Looking Back, Moving Forward
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Don’t let daily stressors come between you and your children
I am a Solo Mom. I was married for 24 years but have been divorced for about four. I am also very lucky. I have two amazing daughters, both very different and accomplished in their own ways.
We have faced obstacles in life, and we have been resilient. Saying goodbye to my ex-husband ripped my heart in two, and I can only imagine how it felt for my girls. But I have moved on, and so have they, and they are establishing relationships with their father in new ways.
Although I’m happy my daughters are rebuilding relationships with their father, sometimes I am bothered by how their relationships with him have been glamorized in the past. I can see the evidence in the many family photos that, after four years, I’ve unearthed and begun to go through.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being more appealing than perhaps you deserve to be, but recently I came to understand that I helped to construct this perception of my ex.
During my marriage, I did many things to make life with Dad feel fun. He wasn’t just anyone; he was the parent who was a friend and confidant to our daughters. He returned to the house at night, no matter how tired from the demands of the day, to hang out, laugh, and enjoy the girls.
Of course I wanted to do that, too.
But instead, I arrived home to a mountain of domestic tasks, and I used the evenings to take these on—organizing the kids’ activities, transporting them to and from all the places they wanted to go, and making sure homework was done as well as mundane household tasks such as cleaning, organizing, and communicating. Thinking back, I now realize that I gave my ex-husband the opportunity to be the fun parent. I gave him the fun role. (To be totally honest, he did do the cooking, but I did the cleanup and most of everything else in the household.)
As I took on the domestic tasks, more emerged, and I took those on, too. Believing that robust resilience was a necessary quality for a mother in a two-career, two-child household, I decided to deal with the demands related to my family and work and give my ex-husband quality time to spend with his daughters. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it was a decision nonetheless. I let him be the fun parent who had time to listen and relax with my children. Meanwhile, as I took more on, I became less appealing and less attractive—and certainly less fun to be around. The family photos show the stress in my face and the fun in theirs. In many, my ex-husband and the girls are laughing, being silly, or relaxing; among the few photos of the girls and me, you often can see exhaustion in my face even as I was smiling.
At the time, I didn’t know all this. I remember thinking that I wanted to encourage quality time between him and the children because he had a demanding job with a very structured on-call schedule, especially on weekends. But why wasn’t I also thinking that I needed the same quality time with my daughters? After all, I, too, had a very demanding job, albeit with a schedule that was somewhat more flexible.
That is the question that rocks me today. I could answer it by talking about how complicated kids can be and the particular challenges facing my daughters, given that my youngest has an autism spectrum diagnosis and a lifelong intellectual disability, but doing that points the answer to my kids rather than myself.
Why didn’t I work hard to ensure that my daughters knew I was a fun and appealing parent to hang out with? The answer is complicated, influenced by many things, including the larger gender context that we live in.
But for the future, two things are clear. First, decisions by default are themselves decisions: I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. Second, laughing and having fun with my children are essential ingredients for healthy Solo Mom–daughter relationships.
So after looking back, I am done with the old and moving forward.
Katharine Donato is a Solo Mom and writer. She is also a professor with strong interests in international migration.
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