I knew since I was a small child that I wanted to have children. My sister and I played with dolls regularly. I had a penchant for Cabbage Patch Dolls, and one of the highlights of my youth was my aunt taking me to the Cabbage Patch hospital at Hobby City so my dolls could get their check-ups. I babysat a lot. Like, a LOT, starting when I was 12-years-old. At 20 I could single-handedly take care of four kids by myself for several nights. I would load them all into the Suburban and take them out to eat at Olive Garden, take them to the park, to the movies, and make sure they were all fed, bathed, and tucked into bed with a story and brushed teeth before lights out. Almost like a real soccer mom (I even kept diapers and one of those waterproof soccer mom blankets in my trunk). I’ve always loved children. It’s funny to me that my daughter doesn’t like dolls and is so awkward around babies, because I was the type of girl who begged to hold them. There was never any question in my mind; I knew I would be a mother, and I knew I would be a good mother.
I was raised to believe that children are something you have when you get married. But I worried that I wouldn’t find anyone. In my early twenties, I (prematurely) started thinking about what I would do if I never found a husband. It always felt like a distinct possibility, so I figured out what I would do just in case: I’d adopt a kid from Cambodia like Angelina Jolie did. I even looked up international adoption agencies online. I wasn’t going to miss the motherhood boat no matter what life threw at me. That much I knew with certainty.
Instead of the adopted Cambodian kid, fate ended up giving me 3 half Japanese children, all from my own uterus. Life is strange like that. Just when you think you know what will happen next, an unexpected plot twist happens and suddenly you are living a story that you never imagined in a million years.
And yet, part of my worst fears did come true: I’d be a mother alone.
I am a mother, alone.
When my husband unexpectedly passed away and left me a single mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and 13-month-old, I lost a part of my motherhood identity that I had come to believe was my world–my everything.
Married mother of 3.
Single mother of 3.
Those are two very different realities.
If I never found someone to marry, I would have adopted ONE Cambodian kid. I wouldn’t have willingly chosen to become a single mother of three. I’m not that crazy.
I think it’s safe to say that the supermajority of people do not grow up and declare an intention of being the old woman who lives in a shoe full of kids. It’s not exactly a dream-come-true.
I felt resentment toward my children in the early days of grief. I had several people tell me to my face that it would probably be impossible for me to find someone else with all of the kids I had. I mean, I wouldn’t even want to date me with three kids. Still, it felt painful to be thrust into a reality that was not of my own creation and to feel exiled yo a life devoid of adult companionship. It felt so patently unfair to do everything I was supposed to do and still get dealt this raw hand by the universe.
I spent a lot of time feeling resentful toward the universe. Toward my dead husband. Myself. Toward everyone else who didn’t have to deal with dead husbands. How could I be so stupid to procreate with a man who would die early? It must have been my fault, I thought. It had to be somebody’s fault. How could I get so screwed over in life?
It took a lot of reflection to assuage my angst over being a single mother.
I had to remember why I wanted children to begin with.
I had a realization: these are most likely the only children I will have (unless of course cupid ambushes me and knocks me over the head).
I waited my entire life to have these children, and they were each so very wanted and planned.
This is their childhoods.
Their precious, fleeting childhoods.
Their round faces and pudgy tummies and baby talk and lisps and penchant for stuffed animals and the childhood wonder in their expressions and the silly questions that they ask–all of it only lasts for a fleeting moment in the grand scheme of life.
I can’t waste any time bemoaning what I can’t change. The fact remained: I was still a mother. Their mother. This was, by my own girlhood definitions, my dream-come-true.
Yes, it’s more difficult as a single mother. It’s tedious and lonely and sometimes scary, but it’s doable. I’m making it happen. It’s not perfect and it can be messy and stressful and sometimes it feels like an insurmountable challenge that I am failing at, but we’re doing it. And we’re all mostly happy and fulfilled. That’s not guaranteed to anyone, single or married.
I had to embrace a redefinition of what my motherhood looked like. I had to let go of expectations and realize our new life would not look like our previous one–and that was okay. It wasn’t less than. Maybe it could even be better in ways that we have yet to experience or realize.
Despite how much my children can drive me crazy (I am outnumbered, after all), they are so fun and loving. Each child is uniquely their own person, and in them I see traces of their father, and parts of myself. They are my late husband’s ultimate living legacy, and I cherish that I get to continue to have a piece of him through our children.
