Were you invited to a Moms’ Night Out Holiday Cookie Exchange that demanded you bake 72 homemade cookies and don’t know how to say no? Ask a Single Mom. Thinking about divorce and want to know what life is like on the other side? Ask a Single Mom. Have no idea how to make time for yourself or hate the other mothers in playgroup? Our resident Single Mom has the answers and clarity that can only come from hustling the parenting gig solo.
Dear Ask A Single Mom,
I’ve been a single mom for the last two years, after a terribly nasty split with my philandering ex-husband. Our son, Anthony, is turning 10 next month and wants nothing more than to have a big birthday party with both his parents present. I REALLY want to make my son happy, and lord knows he’s endured enough the last couple of years, but how am I supposed to survive a party with my ex (and his new girlfriend) there? My family can’t stand him either—I’m not even sure my own mother would come to the party if she knew he’d be there. So what am I supposed to do?
Dear Birthday Blues,
This problem is so real. I go through it every single year. As my kiddo’s birthday approaches my sense of dread builds and then my guilt over the dread builds, and I find myself texting with all the interested parties (ex-husband, grandparents, etc.) about a million plans and listening to the kid rattle off a litany of activities and I’m exhausted and left thinking: Why do I have to do all the work? Why don’t we also celebrate the mothers on the kid’s birthday? Aren’t I the one that gestated this child and let it tear open my body to join this glorious world? Aren’t I the one who nursed it until my nipples bled? One of my best friends gave birth five months before I did and I remember her saying in the hospital, why the hell is everyone bringing presents for this baby? I’m the one who’s all fucked up and we don’t even know this kid yet! Girl, preach.
Pregnancy and birth, that’s just the first hard lesson in self-sacrifice for mothers. And, as you know, it doesn’t end there. It never ends. And the sooner we just accept that there’s gonna be a whole lot of self-sacrifice and shit we don’t want to do, the better off we’ll all be. That sounded real bleak. I don’t mean it that way, I mean it earnestly, in the Buddhist mindset of acceptance. This is what motherhood is, this is the job, and the sooner we let go of any mental energy directed at trying to redefine the job, the happier we’ll be, the more present we’ll be.
The crux of this birthday problem is that it’s a black hole of people pleasing. And it’s real hard to prioritize who you’re pleasing and how. It falls to you to do it because you’re the mother and the default manager of birthdays. Again, let’s not redefine the job, let’s just accept and problem solve. So it’s the kid’s birthday, shouldn’t he get what he wants? But then there’s your mother, shouldn’t she get to celebrate her grandson without the drama of your ex-husband (and because she’s your mother, she’s gonna put the pressure on you to get her way). Then there’s you, why should you have to suffer and be made to hang out with your ex-husband who sounds like the worst, I don’t want to hang out with him ever. And what about his new girlfriend!? Should you have to give her the satisfaction of being invited into your life through this party? It goes on and on.
So how do you make everyone happy and have some sort of celebration that still feels authentic to you and your family? This is a special time for you and your kiddo. Stop for a second and breathe that in. You brought him into this world and every day you work to give him a life filled with love and his birthday is a time to recognize the deep bond that you share. And not a time to reflect on the breakdown of your marriage. This is sort of the conundrum of life as a single mom, because those things seem intertwined, it’s all FAMILY, right? But it’s time for you to separate your identity as this child’s mother from your identity as a woman who has been disappointed by love or as this man’s ex-wife. You are this child’s mother and all you need to think about is the moment they put that baby in your arms to connect to that.
So what I try to do in this type of situation is take a big step back and think about what I want my kiddo to learn or know about life through this experience. And let’s be clear, I don’t want to spend time with my ex-husband at all. I find him pretty exasperating. But what do I want my kid to know about divorce? About adulthood? About generosity of spirit? About his importance in my heart? At the end of the day I want to be the Obamas, even if my ex-husband is Trump. I want to be gracious and kind and recognize that my kiddo deserves to have both his parents together on his big moments if he wants them there. And that there are going to be a lot of big moments to come, and I don’t want to put pressure on my kiddo that those can’t be special in a way that he envisions them.
I’m 37 years old and my parents have been divorced since I was 14. It still makes me happy when we all have dinner together. And let me tell you, I have 37-year-old friends whose parents are still fighting 25 years after their divorces and all that does is damage their relationship with their adult children, because who wants to be around that shit? So try and think big, think forward, think future.
At the end of the day you have to do what feels best for you. If you and your ex can’t be pleasant to each other and gracious in front of your kid, then don’t do it. Work harder on making your relationship cordial and try next year. But overall I think a few hours of suffering with the ex is worth the joy that it brings your kid to have you all together. At my kiddo’s last birthday I made a big breakfast and invited my ex-husband. He said to me, “I can’t believe you made this, it’s really good.” He was totally insulting me, like saying in our previous life I was a shitty cook. But I just smiled and said thank you and watched our kiddo beam because his dad was over for breakfast. And I think you can do that for your kiddo if you want to. It’s just one day and one foot in front of the other.
Adrienne Gunn is a writer, editor, and storyteller and has published in McSweeney’s, PANK, TriQuarterly, Five Quarterly, among other journals, and has a one-woman show called Mother of the Year!