My alarm went off for the first time at 4:30 this morning. The room was still dark, fans blowing every direction to keep the bedroom cool since our big old house is sadly want of central air. My husband slipped out of bed, reappearing briefly a bit later smelling of toothpaste and freshly applied deodorant to plant a kiss and whisper “I love you, baby” before he was off, still long before dawn. A couple of hours later I woke again to the sounds of a little voice calling for mommy through the baby monitor. I roused the dog who had climbed into her father’s spot on the bed shortly after he left, and walked into the room next door to fetch a snuggly toddler still encased in blankets. And so, the day began.
Today is the 989th day of my daughter’s life. She’ll turn in three in November and next month, for the very first time, she’ll head off to pre-k. For every one of those 989 days, save for however many weekend days have been in there that I don’t have the time to count right now, I have been her full-time solo caretaker. I’ve mentioned it in brief passing before, but during the week, all week, every week, I solo parent while my husband is gone for work. Most weeks he leaves before dawn on Monday mornings and if we’re lucky we’ll see him again in time for dinner on Friday evening, although it’s oftentimes long after Em is asleep. No daycare, no nanny, no spouse to come home where I might be able to sneak in a trip to the gym or even just have someone to joke with as we make dinner. All the while, I’ve continued to build and operate a business completely independently, sneaking a more than full-time work schedule in around making peanut butter sandwiches, soothing tearful toddler woes and commandeering bath times.
In this season of our lives, and for the foreseeable future, I am a full-time solo parent. Make no mistake, I very deliberately use the term “solo parent” versus “single parent” because I know and passionately advocate that there is a large difference between the two. I am not single and while I do have the primary, almost absolute, responsibility for caring for our daughter, I am not a single parent. I have immeasurable emotional support and companionship from my husband, who is in every way my best friend and the greatest parent I could ask to be partnered with on this journey. But he is not here.
He’s not here for the skinned knees or to commiserate with at the end of a long day or to tag in when I’m teetering on the edge of sanity, somewhere far past the furthest reaches of my patience on any given day. He’s not here while I’m in bed at night with a baby monitor next to me, a dog curled up at my hip and a laptop perched on a pillow trying to rifle through emails or catch up on all the blog posts I should be writing far more often than I seem to manage these days. He’s not here to binge our favorite Netflix shows after she’s in bed. He’s not here to fill up the room with his big, happy laugh. He’s simply not here.
The truth about my life as a solo parent is that it’s lonely. It’s lonely in this place where you can visibly see all of your neighbors tucked inside with their spouses and their children and you’re floundering somewhere between counting down the minutes until bedtime and wanting to hold on to those fleeting toddler snuggles for just a little longer. The truth about my life as a solo parent is that it’s exhausting. I read articles about self care and I laugh because I can’t even remember the last time I managed to get my hair cut, but it’s a sure bet that it’s not more recent than six months ago. It takes a serious dedication to really good concealer to even partially mask the dark circles under my eyes. It takes a whole lot of juggling, note taking, calendar keeping and leaning on our incredible village to keep everything properly dotted and crossed. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it fails miserably.
The truth about my life as a solo parent is that I’m grateful. I am grateful every day that I’ve been able to do it for these 989 days and counting without any kind of regular child care. I am grateful that this career of mine has allowed me these precious days with our baby girl (my first, last and only baby) because they’re so soon to coming to an end. A few weeks from now, she’ll slip on the tiny monogrammed backpack that she already begs to wear every day, and she’ll walk into a classroom and bring us forward into an all new chapter as she goes. I am heartbroken. I am relieved. I am grateful that we’re almost there and I haven’t yet completely lost my shit.
I never planned to have a baby. Ever. I guess I always knew I wouldn’t make it out of motherhood the same person who went into it, and I wasn’t prepared to give that person up. I have been driven my whole life. First academically, then professionally. That drive fuels me, it keeps me focused and it’s ultimately such a huge part of who I am. In a nutshell, there was no way I was entering motherhood and not going hard. Once I knew I was pregnant, I had always hoped we’d make it to school age without daycare. There were times it has threatened to kill me. I’ve questioned more, I’ve cried more and I’ve loved more in these 989 days than I ever knew possible. Plainly, there have been more days than I care to admit where I have thought that this tiny little human had broken me.
When you’re with your child effectively 24/7 while also trying to work, run a business, and feel like a human with a soul and a life of your own, you go to some weird places in the dusty corners of your brain from time to time. In hindsight, I’m not sure it has always been the healthiest or, frankly, happiest place to be. A lot of that fueled the tough to decision to send her to school this year at such a young age. She’s ready. She will flourish and come home happy and ready to spend the rest of her day hanging out with mommy. And I’m ready, too. After 989 days as a solo parent, I need to feel like me again, even if for only five hours a day.
As a solo parent there are no breaks. There are no last minute plans to meet the girls out for a drink, especially during the school year when it’s effectively impossible to find a sitter on a weeknight. There are no business trips planned without first having to rearrange the lives of no fewer than three other people to make sure your kid is properly covered and cared for in your absence. There is no taking conference calls when they can’t be arranged during nap time. There are no photo shoots if someone has a fever. There are no Instagram Stories of fun dinners out or cute little family outings, because those things don’t happen. My husband and I haven’t been out to dinner just the two of us since the Saturday before I had my c-section on a Monday morning. (The latter part is because when he is home, we maximize all our time as a family so we’re horrible about making date nights a priority on any level.)
For all the things my life is and for all the things my life isn’t as a solo parent, I would change nothing. As I type these words, my two year old is baking me a pink cake in her tiny little oven across the room from me. Her dog is lounging not far off taking her third or fourth mid-day nap. In a half hour Em will go down for a nap at which time I’ll shower and start to get ready for a meeting I have this evening for a volunteer position I have on a commission overseeing the review of our city’s charter structure. I’ll be home in time to tuck her into bed and then the laptop will come back out until whatever time I decide my brain is just mush enough to demand no more screen time for the night. In the morning, I’ll pull her from her crib and help her brush her teeth and the day will begin again. Just a few more sleeps until Daddy is home.
To the single parents out there, to the solo parents out there, I see you. I know why you’re on the verge of tears as your toddler is losing it in the grocery store and you’re just trying to figure out where the hell they’re hiding the unsweetened almond milk. I see you as you’re mentally scrambling through your lists trying to make sure the laundry is washed and the socks are paired and you didn’t forget to feed the damn dog for the second time this week. I know why the evenings after bedtime feel both like a blessing and like a unique prison cell meant only for you. I see you crying as you’re rocking your baby to sleep because you love him so much you can’t bear the thought of him growing up too quickly. I know why you’re taking deep breaths, one after another, reminding yourself that the days are long but the years are so bitterly short. I see you. I know you. I am you.
[Photos by Alice G. Patterson.]