I don’t need to celebrate Mother’s Day on one particular day. My kids show me every single day how much they love me, and on a daily basis I am struck by how much I love them, and in complete awe of the people they are becoming.
Plus, despite being a single mother, I don’t need the day off. The sitter usually comes on Sunday, but I told her she didn’t have to come this week so she could spend it with her mother.
One thing I learned when I became a single mother is that it is of the utmost importance to intentionally work on your identity, separate from motherhood. This is vital for your survival and mental health.
I do not live for my children.
That may not sound very motherly to you, but I don’t believe in sacrificing my identity for other human beings–that applies to both men and offspring.
I believe in loving my children and doing the best possible job as a mother. I believe in creating opportunities for them and exposing them to a wide variety of experiences. I devote my resources to them. I have a personal rule of not being out of the house after school and missing bedtime more than two days in a row. Flossing their teeth, reading with them, and taking them on adventures are all daily priorities. In other words, I am highly invested in spending copious amounts of quality time with my children and they have always been a priority.
Not wanting to live for your children isn’t the same as not wanting to be a good mother.
It’s just that I believe I can be a better mother if I take care of myself. I don’t think motherhood is synonymous with extinguishing our own personal goals and hopes and dreams.
I don’t believe I have to make a choice between me and them. I think a mother can take good care of both herself and her family.
I believe in living alongside of my children. Not for them. They don’t exist because I sacrificed myself at the altar of motherhood and let them drain my blood. We are all happier and stronger when our individual needs are addressed–we’re a team. They are my teammates in life. I am not just their team mom. There’s a difference.
In marriage, it’s easy to lose yourself to motherhood. Dani Shapiro quoted Donald Hall in her memoir Hourglass. Donald Hall said the following about his marriage: “We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked a a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.”
My children was one of our “third things” in my marriage. Teaching and politics were probably the other ones. But our children were our #1 thing, for sure. When I met Kenneth, he had a 3-year-old son. A big part of our relationship developed around parenting his son. Driving up north every other weekend for visitations. Going to court over custody. Dealing with his difficult ex. Raising a child with behavioral needs. Taking care of that child–his swim class, Cub Scouts, homework, and all of that. In essence, we started our relationship in the throes of parenthood. Our relationship didn’t know a time when there were no children around.
So what happens when your family–your children–are linked to your marriage identity?
That was my problem when I became a widow. How do I continue motherhood with the same enthusiasm, knowing that it was once a joint “third thing” with my husband, and now having to keep it going on my own. It’s like playing a baseball game without any teammates. How could I be the pitcher, catcher, play all the bases, outfield, and bat? Impossible. And who would be next to me to admire our great work? Or cry alongside of me. Vent. Be joyful. Who would experience the full spectrum of parenting with me? There was no replacement for my husband. When he died, I realized there was nobody who could love our children the way he did.
That’s when my resentment festered, and I had to work it out. I did a lot of journaling. Writing. Reflection. Thinking. Crying. Processing. Frustration, anger, joy–everything. I had to get it all out of my system before I could begin to reimagine the rest of my life as a mother.
I had to go back to that little girl who wanted children ever since she cradled her Cabbage Patch dolls. I had to remember why I wanted to be a mother–a love of children, a penchant for nurturing others, and a desire to make a difference in young lives.
As I revisioned who I was as a mother, I have adopted intentionality about carving out a life for myself and still being a “good” mother.
I wasn’t a priority when I was married. It was just the family–one unit. Almost everything went to the children, and whatever crumbs of my energy that were leftover went to my husband. There was nothing left for me.
But as a single mother, this was not sustainable. I knew I’d go crazy.
I began to set regular hours for the sitter to come to my house. In theory I can do anything with the standing commitment I have with myself 2-3 days a week, but in reality I usually go work at Starbucks or play tennis. Nothing wild. But it’s always what I want to do.
I bought myself a fun car.
I write buckets lists and make goals and allow myself to daydream about what I want my future to look like.
I re-did my bedroom and banned the kids from bringing their toys and junk in there. It’s my room now, intentional space for me.
I try to exercise regularly. I find that it centers me and makes me feel good both physically and mentally.
I journal. I read.
