoothly and headed in the right direction. But should one of the crew be unavailable, it is still possible for the single crew member to take the helm and get the plane to its destination safely. There may be extra stress, it may take longer and be a bit bumpier, but everyone still arrives safe and sound.
For me, solo parenting is just a fact.
Like many people, my partner’s job requires frequent travel. His schedule is not usually set until the weekend. I will ask on Saturday where he will be during the coming work week, and start planning meals/babysitters accordingly. He is usually home on the weekends. In other solo parenting families, the traveling parent may be gone for weeks or months at a time. Each situation is unique, and we have to develop our own coping mechanisms. The common thread is that we learn to make our families work in two different gears: parenting as a team, and as a solo act.
The challenges seem obvious – when I am the only adult, all the domestic and daily parenting work is mine. In maintaining discipline, I am both good and bad cop. I both cook the food (badly) and do the dishes. But the solo parenting perils I find toughest lurk below the surface.
I may parent solo, but I am not solely in charge.
There is always a shadow parent the girls know will be home in a few days who serves as a court of appeal to any unfair judgement. I fully expect in a few years they will be texting their complaints to wherever my partner is in the world, seeking injunctions against curfews and bathroom cleaning. I feel lucky that my husband and I are usually on the same page, but when we aren’t, the distance and the time shifting makes simple disagreements seem much bigger. This means that he needs to believe me completely when I describe how an incident unfolded. If he plays devil’s advocate and questions my judgement, I want to smash things – even if I can later acknowledge I may have made the wrong choice. I am always doing my best, in the moment. He usually works with the advantage of hindsight.
I share more on social media.
There are two reasons for this. First, my whole family including my partner are often far away. Social media makes them feel closer. Second, when I am alone with our children so much, the extended virtual friend circle that includes all my pals across the world helps me remember there are adults in the world who don’t hate me because it’s bath time. Some days those “likes” and comments on my posts are my saving grace.
Not a lot of “us” time
When other parents chat about their regular “date night”, I laugh hollowly to myself. In the past three years, we have had three or four evenings out without our kids. When my husband spends hours each week flying and driving, eating at restaurants, sleeping in hotels, being at home is his priority. It takes a very special event to give us the incentive to find a sitter and go out as grownups. For me going out is a welcome treat, but for him eating at home is a relief. We have to remember we have vastly different perspectives when we plan our weekend activities.
My childcare situation is precarious.
Even when I have an evening event on my calendar a month in advance, I never know who will cover the kids until days before. If I book childcare, and then my husband is unexpectedly home, cancelling the sitter makes me the flake mom. I panic about losing my sitter to a more reliable family. But when I leave it to the last minute, I may not find anyone to watch the kiddos. Then I flake out on my work or friend commitments. Neither situation is ideal, and so I just hate making plans. I detest not being a reliable person, and worry that my wobbly schedule makes me seem fickle. I miss out on many of the BVTMB events because I can’t make promises I don’t know I’ll be able to keep. Don’t hate me because I never seem to want to spend time with you; I am just paranoid I won’t be able to follow through.
Heavy Emotional Lifting
I often worry if the kids have enough quality time with my partner, and sometimes that worry gets exhausting. I do a lot of invisible work to try to make the time they spend with their dad meaningful: defusing conflicts, getting them in a jolly mood when they are going to be with him. This emotional labor has a price, and it comes out in me being aggravated and drained.
If my child wants to do an extracurricular activity, I need to be available. Team parents have to decide who will make dinner and who will pick up children from soccer. I need to plan to be the one who does both. But then, sometimes not. Randomly, there will be this cool guy in the house who is happy to help, as long as he is not on a conference call. His help is great! However, it creates a peculiar tension. I must always be super organized and micromanaging every domestic detail, but also totally flexible to include an equal partner with very little notice. It makes me a little dizzy.
True story: for a time when our oldest was an infant, my husband took a job that had no travel. It was wonderful for him to be with her every night when she was tiny. Also, I learned that he consumes far more margarine than I thought humanly possible. He had always been on the road, since before we were married. When he was home, I suddenly had to buy twice as much margarine. This was such a ridiculous revelation: when two adults eat most meals at home, they will need more food. And yet I was thunderstruck. Having him home is great. It is also sometimes weird.
Solo and Satisfied?
Would I be happy if my partner stayed home, and we regularly shared the daily grind of parenting? Yes. Would I be happier than I am now? I don’t think so. No situation is perfect. We all make the best with what we have, and what I have is pretty sweet. I never imagined that solo parenting would be a defining fact of my motherhood experience, but I understood, at least in theory, the challenges his career would present when we decided to grow our family. Every single thing can be solved in theory. In practice – well, I will keep flying as smoothly as I can.