What’s it like to be a single parent?

I was reading this post over at Not Supermum yesterday about the differences between single parenting and married/partnered-up parenting, and it got me thinking.

I’ve always said on this blog that single parenting isn’t a competition. I’m not getting into a stupid “my life is harder than your life” debate – because probably, it’s not true.

I know there are plenty of families out there, of all shapes and sizes, that have struggles I can scarcely imagine. Being a single parent isn’t necessarily about being poor and frustrated and miserable and lonely (although it has its moments).

But single parenting is a very different experience of family life.Β And I do occasionally shake my head at how people – including friends I’ve known for years – just don’t ‘get’ how single parenting works.

Yes, your husband might work away during the week, or your wife might be uninvolved in the day-to-day care of your children, but unless you’re in sole charge of a child, night and day, for years on end then I don’t think you can understand what being a single parent truly is.

There are upsides. I get the freedom of knowing my spice rack stays alphabetised (don’t judge it till you’ve done it) and there’s nobody to stop me watching five episodes of Vampire Diaries in a row, if I so please.

In terms of parenting, I get to set the rules, and I don’t have to negotiate, or compromise. The result is a household that’s a lot more harmonious than your average two-parent family.

But there are downsides. There’s the assumption that I’m a burden on the state (despite never having claimed a means-tested benefit or tax credit in my life). There’s the assumption that my child lacks discipline (I’m stricter than most married parents I know). There’s the assumption that I have set my sights on stealing someone else’s husband at the first opportunity (trust me, he’s not that much of a catch, in most instances).

But mostly, I think, single parenting is just scary.

  • It’s knowing that there’s one income coming into the house. That you, and you alone, are the one keeping a roof over your child’s head and food in their belly – or not, if you get it wrong.
  • It’s knowing that if there’s a scream in the middle of the night and something awful has happened, you’ll have to choose between ringing the ambulance and doing CPR.
  • It’s knowing there’s nobody else to hold responsible if you made the wrong choice about that immunisation/school/religion/haircut.
  • It’s knowing your child will never know what it’s like to have someone else in the house to talk to when they’re pissed off with you.
  • It’s knowing that if you get carted off in an ambulance, or if you die, there will be an unholy mess around who looks after your child, because there’s no clear-cut answer to that question.
  • It’s knowing that even if you’re exhausted or emotional or at the end of your tether in one way or another, you’re still the only parent in the house, so you need to get a grip, and keep going.

Maybe I’m a bit neurotic, but I think about these worst case scenarios more than I should.

Of course, Flea has two parents, and a wider family that loves her and has her best interests at heart. We have a stupid amount of fun, and I definitely think we’re happier than most families I know. But when we come home after a long day and close the door, it’s me she’s stuck with.

And that’s scary.



Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 22nd March 2013 / 12:14 pm

    Yes, that’s exactly it and the point I was trying to make but maybe not as well as you. It is a completely different experience, and I’d compare it to not being able to imagine what it’s like to be a parent until you actually are. We think we know what it’s like, but we actually don’t.

    I have all the same worries as you and I’m definitely not neurotic *cough*.

    And my spice rack isn’t alphabetised, so I must be doing something wrong.

    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:29 pm

      It’s the blind terror and, as Rachael says, the weight of responsibility. And no matter what sort of partner you have, having a co-parent means it’s never quite the same, is it? Your post really made me think.

  2. 22nd March 2013 / 12:14 pm

    Yes. When I closed the door when my ex left, the massive weight of responsibility really hit me. Four children, one me. After about a week I called my sister, who has been a single mother since her 12 year old was 12 weeks old, and apologised for every single time I’d said ‘I’m a single mother this week’. There is NO comparison. It’s the realisation that there’s NOBODY to pick up the slack. The realisation that it doesn’t matter how crappy you feel, you’ve got to bloody well get on with it. And that there’s nobody to hand over the reins when you feel like stopping. What’s been a revelation is that (and I’m in an unusual situation because my ex moved to Canada, helpfully, meaning that I don’t get time off from being in parent mode very often) when you meet someone else and move in with them, you *still* don’t ever quite stop feeling like a single parent. I’ve spoken to other people and they feel the same. And yes, it’s scary. Pass the gin and cake, please.
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    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:31 pm

