Perched atop my left shoulder is a cute little angel. She’s there all the time–peering at my life from her little white stadium chair, mostly nodding approval, and periodically getting up to whisper something into my ear. “Nice job!” “You killed it today!” “Trust your gut—you’ve got this.” “Great hair day!” “Wait! Not yet!” “Yay!!!!!” “Stay above it.” “Impressive!!” She’s a pretty fabulous little angel, and I love sharing my thoughts with her.

Pacing back and forth on my right shoulder is a grouchy, impatient, self-absorbed little diva who I secretly call, “Dowdy.” She’s the reason I see a physical therapist for neck pain. Dowdy is a control freak, and she doesn’t trust my decisions. Most of what comes out of her mouth is toxic. For the most part, I try to ignore her, but she complains non-stop, and some days, unfortunately, I find myself listening.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. 

As a divorcee and mother of three, raising my children to be healthy and happy has been the top priority in my life for more than 15 years. I am a single mom, and while my life shares endless similarities with married moms, grandmother-moms, guardian-moms and other caregivers, “single mom” is my category in the parenting world. When I moved into that unfamiliar category, freshly divorced, lost, with a small child in each arm, I took on a lot of the stereotypes that I associated with “single mom life” – both good and bad.

The first and craziest role was that of Master Juggler. Whether we are a place of thriving, or barely surviving, many single mothers go to great lengths to make sure their children are okay. This means making countless decision every day about their well-being, and balancing the choices and their requirements. We just toss those balls in the air, figure it out on the way up, and yell, “Keep ‘em coming!”

The decisions that face single mothers begin before the children even awaken and continue long into the night. Breakfast? Clothing? School? Health? Money? Birthdays? Holidays? Vacations? Stability? Lunch? Manners? Behaviors? Performance in school? Summer camps? Team sports? Individual activities? Transportation? Attitudes? Spiritual growth? Emotional health? Relationships with family members? Dating? Hurts? Talents? Disabilities? Competition? Dinner? Bath time? Bed time? On time? Extra time? Alone time? Family time? QUIET TIME!

Make it stop!

(cue the balls tumbling to the ground)

Where Doubt Creeps In

Being in charge of another human life is this incredible responsibility, and the single mother faces many of these decisions alone. Sometimes, she has various support networks offering suggestions to help inform her choices, but at the end of the day, Mom makes the call, and the responsibility rests with her.

Living in this situation can leave a lot of room for doubt—even with the best of parents. In my life, the choices about my children definitely became my triggers for self-doubt.

For me, the full weight of the day’s choices would come to rest on my shoulders. Well, not really come to rest. That sounds like something gentle falling softly onto a feather pile. No, decisions coming to rest was more like tiny dumbbells falling out of the sky and landing in huge piles on my shoulders. My angel, on the left, would leave her comfy stadium chair, and begin sorting through these decisions, chatting with me about how I chose to handle things, and then tossing the decisions off of my shoulders. After all, they were already made—there was no need to be weighed down by them.

But with Dowdy, that dramatic diva on the right,…well, no such luck. She’d start analyzing my decisions one by one and grilling me about them. “Are you sure?” Doubt it. “Good luck with THAT!” Doubt it. “And you think your daughter’s going to get invited again next year?” Doubt it. “Did you ask so-and-so?” Doubt it. “Where do you think we’re going to find time for that???” Doubt it. “Did God really tell you that?” Doubt it. “Was there anything closer?” Doubt it. “NOOOOO! You didn’t seriously tell him yes, did you?” “Well, this is going to backfire.” “Did you even pray this time?” Doubt it. “And you’re certain…???” Doubt it. “What’s your mother going to think?” Doubt it. “I guess you think you’re going to just take off from work again?” Doubt it. “Helloooo? Are you imagining money in the bank?” “No, it’s not going to be okay.” “He’ll be crushed.” “You think he’s going to trust you?” Doubt it. “We’ll be cleaning that mess up later.” “You know they’re going to want to spend more time with their dad.” “And you REALLY thought that was your best choice?” Doubt it. Doubt it. Doubt it.

Oh yeah, it was that bad. And that was every day x 3 children, and all the rest of life.

Unlike my cheerleading angel, Dowdy didn’t throw anything off of my shoulder; she kept everything right there, so that in addition to questioning my new decisions, she had me fretting over old ones. It felt like it never let up, and sadly, as days turned into months, and months turned into years, I spent more and more time feeling “not okay.”

Single moms often find themselves caught in this trap. The weight grows and bears down. Depression and anxiety creep in. Too many nights are spent crying. Prayers begin to feel like repetitive pleas. Calls to friends and family begin to sound like the same old complaints. You begin to understand the real meaning of the word, “hopelessness.”

In a steady, but subtle pattern, self-doubt creates a dark, reflective lens through which the single mother sees herself and sees the world.

But its picture is not the truth.

There is Another Side to the Story

The little angel on our other shoulder is jumping up and down, waving, and frantically trying to get our attention. She’s cheering in our ear, hoping desperately we’ll listen to her message.

Single mothers are champions at life and life-giving. They are survivors who manage to keep rising and rising and rising. Single moms are experts at juggling and balancing, and if the outside world sees them as a little frazzled, it is because the single mom has learned how to move at 100 miles per minute, and hairstyles and clothing don’t keep up at that speed.

Single mothers know their children better than anyone else, so they are vigilant advocates for their educational rights and fairness in social settings. Single mothers see their mistakes more clearly than anyone else ever could, so they often use them as teachable moments to empower their children.

Single mothers grow stories, learn lessons, and gain wisdom from a unique perspective, and that allows them to teach and guide younger men and women.

Single mothers are gifts to this earth, and without them, some children would grow up with no parent in their lives at all.

Refilling the Teacup

My daughter’s counselor, Dr. Clarissa, uses a phrase, “refill your teacup.” What this means is to take time to pour into yourself the things that refresh, delight and relax you. My daughter and I spent a few weeks discussing her teacup (and my own) and identifying real things that bring us joy, help us relax, and re-awaken us. Using the language of the teacup gives us a simple way to remember to take precious, important time for ourselves.

All single mothers need to think about what refills their teacups, write those down in three categories (Refresh, Delight, Relax), and then DO some of those things regularly and as needed. This helps combat the anxiety and depression that come with self-doubt. It creates mental and emotional space so we can breathe.

I found a neighborhood with a beautiful walking path, a small lake and a fountain. Now I drive to that neighborhood about once a week and walk 2-3 miles around the path; this is a Refresh. I Delight in new things and simple pleasures. I watch slugs crawl after rainfall. I sit on my porch and look at the sky. At the lake, I get as close to the mother duck and ducklings as they will allow, and then laugh as they waddle quickly into the water and swim away. I laugh with my kids (and at them). I watch “grown-up movies” by myself on television…and it’s absolutely wonderful! For Relax, allow myself to acknowledge that I don’t always give 100%, sometimes, not even close. And that is both normal and okay. Additionally, remind myself that I am not perfect—I am perfectly imperfect—and that’s by design, and it’s also permanent.

Today, I will make a poor choice—I don’t know yet how it will work out. But I do know today will also contain wonderful moments, great choices, right decisions and positivity. I know that I love my kiddos, they love me, our family is doing well, and this evening, I’ll be having some tea.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash