When I was growing up, I learned about different styles of parenting by comparing other parents to mine. When I became a babysitter as a teen, I saw that in some homes, things ran on schedule, with clear bedtimes and meal times. I liked that. Later, as an adult, I liked that my day at my job was organized, so with my children I began scheduling a daily routine.
I also found ways to think and act differently from how I was raised by educating myself about motherhood, reading magazines or books about parenting, attending family therapy, and speaking to other mothers. As my children grew up, I was proud of myself as a mother and I felt I had so much to offer my children.
Desperate and Chaotic
Then, when my son was 8 years old and my daughter was 2, my daughter’s father and I broke up. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed.
I decided to break up with her father because I wasn’t happy. When I was younger, part of me just wanted someone to love me enough to keep me near, and I focused all my energy on making my partner happy. But doing that, I lost my self. I forgot about the things that made me happy. How was I going to raise my children well if I was not happy?
But I made up my mind to leave my partner without knowing what big changes my children and I would have to face. It wasn’t easy to keep everything under control. Soon the reality of how hard it is to be a single mother hit. I felt desperate and chaotic. How I was going to keep everything going while paying everything by myself and being a parent to both children?
I wanted to run, scream, pull my hair, cry out, “Why me? What do I do next?”
I felt so lonely some days when I just wanted to talk to another adult, to have a pleasant conversation, and it was only me in our household. I would cry to my sisters—they are strong women, but I saw that they, too, had their breakdowns and felt alone, scared and desperate.
Many times, family members would take both my kids out just so I could have alone time to cry and empty out any memories of my boyfriend. I didn’t want my children to worry for me, but I needed my time to heal.
Trying for Perfection
At first, I tried to keep everything as normal as possible. I decided that, no matter what, I would do my best to keep the home that they had gotten used to, even though our rent was very expensive on my salary. Little by little I sold things out of my apartment, worked extra hours and went for help to neighborhood organizations.
I tried to shield my children from our financial problems.
Some days I’d hear my son asking me, “Pizza? It’s only Wednesday, Mom,” because we usually had pizza as a special treat, not a weekday meal.
“Yes!” I’d say with excitement, not letting on that the gas was cut off and Mommy had just made a payment from a bank with no funds. I also didn’t mention that Mommy had to run to the food pantry after work before picking up the kids, putting the food away like it was already in the cabinets.
I would tell myself, “Ilka, you’re an adult. You can do this.” But in some ways, I was trying too hard to be the mommy and the daddy, to keep things perfect. I was trying to work 9-5, then rush to pick my children up from two different schools, make dinner, help out with homework, and get in bed to do the same the next day. It was killing me.
I had no energy to even take my children out on the weekend. I was always cranky because I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep, but at the same time I felt guilty and I missed them. I knew I couldn’t live like that. In trying to keep things together financially, I was losing my temper and missing out on watching my children grow.
Slowly I have learned to manage my situation, to do the best I can and just prioritize what’s important. Sometimes that means having takeout instead of cooking, or leaving work early, because picking up my children and spending time with them means so much more to me than having a little extra money. My son and daughter won’t be 9 and 3 again. The smiles they greet me with are so rewarding.
A Calmer Home
What’s helped me maintain control and not feel lost is keeping organized. We’re back on a schedule and I have a to-do list. Keeping to our schedule makes things easier: Alex attends after-school, I put in my hours at work, and I still have time to pick up Juliyanna and prepare dinner for us.
On school nights they help pick out their outfits for the morning. They do their homework before dinner and know that after dinner is time to relax. They’re in bed by 9 pm. On Friday we discuss what their options are for the weekend and if they will be visiting Grandma.
Our routine now is so much calmer, our house is in order. Everyone is comfortable. My children know what do and what is expected. It’s not always as perfect as it sounds, especially when I need to work more hours. But I let my children know ahead of time if any changes are going to happen and I explain how they can help out.
There are days that I am just overwhelmed and need a break. I tell them, “Give Mommy some alone time.” I either go in my bedroom or take a nice hot shower with a candle. (Of course my daughter’s banging on the door…)
I tell them, “Mommy had a long day. I feel very tired.” It helps them as well to be open with me about their day, whether we talk at the dinner table or sit together before watching a movie.
Accepting Who I Am
In addition to practical problems, my struggle has been to accept the way my life is turning out, to accept that I am a single mother. I’ve had to feel right with who I am and not worry so much with what I don’t have.
I am proud that I thought things through at those times when I was desperate for money. Not everyone has the strength to find solutions when faced with such difficult choices, like the mother who leaves her children alone at night in order to complete her night shift at McDonald’s, not knowing whether she’ll find her kids safe when she returns home. No one really knows what people go through for money, especially when they have children and they’re alone.
I wish that the news would show the life of a single mom or a family living in a shelter and stop showing what Paris did on her weekend or where Nicole Richie went baby shopping. It makes me want to scream! You know, there are people struggling out here, waiting for rent help, waiting for their health insurance to get reactivated so they can go to the doctor, waiting for the food pantry to open because they have no money to buy food. I think about my sister—she’s a police officer and a mother of three. Although her job is dangerous, she continues to do it. As she says, “I have mouths to feed.”
The Willpower Within
Sometimes I still feel like bad moments will never end. But I remind myself, “You will pull through. You have that willpower within.” And having survived such a difficult change—becoming a single mother—has made me more open to stepping outside my comfort zone. I get excited when I think of new beginnings and experiencing new things.
Just recently I cut my hair. I have always had long hair, and even though I love short hairstyles, I was too afraid to cut it. Part of me felt like I was disappointing my parents somehow. One day I just went for it.
When I looked into the mirror, I saw me but a mature me, a goodbye to the old and a hello to the new me. The change felt great.
I’m turning 28 this year. It feels like an important moment to me. I wonder what I will experience next, what new challenges I will face with my children, and what I will have to overcome. I think, “This is it, my year. Change begins with me.”
Too Strong to Settle
My goals are to keep close those who want to see me successful and happy, and show my children to do the same. I also hope to think a little bit more about myself. I’ve always put myself last, and since I’m alone, no one really treats me with things.
Accepting my situation doesn’t mean I want to be a single mom forever. I would like to meet someone who shares my interests and values. I would like to meet someone with whom I can be a team. I think I will meet someone better for me now that I feel stronger on my own.
Now I have grown my confidence and can express myself more because I know what I want. Most importantly I would like to meet someone who will accept my children and me for who we are. Life has shown me not to settle for less.