      It’s exactly that, isn’t it? The responsibility and knowing it’s all down to you, every day, every situation, no matter what. I can imagine (and I know from talking to friends) though, it’s very hard to let go of that control, even when you’re in a new relationship. I think it’s part of the reason I’ve opted not to live with anyone else since being single – I am not sure I’m capable of co-parenting any more – TOTAL control freak πŸ™‚

  3. 22nd March 2013 / 12:20 pm

    This post really made me think – I have a friend who is a single mum, and has been since she was 3 moths pregnant! I can’t help but think she has it so much harder than me, but seeing the bond she has with her little girl is just amazing. They are a little unit, a partnership, and her parenting skills and patience seem far better than mine, probably because doesn’t have the hand over to Daddy moments! So the point I’m making is – although sometimes I think I feel sorry for her, there are just as many times I envy her too xxx Brilliant, thought-provoking post πŸ™‚ xxx
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    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:32 pm

      I do sometimes think the ‘parenting’ bit of single parenting is easier in lots of ways – there’s a lot to be said for being able to make all the rules. Our home is very harmonious, if anything I worry about how Flea will cope with conflict later, because she’s so unused to it. But there are days when I’d trade it all for having someone to hand over to when I am tearing my hair out over something or other, and just feel incapable of being there enough for Flea.

  4. 22nd March 2013 / 12:56 pm

    I have a friend who is a single parent and I can see just how incredibly hard it is, knowing that everything stops with you. I grew up in a one parent family and it’s now that I have children that I realise what a fantastic job my mum has done under incredible stress sometimes. One thing I have learned is that life is always about compromise and where one is willing to make it.

    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:32 pm

      Oh, absolutely – there’s no, one perfect way of doing things, and I’ve never argued this way is better or worse – it’s just different.

  5. 22nd March 2013 / 1:10 pm

    I was a Single parent to my eldest for several years, before entering the realm of step-families, yet another permeatation of family life that differs from all others! Being a single parent is hard, the thing I found hardest was having nobody to bounce ideas off in all sorts of circumstances from- ‘she has banged her head-should I go to casualty?’ to ‘Which school shall I send her too?’ Thank goodness for my own lovely Mum who became my sounding board on many an occassion!

    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:33 pm

      Yes, my Mum is my sounding board, and I’ve got a few trusted friends who I’ll talk to about the stuff I don’t want to talk to my Mum about! But I’m always conscious there’s nobody who is as involved with Flea as me, and therefore it’s hard not to miss that ‘co-parent’ perspective.

      • 24th March 2013 / 6:57 am

        Absolutely, and that feeling remains in a step-family too to an extent. I am still the person with sole responsibility for decisions re my eldest, I just have an additional sounding board! Having said that, she is now 16, so decisions are becoming more and more her own to make, and I find myself relegated to sounding board- a strange sensation!

  6. 22nd March 2013 / 3:00 pm

    Are you saying it’s more scary for her or you? πŸ˜‰ I’m glad you admit to this Sally, because this is how I feel a lot of the time. Yet we find ourselves stepping up time and time again and somehow things sort themselves out somehow – generally, I suspect, because we have no-one pulling against us. But can we rest on our laurels? Do we pat ourselves on the back? Dare we?
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    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:34 pm

      Ha! I don’t think she’s old enough to realise she should be terrified. But yes, for me, I spend half my life in a state of terror, and if anyone ever wonders why I work so hard, this post goes quite a long way to explaining it.

  7. 22nd March 2013 / 9:44 pm

    I grew up in a single parent household from the age of 3 and to this day I’m grateful I did, I personally feel it made me stronger. I must preface both of my parents are lovely people and it was amicable, it was just a mismatch. Some may think my mother made a selfish decision but I’m so pleased she did. She could have stayed for the sake of us kids but I’m glad she didn’t. She wouldn’t have been able to hide her unhappiness and this would have negatively affected us. Like Flea we had access to both sides of the family.

