A few months ago, when Bo was not yet three, we were driving back from the city where we had been celebrating my nephews 5th birthday. It was a hot summer day and my car was teetering uncomfortably close to the edge of overheating as we drove out of the city heading south. We had a car full of stuff, we were exhausted and our old car was clearly having a problem. We were 100kms from home when I had to pull over because the engine was so hot I could hear the steam screaming over the sound of the engine.
We sat there, the two of us at a roadside rest stop, a couple of hours from sunset, sitting relatively helpless in the middle of absolutely nowhere, about an hour either side from the closest town. I was aware we were pretty vulnerable and that there was no quick fix for the situation.
‘It’s okay mama. It’s hot but we go swimming later, K? Then we will be nice and cool,’ Bo said, sweating through the heat of the afternoon. She has always been good at seeing the silver lining.
We were so far from anywhere that I knew roadside assistance wasn’t going to help us, so after an hour with the hood propped up to cool the engine I filled up the radiator with water (ensuring we had a small bottle of drinking water left in case we got stranded again), strapped Bo into her car seat, took a deep breath and started driving 100ks down the deserted highway with nothing but barren, burnt and deserted farm land on either side of us.
We made it about 5kms from home when the engine cut out, thankfully it did so as we slowing into our turn off the highway and I was able to roll the car up onto the island in the middle of the road before losing momentum. There was no way the car was going to start again. It was peak evening traffic and we were perched precariously on a narrow island in the blistering heat. Bo was sweating profusely in the back and my phone was of course in the red zone, almost out of batteries.
I rang roadside assistance, ‘we are broken down… I think it’s the radiator… the engine is overheating and the car wont start.’ I was told that it would be at least an hour and a half before the closest driver could get to us to assist. ‘I’ve got a toddler in the car,’ I said, ‘and it’s pushing 40C out here…’ The woman on the other line tutted at me and asked me to hold the line.
As I was waiting I could hear my phone beeping at me, as I pulled my sweating toddler from out of the sauna that our car was quickly becoming.
‘Can someone come and pick you up?’ the lady said… We are going to send you a tow truck but the truck can’t take a child. ‘It’s going to be at least an hour for them to arrive too… maybe your husband can come and pick up the child and then you can wait with the car… or you could go home and leave your partner with the car, best not having the child out there in the middle of the highway, and we can’t get her home.’ I let out one of those sighs that happens with regularity these days, ‘there is no one else,’ I say, ‘my mums out of town and it’s just us… there isn’t anyone else that can pick her up… there isn’t anyone else.’
What about a brother or sister? Another family member? Aunts? Uncles?
There just isn’t anyone else.
The lady on the phone had no solution, and just as my battery was giving one last heave of life a man in a truck pulled up on the island next to me.
‘Need a tow?’ He said, ‘I’ve got a kid about that age, she shouldn’t be in the middle of the highway in this heat… you either…’ He popped his boot and started pulling out his tow ropes and I fumbled gratitude and confusion as I explained to the woman on the other end of the line, that we wouldn’t need her help after all.
That kind stranger towed us home and within five minutes the car was parked in the driveway of my mothers home and we were inside drinking cold glasses of water.
I tried to explain to my hot and bothered child that I couldn’t take her to the pools because our car was broken and we couldn’t go anywhere. I braced myself for the meltdown, but it never came.
‘It’s okay mama. I don’t mind,’ Bo says and she kisses my cheek, ‘We okay.’
We were okay. And we are… of course. But the sobering reality of parenting without a partner is often hard to take. Two weeks ago I had to bow out last minute from a training day at work because it was a 14 hour day with travel and my childcare for Bo fell through, ‘there just isn’t anyone else,’ I had to say to my boss… ‘I’m out of options.’ And then last week I had to take a groggy sick toddler into work with me, to sleep on the couch, while I facilitated an important meeting that just couldn’t be rescheduled. There just isn’t anyone else.
People often talk to me about the realities of being a single parent, some friends who have partners say, ‘gosh, sometimes I think it must be so much easier, not having to worry about a partners needs too/not having to deal with their shit etc.’ Others offer other words that I’m never quite sure how to take, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ they say or, ‘why can’t you just come out on Saturday night?’ or ‘Gosh, it must be so hard…’ time after time reaffirming that single parent stereotype. No I can’t go out… I do it because I have to… It is hard, but also not hard at the same time somehow: it just is what it is.
