“I don’t know how you do it,” she said to me, a strange mix of awe and pity.
My kids and I were at a birthday party and an acquaintance had heard that my marriage had fallen apart, that the kids and I were forced to move out of our house, but mostly that I was a single mom.
“I mean. I don’t know. It’s not all that different than what I’ve been used to really…I mean…I just do it I guess,” I replied while looking off to the side, growing more and more uncomfortable and wondering how many charcuterie roll-ups from Costco I could eat without looking like Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail when he takes all the caviar. I walked away (I got three or four roll-ups, but this was my second helping so I fully expected Meg Ryan to yell at me that they were a garnish) feeling less like a strong woman and more like a kicked puppy. Sure, I think my divorce and the circumstances surrounding it are sad, but does everyone else too? I felt vulnerable. I ate another roll up…
That night I started thinking: can we just stop telling people, mothers especially, that we don’t know how they do whatever it is that they’re doing in that moment?
Maybe I’m overly sensitive or maybe I’m onto something, but never have I ever said that phrase to someone (yes I’m guilty of it too) and gotten a decent answer. It’s a statement that usually comes off as “I feel sorry for you” instead of “I see you and you’re powerful.” So can we all stop asking other people how they do something and just resign ourselves to assume we know how they do it? Honestly, they do it the same way we all do it: the best we can with the cards we are dealt, in the space that we are in.
I’m a single mom to three boys. This isn’t my first time being a single mom.
So how do I do it? I’m motivated by a love for my kids bigger than words can adequately express and also because, frankly, no one else is going to. Their dads aren’t in the picture daily, or sometimes for weeks at a time. I have very little family help, and my “tribe” of close friends all have millions of kids of their own. I didn’t open up an orphanage, or save a school bus full of drowning kids from a flood — I’m literally just raising the kids that God gave me. I’m no hero.
Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I do a great job. But I do the best I can. In case you’re wondering though, here is how I do it:
I do it after pressing the snooze button at least once and after checking my phone, hoping for some human interaction I may have missed after going to bed early the night before (and from someone who isn’t telling me about Fortnight). I do it fueled by too much caffeine after another sleepless night spent with the baby who is maybe teething or maybe needs to cut back to once a day on his breathing treatments for a newly diagnosed airway disease (someone told me the steroids can keep him up). I do it while I check off to-do lists of really mundane items (pack lunches, send telemed forms, Cub Scouts at 6pm, etc.) that I’ve written the day before because I’m not sure if people my age just forget things or if I have early onset dementia or if I just need to “slow down” like I keep getting told. I roll my eyes at that suggestion; “who can slow down with this much responsibility — this much to do?” I hear myself telling him, the author of that suggestion, and move on.
I wake the big boys and listen to my six-year-old scream about how tired he is. I help him get dressed. I do it because it’s faster than making him do it himself even though I know he should have been dressing himself years ago, a conclusion I am told again at an IEP meeting for him. I do it because I feel sorry for him, the middle kid in glasses who is legally blind…growing up older than the chubby, spoiled, curly haired cherub baby and younger than the brilliant, laid back older brother who at eight years of age is testing at a 14-year-old’s reading level, who excels at sports and adapts easily to any situation. I clean his glasses and smooth his hair and tell him he’s my special Kissie Boy because I love him.
I take them to school, give the baby a bottle and come home to a mountain of laundry and a small furniture business to run. I do it with encouragement from my two best friends who cheer for the boys and me daily. I do it knowing that I can’t work outside the home, not in this season of my life at least, so I’ve had to get creative with ways to keep the lights on. I work on furniture while the baby takes a nap and tell myself through the splinters, the lifting, the physical exhaustion that comes from restoring old, heavy cast-offs someone’s grandma left them, only to end up being sold for $5 at a yard sale, that it won’t always be this hard.
I wake the baby, feed him a late lunch and get the big boys from school. I do it knowing that in two hours we have a meeting to go to and I dread trying to keep the baby happy so the big boys can focus on “their thing.” I do it knowing Cub Scouts and soccer and STEM club make the boys so excited. I cook an early dinner, cross my fingers they eat, load up the car, get to the church for Scouts, and push the screaming baby back and forth in his stroller. I ask my eight-year-old to take him for a minute and maybe push him up and down the hall where I can still see them. He is so much of how I do it. I watch him, my always helper, trying so hard to be the man of the house at eight and my heart breaks for the responsibility he feels even though I tell him over and over again I can handle it all. He asks me sometimes if I get lonely. I lie and tell him of course not.
I tell the lie because he doesn’t need to know that sometimes after everyone is asleep, I sit on the porch and listen to “Harvest Moon” on a loop and wonder who to blame for my life careening off the tracks I thought it would stay firmly on: my dad? Disney movies? The quarterback who broke my heart in high school? I usually settle on the fact that I’m laying squarely in the bed I made with my own impulsive and foolish choices. I do it because honesty with myself will help me grow.
We do bedtime and I wonder if getting in the pool for a few hours after school counts as a bath. There are chemicals in it…and water… (also a frog but I’m not striving for perfection here) so I tell myself, “Sure it does!” and tuck everyone in. I tell the big boys ten things I love about them or noticed that were special about them that day. I do it because I want them to know that no matter what, I’m here and that I will continue to sacrifice everything in my life for the betterment of theirs, but mostly that they and their little brother are my most prized treasures in the world. “You’re their only reliable person in this whole world. You’re the only one who is always there for them,” I hear my Nana tell me. I wish I could talk to her again, but I know I can’t. I tell my six-year-old we will see each other in Heaven when he asks about her and his Pap. I do it because the thought of Heaven is comforting to us all, even if sometimes I wonder how Heaven and the afterlife really work…
With the kids in bed, maybe I’ll throw myself a pity party with Neil Young — the two of us being the only invited guests. Maybe I’ll fall asleep on the couch watching Netflix. Maybe I’ll talk to my girlfriends in our daily group message thread for a few hours, but I know one thing for sure: I’m not so different from the working mom, the mom with a terminally ill child, the mom who is married to her high school sweetheart. Yes, our circumstances may be different, but our “how I do it” is the same. We are all tired. We are all guilty that we were short or snappy or flat out rude to our kids at some point that day. We all replay the things we should have said or done. We all wonder what to make for dinner the next day or how to juggle an evening of running here and there.
I don’t exactly know how everyone else does it, but I do know I’m going to stop making that blanket statement to women, mothers especially, whose lives differ from mine.
At the end of the day, we all do it the best we can. That’s “how we do it.” Maybe we should pledge to stop saying “I don’t know how you do it,” and replace that empty, weird sentiment with something like “I see you, and I am in awe of how you _____.” We all have our own crap to sort out; wouldn’t it be nice to make others feel seen instead of pitied?