    Sometimes I’m jealous of my friends who are single parents….every other weekend, being in total control of everything and some times it seems attractive but on occasion when he’s been away, the simplest task such as popping out for milk when they’re asleep becomes tenfold. However, totally appreciate your fears or concerns and hit a chord as I never thought of what my mum was going through.

    But if I’m honest, even as someone who is married, I still feel similar, I’m the one in control, I make the decisions and if for your latter point of being carted away, I don’t think I’d be happy with anyone raising my child except me, not even my husband (although he’s not a bad guy).

    And knowing you, there is no way you’re going to fail! You’re doing an amazing job. She’s a delightful, sociable and like her mother, is far too clever!
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      • 22nd March 2013 / 11:36 pm

        I know what you mean – when I was married, I was definitely the one in charge of decisions and Flea’s Dad very much went along with my choices – it’s wearying. But being actually single adds another dimension to that, I think. There’s a difference waking up daily and knowing that – in parenting terms – there’s nobody who’s got your back. I think that’s one of the things marriage, or a partnership of some kind, does give you.

  8. Cherished By Me
    22nd March 2013 / 9:59 pm

    Brilliant post that I can relate to, I also worry about those worse case scenarios far too much as well. Our household is also a lot calmer now.
    I must admit to quietly seethe when someone says “well I’m nearly a single parent because my husband works long hours”…yes I’ve been there and it’s hard but it’s nowhere near the same.

    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:38 pm

      I love that our little family is calm, and happy, and steady – no matter the worries. There’s a lot to be said for that. But yes, it does grate sometimes when someone tells me, “Oh, I had a single parent day” as though the thing that’s tough about single parenting is the amount of work you have to do, or the hours you put in. It’s really not – the tough bit is the responsibility, and not having someone to take that off your shoulders from time to time.

  9. 22nd March 2013 / 10:53 pm

    I loved this post, thank you. My mum raised three of us completely on her own (our father just pretty much vanished), and every time I hear a partnered parent complain ‘My partner’s on holiday, I’m a single parent for the week’ or ‘Partner works such long hours, I’m practically a single parent’ I want to kick someone/something. (Breathe).

    I’ve always felt like this – I used to loose friends left, right and centre at school by telling them their parents did not have to work as hard as my beautiful, brave, brilliant and amazing mum.

    (True though)

    I’m heartbroken that mum died before I had my own children; before I understood the full extent of what she did for us.
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    • 22nd March 2013 / 11:40 pm

      Thanks Isabel – one of the lovely things about single parenting is (I think) you can build very close relationships with your children. Flea and I feel like such a strong team, and we so enjoy one another’s company. I don’t think my married friends have quite the same thing – it’s still good, but in a different way πŸ™‚

  10. Sarah Wolf
    23rd March 2013 / 7:38 am

    I totally agree with your post Sally and for me it’s the weight of responsibility that is the hardest to bear. I need a new tyre today, I need to get the Wolf Cub to drama and to her Easter Egg hunt at school. We can’t do all three things because there is no-one else to chip in.

    Sometimes after a long day at work, a demanding evening at home I sit and say to myself (in a pathetic woe is me voice) ‘who looks after me’?

    There is no second income, there is no supportive shoulder and there is no-one to sometimes, just sometimes, say ‘sit down, I’ll take over from now’

    On the other side – I have a wonderful and brilliant ex-husband who looks after the Wolf cub on ‘his’ evenings and weekends and I have a fab job that I love and we do manage to muddle through financially. I love being in charge of my house and I love the close relationship I have with my daughter.

    • 24th March 2013 / 11:21 pm

      I sometimes have the, “Who’s taking care of me?” moment – usually when I’m feeling particularly sick and pathetic and can’t persuade anyone to come over!

  11. Ali
    23rd March 2013 / 9:04 am

    I know my life is made so much easier by having the husband to lean on but, all those neuroses you have? I get my own crazy versions! If something awful happened to the Mr. how would I cope? Would I even still be allowed to keep my daughter (she’s not mine by birth). My Dad brought up my bro and I by himself, he was awesome and made everything seem so easy, I swear he did a better job than I ever could! So calm and collected – I think single-parent families do often seem calmer, is that just me?

