There are many interesting stories to be told about the experience of being a single parent, not least of which is being a single parent by choice, but the story I am interested in at this time is about suddenly being a single parent – about the transformation from partnered to single. When you go through a serious relationship break-up you are inevitably changed as a person. Some of that change is a kind of growth but much of it is loss, too. What happens when that self-discovery and reinvention is happening within the constraints of being a parent?
I interviewed three thoughtful, joyful friends about becoming single parents. Ada and Maya have both become single relatively recently, while Jasper has been a single parent for a number of years. None of the three know one another. (Their names have been changed for this interview).
Becoming a single parent means you know really serious relationships don’t necessarily last forever. You’ve lost a certain innocence, a certain kind of faith in relationships, even bad ones.. don’t you think?
Ada: I grew up with a single mum so I never had that notion that relationships last forever. At the same time, I do still have faith about the possibility. ‘Chapter Two’ relationships are a whole different ball game and one I am liking. You aren't looking for someone who can be a father, life partner, emotional supporter, financial support anymore. You are looking for someone who is compatible with who you are – humour, intelligence, chemistry. This also brings about the challenging process of finding out who you are.
I have found someone amazing but I have had to embrace the possibility that this may end. You don’t have the same thing holding you together. You are only together because you enjoy each other and have fun.
Jasper: When you're in a parenting couple you can fool yourself that it's all sorted out and this is The Unit. We're still dynamic, but you can forget it a bit. Not as a single parent.
Maya: I can’t imagine believing in marriage again, at least not for myself. It’s weird - it’s not like I look at other people and think ‘just you wait’ or ‘it can’t last’; it’s more for myself. I think it’s more an emotional thing - no longer believing a relationship can last forever - than a logical conclusion.
What about sex and dating while parenting?
Ada: I am distracted ALL the time as sex sometimes occupies my thoughts twenty-four hours a day. Re-discovering the joy of sex and trying to juggle motherhood is a challenge but one I am happy to have in my life. I am new to this so I am still learning how to compartmentalise.
Jasper: Obviously you have to factor your child into your dating choices. It's very important for potential partners to have potential for a safe and mutually beneficial relationship with your kid, too. But then there is the other sort of dating, the dating where you pretty much know the potential for that is low, but for some other reason you'd like to pursue some sort of encounter with this person. The answer is for those to be carefully boundaried, not to be allowed to sprawl over into having consequences for our children.
Unlike other break-ups your ex has to continue to be part of your life, how is that?
Ada: When I first separated from my ex, it was like a lightning bolt struck me out of the blue, giving me clarity on what terrible flaws there were in the relationship. As a result, I don’t like my ex very much as a person right now. This is hard to manage as I need to develop a co-parenting relationship that is healthy for the kids. I also need to learn to like him again as we are stuck with each other.
Jasper: “18 year, 18 years... got one of your kids, got you for 18 years...” You can question some of Kanye's other lyrics, not least in that song, but it enunciates a truth. You don't get to leave your co-parent behind, like you could any other ex-partner of a failed relationship. There is a real genuine need for civility and ideally for friendship and respect. That can be immensely hard, but it really is best for the child when you can. I have certainly erred at times on the side of being too agreeable towards a difficult co-parent, and as the child gets older they are much more able to contextualise disagreements between their parents.
And finally, what is your experience of solitude versus loneliness as a single parent?
Ada: Loneliness has started to creep in a little as I see what my kids are doing with their father and it feels like a separate existence to mine. It’s different to them being away on holiday, as the person with them would usually share pictures or stories. With this new single life, their dad doesn’t share everything so it’s an unknown to me. Loneliness, in terms of being at home alone doesn’t really come into things. I generally like my own time but that brings with it the guilt that I am not missing them enough. I have longed for solitude for some time as it allows me to reboot and energise myself. As a result this new found solitude means I am more present when I am with my kids.
Jasper: An appreciation of the benefits of solitude is a lovely thing to have as a single parent. And I know I've felt lonelier in a failing relationship than I ever have alone. When single you could walk around the next corner and meet a person who will help you fill up your life with enjoyable stuff. When you're in a relationship that is failing, those avenues are closed, but also being able to believe in a good future in your current situation can be very difficult.
I think we crave connection, with people whose minds are enough like ours to feel congruent on some deeper level. I'm sure that's why a lot of cheating happens. It's that connection that staves off loneliness, I think. We can find it in friendship, and from family, including with our children. In that sense there is added opportunity to explore our connectedness with our kids, when there is no partner involved on a daily basis. So our kids stop us feeling lonely, our friends and other family help, and the hope for fulfilling future partnerships helps too.
Maya: I think I am mostly fine with the solitude. I’m not especially lonely. I miss the intimacy and companionship of my marriage (though I then have to remind myself it was obviously not what I thought it was, as he left me so suddenly and had evidently been nursing a desire to leave for months). I miss being with someone who knows all my history, and whose history I know. But that all feels like quite a specific thing, not loneliness, which is more general.
I don’t mind the day to day of being alone at all - I quite like it, actually. Being able to cook the meals I want to eat, to work as much as I want without being called out on being a workaholic, to not feel pressure to be someone I’m not. Coming home to a house free of atmosphere, where there are no one’s moods I need to be wary of. As a parent - I get to make day-to-day decisions without having to fight them out or be judged by someone else.