About three years ago, my 2-year-old daughter and I were strolling through the pasta aisle at our small-town grocery store when we ran into a woman we knew. She asked about my impending move to New York City for grad school. “How on Earth are you going to pull off living in New York City with a small child?” she asked in a seemingly well-intentioned tone with her eyebrows fully raised.
She was not the first or last person to ask me how I would “pull off” something or another. Single moms are the ones who got knocked up too young, the ones with the failed relationships, or the ones with “too much baggage.” We’re the broke “babies raising babies.”
Trust me, those thoughts are already festering in our own damn heads. Doubts echo when our kids wake us up at the ass crack of dawn, when we’re strapped for cash and working side gigs, and especially when we’re so damn tired that we pass out before they do (whoops?). And they echo like a blaring fire alarm when we’re paying for groceries. We hold our breath and pray that the credit card machine’s screen won’t flash with “insufficient funds” after we swipe.
But you know what tells our doubts to shut the hell up? Our kids. Sometimes, it’s them saying, “Mama, don’t worry, I believe you can do it!” Mostly though, we’re set on not failing because, if we do… well. That just isn’t an option.
This May, I graduated from Columbia with my master’s in journalism. My daughter’s 5 now and has a social life that is more robust than mine (lots of playdates). We have supportive friends. I fell in love again and got engaged this April. I have a shitload of student debt, and the doubts and guilt haven’t miraculously vanished. But, I am accomplishing my writing career while raising a fierce and hilarious young girl. I’m no expert, but through lots of trial and error, I’ve learned about the struggle to juggle life as a working single mom. Here’s how to pull it off.
Don’t Be a Martyr
If you don’t feel like cooking dinner, chicken nuggets or a trip to a fast food joint doesn’t mean you failed. Letting your kids watch The Magic School Bus because you want to nap or binge-watch Empire on your laptop is not shame-worthy! At work, don’t feel like your single parent identity has to hide in darkness. Your boss should feel straight-up honored to have you. Single parents typically hit deadlines, arrive on time, and don’t mess around with half-assed work. Shit happens, though. Often literally. I’m talking about disgusting diaper blowouts, people. You’ll show up late or need extra time on a project. Kids get sick, diabolical tantrums emerge from the fiery gates of hell, and you can spend an entire morning scrubbing the carpet after your beloved child spills an entire bottle of blue acrylic paint. Own it!
Say No and Know Your Limits
Try not to overdo it while you’re running on quadruple-shot Americanos as a life source. Have you ever been barfed on by a 2-year-old at 3 AM? Yeah, same. Oh the joys of co-sleeping with an adorable, germ-infested toddler! After my kid vommed all over me and our bedsheets, I was hurling into the toilet 6 hours later. Don’t suck it up and “work from home” on those days to meet your deadlines. Take the damn day, or hell, the whole week off. Ask family and friends to bring you cooked meals. There’s a thin line between feeling accomplished and feeling on the brink of a crippling panic attack. As a single mom, burning out is always on the horizon, which means you’ll hardly ever get FOMO for saying no when you’re feeling spent or out of commission because of a horrific stomach bug.
Date Whenever You’re Ready (Not When Everyone Else Is)
Dating is messy and exhausting whether you’re a parent or not. I did myself a favor by telling every person I went on a date with that I was a single mom right off the bat. It was a truly effective weeding out process — like a crappy-men-repellent. Some dudes will think you have way too much baggage but will want to get laid (which is totally fine if you’re down with that). But there are rare ones, like my dear fiancé, who was a supportive friend before we crossed platonic lines. He’s a gem, and there are others like him out there.
Secondly, — and this part may sound strange — talk to the Universe. Seriously, I’d walk around the streets of NYC talking (loudly whispering, really) to the Universe and asking for it to “be easy on me because I am ready for love.” If anything, it’ll keep the catcallers away because they’re not into women who talk to themselves about love in public like crazed lunatics.
Don’t Let Your Emotions Fester Inside
Loneliness haunts us as single parents. It’s not like you’re desperate for a partner, but seeing a young, happy, nuclear family on a bad day can make you feel like screaming, “SO GLAD YOU GET TO BE HAPPY!” at them. Not having another adult to vent to about parenting woes at the end of the day was the source of my sad spells. Who should I turn to when I was proud of my daughter? Am I disciplining her correctly? Why does she want to lick the bottom of her shoe? All this inner turmoil can cause you to feel unhinged. I’m a huge believer in primal screaming as therapy. It’s science, ok?! To avoid your neighbors calling 9-11, use a pillow to buffer your ear-piercing yells. If your kid isn’t asleep yet, let them join you. In the end, you’ll both end up laughing until someone pees their pants (also deeply cathartic).
Create Child-Friendly Communities
When friends invite you to a shindig, don’t feel bad about asking if your kid can tag along. Of course, there are some social settings that aren’t appropriate. But if it’s a dinner party or coffee date, friends — especially ones with intense baby fever — will want your kid there. Once, I took my kid to my friend’s apartment for a grad school get-together. She managed to get a room of 15 adults to get in a circle, hold hands, and sing “Ring Around the Rosie.” Everyone loved it. Now, if she’s too busy at a playdate to attend a gathering, my friends are disappointed that she isn’t in attendance. Who cares if I’m there, right?
Oh and here’s the big one: if your good friends offer to babysit, don’t wait a second to say, “OH HELL YEAH, I’ll lock that in. How’s this Friday?” Your kid will develop solid relationships with people you love and trust, which is a win-win all around. Most friends will tell your kid how awesome their mom is too. Positive reinforcement.
It wasn’t easy getting to where I am today — but I’m all the more strong for it. To delight in universal experiences of being a single mom, watch the new comedy series SMILF, with a new episode every Sunday at 10 PM ET/PT on SHOWTIME. (A sneak peek is already available.) It’s hilariously real and raw, and captures the trials and tribulations of single motherhood to a T.
Natalie Pattillo is a NYC-based multimedia journalist. Find her on Twitter @nataliereports or at nataliepattillo.com.
This post is a sponsored collaboration between SMILF and Studio@Gizmodo.