    • 24th March 2013 / 11:22 pm

      I agree single parent families can be calmer – I know all parents have the same neuroses to some extent, I just think what’s scary for a single parent is the responsibility and the way it weighs on you ALONE – and often when people say, “I felt like a single parent this week” they’re talking about the work and effort and hours, and they miss the point of what single parenting IS, I think. Does that make sense?

  12. 23rd March 2013 / 9:56 am

    Fantastic post and one I can relate too. When I was a single parent it was all of the times when my daughter was poorly in the middle of the night that the responsibility of doing it all alone completely overwhelmed me. I was a single parent from the month I got pregnant and it was hard. But it was also unbelievably rewarding and my daughter and I now have a wonderful relationship built from the foundations of all of those years when it was just the two of us. Great writing!
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    • 24th March 2013 / 11:23 pm

      Thanks, the middle of the night illnesses are the worst – it’s the time when I just wish, wish, wish with all my heart there was someone there. There’s nothing worse that being alone and terrified, for yourself, or your child. It sucks.

    • Sophie
      18th July 2013 / 7:11 pm

      Thank you for this post and all the comments. It’s given me courage. I’m 6wks pregnant today and my Boyf of 9months is emotionally blackmailing me into having an abortion I don’t want. So I’ve just made the decision to do this on my own and be a single mum. I’m petrified of everything- of giving birth on my own, of the responsibility, of the exhaustion, of the ability to afford child are so I can work to pay the bills, everything. But I know I can do it. It’ll be tough but I’m going todo it. So thank you. Inspirational post

  13. 23rd March 2013 / 10:55 am

    I take my hat off to any single mum. Even with my OH to help I find it so hard sometimes. I can then just leave z in safe hands and have a long bath, nip out for a bit and its those days (thankfully not too many) where, if I’m ill, the OH can take over for a bit!
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    • 24th March 2013 / 11:23 pm

      Ha! Luckily I raised an independent child so I’m able to bathe, and have lie-ins πŸ™‚

  14. 24th March 2013 / 2:38 pm

    Despite knowing many single parents (both male and female), Single Parenting wasn’t something I’d ever spent much time thinking about. However, having my son (now 2) gave me a newfound respect for single parents. Given how tough both my husband and I have found raising a child as a couple (particularly at the newborn stage, although the challenges get tougher!) I couldn’t imagine having to do this without someone there to give me some help/a second opinion/listen/even change a nappy/ etc. whenever I needed it. I salute you *gives army salute and tips cap* πŸ™‚
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    • 24th March 2013 / 11:24 pm

      I shall accept the hat tip happily πŸ™‚

  15. Zoe
    24th March 2013 / 9:24 pm

    Sometimes it is the intensity that is hard for me. Not so much the decision making, but yes that too.

    But, the simple one on one day in day out, with no-one there to both distract and accompany you on the journey.

    • 24th March 2013 / 11:24 pm

      Yes, the intensity. I don’t find making decisions too hard, but I do then have guilt afterwards – because if I’ve fecked up totally, and when she’s older some horrible consequence comes to pass, that’s really just down to me, isn’t it?

  16. 24th March 2013 / 9:33 pm

    I am not a single parent and was not raised by one and so in all honesty have never thought too deeply about the idea. (I live in a bit of a bubble). This is a great post and has really got me thinking – When I am having a bad day and counting down the minutes until the bloke gets home to take over I just take it for granted. I think you must be so strong for being a single mum and it must be like worrying enough for two parents! I promise to never ever make the ‘feels like a single mum’ comment though!
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    • 24th March 2013 / 11:27 pm

      Yes, there’s nobody to count down the minutes with. I think some of my worst moments as a single Mum have been when I’ve just had a really, truly terrible thing happen and there’s no opportunity to just go for a walk, or rush off to see someone, or fix something, or even just hide in the bathroom for a bit of a meltdown. You just keep on keeping on… it’d be lovely sometimes to have someone I could count down the seconds for.

