The idea of emotional labour or the ‘mental workload,’ and the revelation that women are still carrying the bulk of it in families - despite often also holding down a full-time job - is depressingly unsurprising. As we mark 100 years since the first women gained the right to vote in the UK, we still have a long way to go before achieving equality in the workplace, and further still when it comes to equality at home.
But one of the only places this battle for equality over the family mental workload isn’t being fought is in single parent households. The fact that the sole parent is filling all adult roles in the house (bread-winner, home-maker, child-raiser) is fairly obvious; there is nobody else to fill them (I’ve tried asking Jack, 3, to put the laundry on and renew the car insurance – the results have been mixed). And, while there is some comfort in knowing you’re steering your little family ship all by yourself, keeping it afloat can be tricky.
The strain of this emotional labour on single parent households is something not often acknowledged, less often still addressed. In my most recent blog (Forgive My Rudeness, I’m Trying Not to Have a Breakdown), I spoke about the consequences of this mental workload on single parents and received dozens of ‘I hear you’ messages from fellow single parents and still more ‘I don’t know how you do it’ notes from parents and friends. Such a kind response wasn't the aim when I sat down to write the piece at the end of a busy Monday, but I have to admit, it’s nice to hear.
When you go for hours, days, or sometimes weeks where the only person you spend any decent amount of time with is a three-year-old, you can start to feel like you’ve gone a bit mad. So, I wanted to return the favour. To tell all the single mums (and dads) out there that they’ve got this. To remind them, when that mental workload gets just that little bit too heavy, that being a single parent is actually pretty great, too.
Single parents, you are all warriors. This is my letter to you.
The next time you feel like the weight of the world is too heavy, and you’re not coping with all it asks of you, put a little down. Give yourself a break. Remember that the important things in your world are yourself and your children – anything else can be set aside until you’re strong enough to pick it up again.
When you forget the birthday party or the bake sale or the non-uniform day because you were up late working on a deadline, or you had an unexpected bill to pay, forgive yourself. Be kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
When you feel shame at the label ‘single mum’ and its long-held (and media-enforced) connotations, teach yourself to feel pride. That you’re strong enough to survive this, the hardest of jobs, alone.
When you falter navigating the rocky terrain of negotiating co-parenting, shared custody and frayed tempers, be patient. Try to see your child in your co-parent. Remember that it’s hard for them too.
When you find yourself without your child because they’re with their dad, and feel utterly and completely lost, be selfish. Learn to see those times for what they are - a chance to have a whole other persona, a life lived for yourself. Go to the spa. Go shopping. Sleep for 10 hours straight. And remember that this person is allowed to drink wine. Lots of wine.
When you second-guess every behavioural issue or bad habit that your toddler has and wonder if the reason that they bit Peter at nursery or flushed an entire loo-roll, plus holder, down the toilet is because they’re the child of a single parent, remember to spend time with other three-year-olds. They’re all lunatics.
Remember that nobody else in the world knows your children like you do. Remember what a privilege it is that you get to be there for them through their childhood in a way no other person will. That you will watch them grow with undivided attention whenever you spend time together. Remember that they will benefit from having your full attention, too.
When you spend time with ‘proper’ or ‘functional’ families and feel a pang of sadness that your little one doesn’t have that, and that rather than a partner and a picture-book home life, they are your whole world, remember that you’re their whole world too. They fill up the empty spaces in yours, and you fill the empty spaces in theirs.
When you feel guilt that this wasn’t how you planned things, that this wasn’t what you thought parenthood would be, remember how special that bond between you and your child - or children - is. That as much as you’re helping them to survive and to thrive, they’re helping you to survive and thrive too. They’re making you into a warrior.
You’ve got this.
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