It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Sometimes, Saying Nothing is the Kindest Response; or, People Can’t Read Minds

“Here she is. Gotta go. Boys have to get to their bus. Philip’s away for a few days and I’m a single mother and it’s just so hard.”

All this is delivered in her usual quiet but rapid-fire way. She’s looking considerably harried. I smile sympathetically and ask when Philip will be back.

“He’s gone for three days. He’ll be back on Sunday evening.”

A few seconds more commiseration and off she flies, secure in the sympathy of another woman.

Except she’s not getting it. Not really. Not from me.

Not her fault. She doesn’t know.

She’s on her own with three kids for three days. That’s all. Not a cakewalk, but not verge-of-desperation, either. She may complain about her husband, but it this is telling: she misses him when he’s gone.

I’m now in a wonderful long-term partnership (we’re getting married next month!) but I’ve been a single mother of three. I’ve also been a married single mother of three.

What’s a ‘married single’? A married single has a husband in theory – and we will not discount the advantages of having someone to pay the bills – but really, he’s an absence, not a presence. He’ll work 70, 80, 90 hours a week. Because he’s tired and stressed, he’ll be short-tempered when he is home. Because he works (while, presumably, you sit at home with the three kids watching TV and eating bon-bons) the children have to be kept quiet when he’s around. And there can’t be any mess, because that interferes with his ability to relax.

And you can’t expect him to assist with cooking or cleaning. And he doesn’t have time “right now” (and it’s always “right now”) to talk with you. And he’s too tired “right now” to play with the kids. And when the children wake at night, you deal.

And even when you get a ‘real’ job, and are also working outside the home, all this remains your job. Of course you’re the one who found the caregiver, and who interacts with her, who gets the kids there and picks them up. And you’re still getting up in the night with nightmares and wet beds, and you’re still keeping them quiet because daddy is tired from work. And it’s never a good time “right now” for him to leave work when a child spews all over the caregiver’s living room floor.

(And sometimes, if you’re truly unlucky, when things are really bad, he may even find it necessary to express his tensions not just with shouting but with pushing, slapping, kicking, and punching.)

That’s a married single. Did I miss him when he travelled? Not so’s you’d notice, no.

Nope. My harried client has nothing to complain about. But she doesn’t know that. And you know what? I hope she never does.

April 27, 2007 - Posted by | parents, random and odd


  1. Mary, that just sounds awful. I’m glad you were able to get yourself out of that situation. I’ve always had the impression from your blog posts that you’re very happy now, which is great.

    It is easy to get caught up in one’s own situation and fall into a “things are so hard” frame of mind. I catch myself doing that sometimes – money-wise, child-care-wise, etc – and have to remind myself that we’re not rich but we’re certainly not poor or even really struggling (not compared to some of my in-laws, for sure), I have two great and well-behaved kids (who are super-cute, to boot) that I truly enjoy spending time with, a great hubby who shares household/child care duties pretty much 50/50, etc. Not too much to complain about, in the grand scheme of things!

    Comment by BookMama | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  2. The ol’ smile and nod works everytime. I used to have a bad habit of filling people in on my early single parenthood horror stories when they would complain about trifles such as this but found that it just made people feel worse.

    I learned that it is much better to appreciate their frustrations and just be glad that not everyone has to go through same stuff.

    Kudos for the way you handled it.

    Comment by Sheri | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  3. During pregnancy, I participated in a “due date club” online. After our babies were born, I suddenly felt downright lucky in comparison to some of the other gals in the group. I was legally single, so expected to do it all myself. Some of them, on the other hand, quickly found themselves “married-single.” What a mess.

    My new dh recently traveled for 2 weeks, and you know, it really showed me how much I’ve gotten used to having a second adult to help out — and what a good man I found.

    Good for you for moving on and finding a partner instead of just a check-provider!

