Sunday, October 5, 2014

Time and the Single Working Parent

I'm exhausted.

Not "oh I didn't want to get up this morning because I wanted to hit snooze" exhausted.  Not "wow I sure am busy!" exhausted.  And not "I'd love to see you but I'm busy this week, so how about next week?" exhausted.

This is, "No matter what I do and how fast I go, I can't seem to catch my breath" exhausted.  This is "I want to live my best life, but no matter how fast I go, I can't seem to get it all done."

Last weekend Katherine and I took off for the islands and did our only camping trip of the summer (which I realize was actually in fall).  I was supposed to have the day off work - scheduled ages ago - but something important came up, so I ended up scrambling to go to work in the morning, working a good chunk of the day, throwing things in the car, and rushing not to be late to pick her up at school.  We set up our tent in the dark and went to bed as soon as we arrived at the camping spot, exhausted and trying to be quiet so as not to disturb the other campers who arrived at a more sane time of day.  We had a lovely day on Saturday - watching orca whales! - but Sunday was another mad scramble, stopping at the grocery store on the way home from camping, staying up late to unload all of the camping equipment and dry out the rain fly and such, and get ready for the week.  I ran the laundry, but it never made it out of the laundry baskets this week.  Saturday was blissful, but it came at a cost, because the extra work of Friday and Sunday made me so tired that I could barely cope all this week.

This is how it is for me.  Either I sorta kinda stay caught up, but all I do is work and chores, or I allow myself to have some fun but that pushes the chores into the nighttime or  means that they don't get done.  I usually pay bills and do paperwork on the weekends, but this week the stack of mail grew taller and taller, on top of last week's, and spilled onto the floor a couple of times.  I try to clean the house every weekend, but being gone, the tumbleweeds of dog hair (others have dust bunnies, but with my dog we call them dust buffaloes) are blowing around the house.

But the chores are only a symptom of the real problem.  I'm impossibly tired, and on the edge of tears before I go to bed most nights.  I can't get it all done.  And the cost of pursuing the life that I want - one filled with orca whales and camping trips, for example - is that I have to squeeze out other activities to do those life-affirming activities, but those chores need to get done, and so I sleep less and less, and the fatigue threatens to make me non-functional.


When I read articles about divorce (and I do), many times people talk about wanting to liberate themselves to be their best self; or they talk about leading an authentic life; or they talk about how their partners didn't support their dreams.  They talk about how, in divorce, they hope to find true happiness, unburdened as they are from the negativity of their marriages.

This is not a bad idea.  Divorce is a horrible process, no matter how well it's done (and my observation is that very few people do divorce well), and nobody should go into it without the belief that their lives will be infinitely better as a result of the divorce.  Why divorce otherwise?

But something few people talk about is that it is really, really hard to pursue your best life.  It's difficult when your partner is unsupportive or worse, that's true.  I know that I was struggling to stay afloat in my marriage, and I did not know how to pursue my best life in that environment; I knew that my marriage made me feel like I couldn't breathe, and I needed oxygen to stay alive.  But what we don't talk about as much is that it can be just as hard to pursue our dreams after divorce as it is during a toxic marriage.

Yes, you heard that properly.  PollyAnna, the optimist, is advising caution.  PollyAnna, the optimist, is pointing out some rather unpleasant truths.  Divorce does not solve all of your problems, and it creates some new ones.

Bear with me, readers.  I won't leave you hanging, and I won't stay in this negative space, but I'd like you to join me in this hard reality for a little bit.


I have more dreams than I can count: I am good at locating my dreams and pursuing them.  In general, I'm a really happy person, filled with joie de vivre.  All of that is true.

But the not-so-big-secret is that I find myself struggling, often, in this new life of mine.

I am actively chasing my career right now.  I must.  I'm 45 years old and I took a ten year nap (to quote Meg Wolitzer's idea).  I am never, ever going to be able to retire, and I have enough money to put my daughter through less than a year of college, and if my car breaks down - as I think it might - I'm screwed.  Financially, I need to be really focused on my job - I'm at the bottom of the pay scale for my profession, and I need to climb the ladder.  PERSONALLY, I need to focus on my job, too.  I'm a smart lady and I don't belong at the bottom of anything, and I need to have the personal satisfaction of working my way to the place I wish to be.

Overtime.  Work stress.  More and more responsibilities.  And you know who is supporting that?  Nobody.  Do you know who is picking up extra childcare, helping with chores, making more meals?  Nobody.  Do you know who I talk to about how to budget for the new car, whether to replace the rain gutter or the garage scaffolding first?  Nobody. 