  17. 26th March 2013 / 10:39 am

    Am I the only one who sees it as a positive? I’ve got to say I don’t envy any of my married friends…

    I don’t have to tiptoe around the house because my ex is in a mood.
    I don’t have to sort him out as well as the kids – he took up more headspace than both my girls together.
    My girls have a consistent set of rules at home.
    There’s no playing off one parent against another.
    We DO things together. Unlike married friends who spend their weekends shopping / gardening / on house projects, we go out and experience/ adventure / enjoy. Ok so the hoovering may not be done but at least no one’s nagging us about it.
    My girls aren’t experiencing bickering, arguing parents.
    The fact there is no one there to discuss haircuts/ immunisations etc etc means there is no one to argue about haircuts/ immunisations etc. Do I miss it? No.

    It makes me smile when people think because we’re a single parent home we live off benefits – they couldn’t be further from the truth, I’ve always had a rewarding career and now run my own business, focusing on single parents, who like most of us, refuse to conform to that awful media stereotype.

    Would I rush into a family set up? NO! Although the coming years may see me dating, I enjoy being a single parent and my kids are happy, balanced and performing extremely well at school and the two will not converge. We have a large network of single parent friends we look on as a kind of extended family and more things in the diary than I could ever have dreamed of as a child in my traditional, married family upbringing.

    Chrissie x

  18. 26th March 2013 / 11:46 am

    I don’t think you’re unusual to have worst case scenarios on your mind. I would regularly be near panic attack state, particularly when my boy was much younger, worrying what would happen if I was ill, injured or worse, and didn’t get up in the morning. Who would know? What would happen to him? In both the immediate and long-terms.

    Think it may be a case of only really understanding when you are in the situation, and it did irk a little when blissfully happy married parents would say they ‘felt’ like a single mum or dad this week because their partner had worked late or not helped with a bath time. “I may as well be a single parent” was one of my least favourite quips.
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  19. jen
    30th April 2013 / 8:10 pm

    Great article, the part about choosing between doing the CPR and calling the ambulance really got to me. I don’t know where I fit in with this topic. My partner left to work abroad when our baby was two weeks old and now at fourth months he has been back for only three weeks. The money he sends is to cover the baby’s costs, everything else is my responsibility, If can’t make the rent we would have no where to live. The parts I dislike are having all my meals alone, and being alone in the evening. I can find coffee dates for daytimes but friends with families obviously want to spend their time in the evening with them, while single friends will be out doing other stuff.

  20. Hayley
    4th May 2013 / 5:17 pm

    This is perhaps one of the most honest descriptions of what it’s like being a single parent, I have those exact same thoughts go through my head, usually once I put little one to bed.

  21. Munchkin
    28th May 2013 / 9:40 pm

    I have absolutely loved reading this ! It has been put out there with great humour and irony but the point has still been made! Sometimes it feels like its just you that thinks these things probably due to the fact you have no one to discuss it with !! Or when you do try to explain the response is mainly yes it is hard but we all had to to it!! Or suck it up and get on with it…. well thats exactly what i gave been doing every hour every day for 15 months now have you not noticed lol but actually no you didn’t have to do EVERYTHING on your own! And when I say everything it sounds like you know exactly what I mean! Everything from changing every nappy doing every feed making yourself every cup of tea always waking up with the baby never having a lie in ( not just I can’t remember the last time I had a lie in) I literally haven’t lol what gets me the most is thinking that I am the only person who loves him like he deserves to be loved…. His dad left before he was born and my family are hardly ever around and my friends have there own lives

    So thank you very much for making me feel almost normal xxxxx much love to you all xx

  22. Adam
    15th August 2013 / 2:33 am

    I am new to blogging and still getting the hang of what I would like to share, how to share it and all the ins and outs of whats what. I came across your blog tonight and really enjoyed this. Single Parenting is different. I currently am in a joint custody arrangement but all that changes in a year when she starts kindergarten. Single parenting can be even more different with a father daughter combo. Thanks