In May, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg penned a moving piece on leaning in and her new life as a single mother after the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. In it she writes; "Single moms have been leaning in for a long time—out of necessity and a desire to provide the best possible opportunities for their children." And it is true. Though I've taken time to discuss my personal path of motherhood frequently in this space, there are other paths often not expressed here. These paths are walked millions of times by my friends, readers, and followers. Today, Anja Tyson, single mother to Matilda, is sharing some words on the subject.
I became a single mom five weeks before giving birth to Matilda. The night that it happened, extremely pregnant-shaped and uncomfortable in the New York late-summer heat, I laid in bed telling my unborn daughter not to worry at all because no matter what happens in the world I would be there for her. I talked to her a lot over those last few weeks before we met face-to-face, and when I think back now on the things I said, I realize I was really creating a mission statement for the journey I was about to begin. I recently came across a Mary Oliver quote that perfectly defines the way I went into parenting. It goes:
“No, I’d never been to this country before. No, I didn’t know where the roads would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to turn back.”
She will be three very soon. That stage when people ask me how old she is and I automatically answer “two”, and then pause and correctly myself tearfully, even to strangers: “almost three”. Every day brings on a new challenge, equally joyous and exhausting, a feeling I can only liken to what Olympic runners must feel just before they collapse after wining a race. I fall asleep without washing my face many days of the week, I have aged drastically in these few short years, but what I hear most often from the people that really know me is “You have never looked so happy.”
I grew up with an authoritative provider for a dad and a nurturing caretaker as a mom. Still married, my parents have an inarguably more traditional arrangement than many of their generation, and it has affected the way I think of myself as a parent. So much of the first few years of this journey for me has been letting go of the insecurities and feelings of failure I carry for not providing my daughter with a two parent home, because that is the model I grew up with and how I always envisioned myself as a mom. And after I plow my way through a bit of that guilt (and maybe a little self-pity), two things always emerge in the clearing:
First, any shame I feel for not having provided my daughter with what I expected to be a “normal” family, no matter how much I try to hide it, will be unconsciously visible in my words and actions. If Matilda sees me ashamed of being a single parent, she will carry that association with her for life, and it will inform and inhibit her in ways I cannot predict. Every day I work on building the foundation of knowing that we are, together and individually, beautiful and perfect. If there is any inspiration for finding the confidence to charge forward, it is your kids.
And second, we as a society need to talk more about non-traditional family dynamics. The more we talk about it, the more walls we break down, the more we abolish these antiquated assumptions that any family should be a certain way, and the stronger we become as a village to support the development of our children. Allowing everyone to celebrate their own family structure means that all members of all families are strengthened, more empathic, and more supportive of each other. Parenting is inherently difficult, and we live in a country that makes it as difficult as possible for anyone that doesn’t conform to the traditional family that it calls the norm. But the revolution is coming, and it will come in on the backs of the people that are willing to speak their minds, connect with others, and pave the way for change.
One of the things I hear the most often when people find out I am a single parent is, “Wow, is that really hard?” Everyone asks this. Other Moms, Teenagers, The Elderly, Colleagues, Ex-Boyfriends, Everyone. Almost three years in I do not have a good answer for this question. Yes, it is hard. Is it harder than being part of a nuclear family and nurturing a marriage on top of raising children? I have no idea, maybe not. Is it harder than being a stay-at-home mom to multiple children? No clue there, either. And no one else knows any more than I do, honestly. It’s different, and we live in a place where “different” can often be harder. But we are all doing our best for our little ones, whatever way are able, and that does not invalidate the struggles of any other parent. The most important thing is that your child is safe and loved, and trust me when I say you can make that happen with any number of people of any gender or color or financial capabilities.
When I gave birth to Matilda, the doctor put her in my arms and I stared at her, waiting to feel this feeling I expected. The butterflies in your stomach that you associate with a crush. The heady feeling when you fall in love. I sat there like an idiot waiting for a feeling that I thought I would recognize, but actually the kind of love that I discovered that day is bigger and stronger and more pervasive than anything I had ever felt before. It crushes you and explodes you and fills you with energy and power and life. Whoever invented superheroes was for sure a mother. Anyone who thinks there’s anything we can’t do is crazy.
You will get stronger with every obstacle, you will be more patient with every test. You will cry into your coffee and never finish washing your hair. You will skip meals and run out of money and miss school events and screw things up sometimes. And to your children, the boundaries of your love will not even be visible past the night stars.
To every single mother: You are enough.
(Photography by Jason Eric Hardwick for Pamela Love. Thank you so much for sharing, Anja.)