When I come home each day, there is nobody to balance this out with.  The morning's dishes are still in the sink, the wash still needs to be transferred to the dryer, the "check engine" light is still on.  Katherine still has the question about math problem number 8c, the dog still hasn't been walked, the flu shot still hasn't been scheduled, the bills didn't magically pay themselves, and dinner hasn't appeared on the table.  While I'm making dinner, nobody is checking the bank balance.  While I'm checking the bank balance, nobody is helping Katherine with problem 8c.  While I mow the lawn, the groceries aren't appearing in the refrigerator.

When I was married, it was dysfunctional and awful.  I wouldn't ever want to go back.  But I will say this: though being in a toxic marriage was exhausting, there was someone there to share all of that with.  He didn't manage it well, and he certainly didn't pull his whole share (mine was not a 50/50 marriage by ANYONE's analysis), but it turns out that 10% help would make a big difference. 

I can do the lion's share, but it's hard to do 100%.

My ex has our daughter a little bit.  On Wednesdays, I work late, because he's got her until 8pm.  This means I can stay at the office (getting less far behind), and then walk in the door at the same time Katherine returns home.  This is not exactly relaxing.  This is my weekend without Katherine, and that means that I had time to go in to the office yesterday before going to her gymnastics meet to see her compete (her dad took her, I met them there).  My ex's time with our daughter allows me to stay afloat, but it's not enough that I can get ahead.

I'm getting it done.  There may be dust buffaloes and such, but I'm doing it.  But there are days, weeks, and months where I feel like what I'm doing is surviving, not thriving.  Sometimes this fills me with pain - I so desperately want to live my best life, and instead I feel like I'm scrambling to write memos and just stay fed with clean clothes on.

And I want to thrive.

A short list of some of my dreams:

- Run a marathon (which involves running 4x/week, including a several hour run on weekends, and doing yoga and/or weights on another day; I am barely working out twice a week right now and my fitness has fallen and my weight has gone up as a result)
- Write a book (I started it, I know what I want to do, but it sits waiting for me)
- Travel (time? money?)
- Volunteer (I love saving the world, and I have a favorite cause that I work with)
- Be an AMAZING mom, the kind who is patient and kind and a good teacher and knows how to teach discipline but also to be playful and model a joyful life
- Find time to date in order to find the partner I dream about (I haven't forgotten my dream of the man on the sailboat...)
- Be a rock star in my career
- Care for my home to create a beautiful environment to live in, a place of comfort and ease

....and I want to have time to just stop and enjoy, too.  I love to wander the farmer's market, go beach combing, curl up with tea on the sofa and read books, meet a friend for a glass of wine, go to the movies or live theater.  And I want to be a good friend, the kind who brings soup when you're sick
and makes time to celebrate your birthday with you.  And a good family member, too. 

And I'd like to do it all while being stylish, and eating healthy home made meals that are organic and locally sourced.  I'd like my dog to be well exercised, I'd like to be caught up at the doctor, the dentist, and the vet.  I'd like my gutters to be clean, my garden to be weed free.  I'd like to take up kayaking and skiing.

If I haven't lost you in that list of minutia, perhaps you're as exhausted as I am reading all of that.  How on earth does one fit it all in?

It's impossible.  And it's even more impossible without some support at home.

There are so many days when I don't work out, or write, or volunteer, or plan travel.  There are so many days when the house is dusty and the laundry is in a basket at the end of my bed, not neatly put away, and I haven't talked to a friend in a week because I'm just going between work and making dinner and checking homework and gymnastics and there isn't a minute left.


I know that everyone struggles to lead their best lives.  The self-help section is booming with books telling us how to do better.  We hear it in the background of coffee shops and people discuss what they're doing and why it is or isn't working.  Magazines are filled with articles about it.

The reality is, this world is made for families with two parents, and if you're a single parent, you need to do the work of two people.  If you have a divorce where you are with your child most of the time, as I do (a privilege that I would not change for all the money and time in the world, by the way: I LOVE that Katherine is my daughter, and I will never understand why Bryan took less than 50/50, and I'm grateful that his foolishness allows me to fully raise the daughter that I adore), and you aren't independently wealthy, you're going to struggle as I do.  I'd love to call the gardener, house cleaner, personal shopper, and handyman....but it's not going to happen, as those things require money.  There is no yard service.  When I bring my car to get worked on, I don't know how to pay the mechanic, let alone rent another car in the interim.  What I end up doing is packing up Katherine and her homework and my laptop, and spending part of a Saturday afternoon at the auto-shop, doing homework and work as the car is worked on.  Not exactly the stuff of thriving.