Sometimes I don’t know how any of us who do it alone do it either. But we do. It is hard. Sometimes I wake up in the night worried about making the right decisions for Bo, for her medical care, for her education… sometimes I’m anxious because I don’t have anyone to look after Bo when I am working. I miss out on socializing because there are only so many times I can ask my mother to have Bo at nighttime and she already has her one evening a week when I work anyway. I am happy, I am independent and capable and loved unconditionally by a tiny human who shows me on a daily basis how strong she is… how strong we are.
‘Do you think my daddy dreams about me?’ she asks, ‘Do all the daddy’s who don’t live with their babies all live together?’
She often asks, ‘when is there going to be another daddy?’ or ‘I’m ready to be a big sister soon.’ And I try to explain to her the delicate intricacies of how all these things work and how it isn’t as simple as wanting it that is going to make it happen.
We talk a lot about how all families are different, how she has friends who live with just their mummy or just their daddy, we talk about her friends who have two mummies or that some kids have two daddies and how some kids live with their grandma without their mummy or daddy at all. We talk about the fact that we are lucky because we get so much time together, time that if there was a daddy and brothers and sisters that we probably wouldn’t get, because there would be other people that needed us too. We talk about the fact that maybe one day we will be a part of a bigger family but for now, we are a team… we are a strong team and we work together and that we are so lucky to have that time. So lucky to have each other at all.Sometimes it gets to me. The loneliness. The solitude. The pressure of making all the decisions and taking all the responsibility and placing it on my shoulders.
A week or two ago Bo asked me innocently out of the blue if she was ever going to get to be a big sister, I told her ‘I hope so, I really do… but I can’t promise anything. It might never happen. It might just be us, just us forever…’ my true feelings about this must have betrayed me and showed themselves on my positivity-face.
‘It’s okay mama. We together. We a team’ she said, looking at me with her big dark eyes and smiling. I realised then, that she doesn’t really mind – her questions are just curiosity and her way of figuring out her world.
I’ve tried dating with very little success – I may find the words to write about it at some point. I’ve tried to put myself out there but realistically, there is very little kid free time in my world that I’m not at work – and where do you meet people these days anyway? None of my friends seem to know any single guys who they would set me up with… and I don’t hang out at the old kind of places that I used to meet people. I spend my Friday nights curled up in my bed next to my sleeping toddler, her feet on my face and her warm body taking up all the space in the bed… and that’s okay with me… for now.
Maybe one day I’ll meet someone and it will all change. Maybe Bo will get the opportunity to be the big sister that she seems to dream of. Maybe she wont. Who knows. All I know is right now, right here… I’m glad we get all this time together just us two, because as hard as it can be it’s been really good to be apart of such a strong team.
I am lucky to have a job that is flexible and a workplace that is kid friendly. Not everyone is this lucky. Not all single parents have the opportunity to choose to work part time so that they can still spend the majority of their week raising their child. Not all single parents are as lucky as I am to have had a good education and the fire in my heart to push for the things I want (and deserve) in the workplace. I am lucky in so many ways. When I was first really exploring the terrain of being a single parent I wrote this post full of questions about the way that we structure our societies and realities so that we outcast people who are already struggling to do it on their own. I have experienced so many of these things first hand, socially and have seen them happen to amazing single parents locally. Not being invited to something that just other ‘couples’ go to, not being invited because ‘you wont have childcare anyway,’ – for people to look shocked at you when you tell them you are divorced ‘aren’t you too young?’ or my favourite ‘well you must’ve got married too young then,’ or perhaps the ‘well there are two sides to every story perhaps you didn’t try hard enough,’ or the judgement ‘I would never rush into divorce… think of the children.’
There is a stigma that you carry on your shoulders as a single parent, a stigma that makes no sense and a stigma that is truly not founded in any reality. I know several single parents and we are all as diverse as they come – the one thing we all have in common is removing our child from a situation that was dangerous emotionally to their development… we all walked away from relationships and allowed ourselves to be hurt and sacrificed things to ensure our children can grow up with the best shot at being happy. We were all left holding the pieces after someone else made a series of bad decisions.
Just because one parent decides to opt out, financially, emotionally, spiritually from their child’s development… doesn’t mean the parent left holding the child should be punished.
Maybe we should ask ‘why is it so acceptable for men to just walk away?’ (Because it usually is and if it was a woman, it would be totally socially unacceptable).
Why is there not better, practical support available?
I often tell Bo I’m so lucky to have her all to myself, and she tells me that I have to share her with her grandma… ‘because we are a big family like everyone else,’ she says, ‘even if we seem little.’