    Comment by Allison | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  4. mmm, been there done that. Has taken my friends years to realise that I really am happy to be single, never ever want to go back to being ‘married single’! x

    Comment by jenny uk | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  5. […] Sometimes, Saying Nothing is the Kindest Response; or, People Can’t Read Minds […]

    Pingback by More Coffee Please » Alone, but not alone | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  6. And I, personally, hope her kids never have to go the step further and experience part-time living with an absent single-father. You know, the one who is too busy to fill the fridge, or play with his kids the two days a week they’re there and instead spends all his time on the phone with his girlfriend, yelling at them when they dare enter his room seeking attention or care, and slamming the door in their faces.

    Some days I’m tempted to become a social worker, just so I can play superhero to kids stuck in those situations.

    Comment by Haley | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  7. My mother brought all seven of us up as a married single, but with the added stress of the husband not working, not bringing in the money, nd being a downright liability around the kids. That’s why, no matter how much she frustrates me at times, I still have great respect (and love) for my mother. My father, Pah! I have no emotion whatsoever to waste on him.

    It’s also why, despite the fact that my mother worries that i have married my father!, I have chosen a man who is fully involved in all aspects of the home & kids lives.

    Oh yes, and from the child’s point of view – I desperately wated my parents to split up, and would have been a much happier child if they had, I am sure. Staying together “for the children” is not good for them, or for you.

    Comment by juggling mother | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  8. Your post made me appreciate my life, and Haley’s comment made me very sad. Hugs to you both xx

    Comment by z | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  9. I’m glad you’re shortly to be married MARRIED, with a real live wonderful husband.

    And I’m going to go kiss mine now. I feel very, very lucky. Thanks for reminding us!

    Comment by Heath | April 27, 2007 | Reply

  10. It annoys me when people casually use the ‘single mother’ title, like you client sort of does here. It is unbelievable to me what so many women parent through.

    3 days, even two weeks does not a singleton make.. I so admire those who do it and feel so lucky to have a partner with me.

    Comment by mo-wo | April 28, 2007 | Reply

  11. ooooh one of my pet peeves is women saying they will be “single parenting it for a few days”. NO NO NO! arrrrggg . I was married single for 2 & 1/2 years & have now been separated for 3 years (the one not being the cause of the other) and it’s NOT THE SAME.

    No one to share worries, about little one(s) with, no one to share in the moments of ride, no one to pick up the milk on the way home, no one to listen to one’s rants about work, no one to cuddle in front of a movie, no one to take over the morning routine when a 24-hour bug lays you flat, no one to make sure the car dealership isn’t trying to pull one over on you, no one to share the costs of running a household …. maybe my ex didn’t do all – hey, much! – of the things a good father & partner does, but in the very beginning, before the married single stage, he WAS there some, did carry the playpen to the car or help fix dinner or take a turn bathing baby … he was someone who at the time knew as much about our child as i did, who I could share the little moments with ……

    I agree, hope your harried client never does have to find out what it’s really like, but boy-oh-boy I wish those in her position would STOP using the phrase “single parent”.

    *sigh* Is it too early to have a drink?

    Comment by victoria | April 30, 2007 | Reply

  12. It’s always noon Somewhere in the world….

    Comment by Wolfen | April 30, 2007 | Reply

  13. Mary! First off, Congratulations to you! Somehow I missed that nugget of info about you. I am so damned happy for you!
    Secondly, your description of life as a ‘married-single’ was riveting. I know it only made you the strong person you are now but how horrible, the experience.

    Sometimes (in the case of your client) it almost seems some women actually LIKE having something to complain about rather than realizing how much worse things can actually be. But I suppose we’ve all done it at one time or another. It’s good of you to not be annoyed with her.

    Comment by Mama's Moon | May 1, 2007 | Reply

  14. It’s true, it’s just a little taste. Hopefully enough for her to have empathy for other truly single mothers if she ever should be in a place to offer some. I honestly goggle to think of how my mother managed being a single from when I was 1.5 until I was five, and going to school full time and working shifts at my co op daycare and on and on. It’s pretty amazing.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 1, 2007 | Reply

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