If you're planning on being a single parent, you would be wise to be aware of all of this.  You may envision your new boyfriend and candlelit dinners, but you'd better envision some of this, too, because it's a big part of the reality as well.


And yet.

And yet, I'm trying.

And yet, I'm trying, and I won't give up.

I believe that the life I want is still waiting for me, and that every day I'm getting closer.

Having awoken from my ten year nap of being a cancer-patient-stay-at-home-mom-in-a-toxic-marriage, I have energized my career and I'm making it happen.  I'm in the busy season at work, and I'm doing a good job.  I am not on track to run a marathon any more, or even a half marathon, but I meet a friend at 5:15am twice a week to work out, and I try to do a couple more workouts on my own.  I DID go see the whales, and they were gorgeous and life affirming.  My garden is a wreck, but I do make healthy home made meals most days.  Katherine is a wonder of light and love, and we get along really well, and no matter how tired I am, I make time to help her with her homework.  As I write this the laundry is running.  And by the time Katherine gets home tonight, the fridge will be refilled for the week, the dust buffaloes will be vacuumed.  I got a bit caught up at work yesterday, and might go again today to get more ahead.

And there is a cute dad at gymnastics who has been gently flirting with me, so maybe one of these days I'll even get a candlelight dinner again.

If you're considering divorce because you can't breathe in your marriage, I want to tell you that the fresh air from leaving that toxicity is so beautiful and healing that it can make you weep from gratitude.  If your partner is emotionally or physically abusive, physical, manipulative, selfish, or lacking in integrity, and you've done what you can to try to change that but it's not working, I send you prayers of love and light and healing and hope, because it wasn't that long ago that I was suffering through those feelings, too.

If you feel unsatisfied in your marriage, like there is more to life, and your partner is boring you, I suggest you take a long, hard look at your life before you make a change.  Being a single parent is not for sissies.  Perhaps you are wiser and luckier than I am, and you'll leave a boring marriage and replace it with a sparkling life, perhaps with a handsome, romantic, sexy partner who is a great cook as well as being a fabulous role model for your children AND independently wealthy...but that has not been my experience.

Being a single mom takes more energy than I might have dreamed possible.  Putting Katherine's needs first - it doesn't matter how tired or busy at work I am, we have a commitment to be at gymnastics, and she needs to eat healthy food, and if she needs help with homework then I need to pull up a chair and help her - isn't easy, and there isn't a back-up plan.  Managing the work of a house, and of a life, without a partner is not easy.  I often wish that I could clone myself to be in two places.....I need to work late, but I need to be home to care for child and home.  And pursuing my dreams is sometimes harder because of that.


Yes, I'm exhausted.  Deeply exhausted.

But I'm still going, and I'm doing my best, and some days, I think I make progress.

The difference between me and the not-so-PollyAnna-ish folks out there is that I'm not going to give up.  I'm willing to push myself just a bit harder.  I will not tune out of my dreams and binge-watch Netflix (well, not that often, anyway!) because I simply will not give up.  I know that it's impossible to get it all done, and that I have little chance of qualifying for the Boston Marathon will getting major promotions in my career while publishing my book while managing my garden while camping every weekend in the summer and skiing every weekend in the winter while falling in love and having the grand romance of my dreams while traveling the world while being the best mom in the world while having a Martha Stewart style house and eating only locally sourced organic home made meals.  I know that.

And yet, I keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing better some days than others.

Dear reader, this is what I encourage you to do.  If you are contemplating divorce, or you are a single parent, and you're struggling to stay afloat and to keep the exhaustion at bay, just don't stop.  Fight hard for what you want.  I know that very rarely do the magical unicorns appear, but rainbows do show up every now and then, and there are four leaf clovers every so often.  If you dream of whales, go where the whales are.

Life isn't easy, and I think I know that better than some (and less than others).  But it IS rich with possibility, and that's what we're fighting for.  I think that gymnastics dad is going to ask me out, and I have a good feeling about it....but if he doesn't, it's okay.  I think my career is really taking off, and this time next year could be very different....but if it takes longer than that, it's okay.  I think I'll get the laundry done and the groceries purchased and my dog walked before Katherine comes back tonight, but if I don't, that's okay.  I'm on the committee for the nonprofit I volunteer for, and I'm going to help them.  I will set my alarm for 4:30am Monday so that I can get in a run.  Next weekend, I'm going to do a beautiful hike.  There are never, ever enough hours in the day.

I'm working on these dreams of mine...and it's worth it. 

Even with the exhaustion. 

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