I took up playing tennis despite never having played it before. It’s sad that most adult women playing tennis for fun are, how should we say, on the end of the life spectrum when the children are grown? The sad part is that all of the younger women are probably entrenched in the tediousness of motherhood. That stage in your life when you devote all of your energy to the children and spouse. Your hobbies include watching your kids take swim lessons and driving the minivan full of kids to storytime at the library once a week and packing well-balanced lunches in between helping the kids with their homework and feeding and changing them. Oh yeah, and get the laundry folded before it sits on the couch for a week.
I have contempt when I see this now, because I recognize myself in that self-sacrifice. I used to be that woman. I used to think that this self-sacrifice was the hallmark of good motherhood. Now I think it’s foolishness.
I began to ask myself: am I working hard to raise good kids just so they can get married and have kids and no longer foster their interests and talents? To just throw it away to domesticity? Did my parents raise me to just be a slave to other people?
Don’t get me wrong. I think cooking dinner and cleaning my house is a form of a self-care. I can’t pursue all of my other interests and goals if things are a mess at home. A balance must be struck.
But there is no balance when you allow yourself to be a slave to other people, even when those other people share your DNA.
You know what I can’t stand?
The “I don’t have time” excuse.
I don’t have time.
Lamest excuse ever.
YOU HAVE TIME.
Sometimes you have to be creative, and sometimes you have to make the conscious decision that your life is important too. Your children benefit when their parent is happy and fulfilled. I don’t want to claim to know what fulfills other people, but wiping asses and packing lunches isn’t a source of personal fulfillment. I do it out of love for my family, but it is not what defines me.
Our schedule reflects our priorities.
It’s not that you “don’t have time.”
It’s that you haven’t made yourself a priority.
I go running with a double stroller and a third kid riding his bike alongside of me. There are ways to make it happen.
It’s stressful. It doesn’t always work. I get frustrated and stressed out. But I’m here as the widowed mother of three to say it can happen. You can find time. You can make it work.
And it’s good for you as a mother.
It is all of this hard work–of redefining who I am and making a conscious effort to separate it from my motherhood–that makes me not feel compelled to do anything special for myself on Mother’s Day.
I’ve been taking care of myself as a mother, and I’m at a comfortable place. That’s the best present ever.
Mother’s Day shouldn’t just be one day a year that we give mothers flowers and pancakes and Hallmark cards.
We should be more focused on supporting mothers in the challenging endeavor of carving out lives that are authentically their own. Not as housekeepers. Not as babysitters.
Mothers need your support in the workplace. They deserve equal pay. They need to not be punished for having children in the way of getting passed over for promotions, being denied leadership positions, and being constrained by strict hours that are not conducive to raising children. Mothers have so many wonderful skills to offer the world, but they also have responsibilities at home. How can we support mothers to make them be able to do both–women with interests and goals and careers AND mothers– instead of choosing one over the other?
Let’s figure out how to make childcare more affordable.
Let’s figure out how to make healthcare more affordable. Giving birth shouldn’t break the bank.
Let’s allow women to determine what happens to their bodies, and give them the opportunity to plan their families. Motherhood is already difficult–but it’s especially bone-crushingly difficult when we have to become mothers in circumstances that we do not want, with a lack of resources.
That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see mothers get from society. Pancakes are good, but most of us moms are already struggling to lose the baby weight, so let’s give them something that will make them feel good about themselves: independence and self-determination. Respect. Support.
Let’s treat mothers as women with their own unique interests and goals that don’t involve babbling about pee pee and poo poo. Women who have things that they enjoy that don’t involve buying diaper bags or nursing bras. Interests that go beyond being the resident housekeeper in the family
Motherhood is such an important part of who we are, but it isn’t who we are.
I’m not just a woman.
I’m not just a teacher.
I’m not just a daughter.
I’m not just a sister.
I’m not just an American.
I’m not just a mother.
Human beings are never that simplistic. We don’t have to choose this or that. We can be all of the above.
Although being a mother will have been one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had, and one in which I am honored to serve and pledge to do my very best, it is just one aspect of who I am.
I look forward to living and growing alongside of Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. They are everything I have ever wanted in my life, and I am so lucky to be their mother. I will die a happy woman knowing that I got to bring them into the world and nurture and support the people they continue to become.