“I don’t know how you do it.” It is the refrain that sole parents hear a lot, and nothing is more well-meant, or more maddening. Because the truth is that it is difficult to talk about the experience of (unplanned) single parenthood in a way that is fit for public consumption and also honest.
It can be lonely, hard, rage-inducing and, at times, apparently impossible. It is also joyful, funny and wonderful. During my daughter’s early years, one of my greatest escapes was (as it has always been) reading fiction. But the more I read, the more I wondered why the intensity of motherhood, and in particular single motherhood, had not been treated as a worthy literary subject by many writers.
James Joyce wrote a book about a guy just walking around Dublin. Why had no one ever done the interior monologue of a woman sitting through a mother’s group? Emily Brontë wrote the compelling tale of Heathcliff’s rage, but why had no writer ever attempted the same for a toddler? Why were there so few books about the minutiae of mothering?
I ended up attempting to redress this deficit by ploughing a lot of my thoughts about motherhood into my own novel. I wanted to express the reality of the experience, which is often beautiful, but not always. The relentless illnesses of a child’s early years take a huge toll on all parents, but this is particularly the case when you have no one to run to the chemist for Panadol for you, and no one to share the worry of a middle-of-the-night croup attack. There is no one to care for you when you, inevitably, get sick yourself.
I remember my daughter’s daycare bugs like waves in a vicious swell. All you could do was surface between each flu or gastro infection, and gulp a breath before the next one hit. When my daughter got hand, foot and mouth disease I was incredulous – how can this happen in the modern world? Surely someone should have cured this medievalism by now? Turns out, they have not. It also turns out you can’t take your kid back to day care until their sores have fully healed.
There was the time my daughter got nits on New Year’s Day – which is to say, I first noticed them on New Year’s Day. Dealing with a parasite infestation was not something I had included in my resolutions that year, but I got it done. That night my family came over and my sister-in-law handed me a nit comb, passing it on like a sacred talisman. “Keep it,” she said. “You’ll need it again.”
There was the time my daughter got gastro overnight and vomited all through her bed, then my bed, then my bed again (after I had changed the sheets). The next morning, she seemed improved, but by then I had the bug.
I attempted a fair-minded calculation of exactly how ethically suspect it would be to send her to daycare so I could vomit alone all day. That was my idea of luxury in those days. There was the time I cried tears of self-pity trying to construct a toddler bed by myself. I failed, and asked for help, because I was surrounded by family and friends who helped me a lot. Not everyone gets that.
For the single parent, pragmatism always wins over self-pity – you ask for assistance when you need to, but you also become extremely self-reliant and practical. I started to enjoy the survivalism of it, the challenge. Look what I can do! I can hold down a job, and also do this! And she is fed and clothed and seemingly happy!
Parenthood is also funny. I feel like people don’t talk about this enough. Spending time with a small child is like hanging out with your loosest drunk friend.
I was lucky enough to have secure employment, but the reality is that sole mothers are one of the country’s poorest cohorts. They are also chronically stressed – worrying about the cost of childcare, expensive housing, insecure work …
I was fortunate. I soon realised that the difficult elements of the situation were fundamentally wrapped up with the joyful and amazing whole of the situation – I had a beautiful child, and it was on me to care for her.
Parenthood – single or not – is also funny. I feel like people don’t talk about this enough. Spending time with a small child is like hanging out with your loosest drunk friend – they are unpredictable, they break things a lot, fall over heaps, and say things which are both crazy and outrageously truthful.
So when I look back on my child’s early years, yes, I remember the occasional moments of despair. But mostly I remember laughing. Laughter, and the mellow light of the art deco flat where we forged ourselves as a duo, and where she took her first step, and said her first word.
I have a partner now, for which both of us are extremely lucky (we were only a few months into our relationship when he nursed us through a gastro bout which landed me in hospital). But I will never forget those early years, and feel so grateful that I got them, even though they weren’t what I thought I wanted.
The Truth About Her (HarperCollins) by Jacqueline Maley is out now.
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