A married friend gave birth to her first child a few weeks ago. One day into motherhood, she sent me a text.
"In case anyone hasn’t told you lately, you’re a rockstar. I have no idea how you handle this on your own because it’s a lot."
"Rockstar" is a new one. Other married mums I know have dubbed me a "superstar" and "superhero". An older female relative put it this way when she sized up my then-seven-months-pregnant belly and bare left ring finger: "You’re a very brave girl."
Very foolish, more like, I think on those dark days when being a single mother seems just impossible. Days like the one — just hours before my friend sent that text — when a woman shouted at me that my fussy baby was overheated and dehydrated, needed to be in a sling, and had a sunken fontanelle (the soft bit on the top of his head). I did not feel like a superhero as I wept outside the Highbury & Islington Overground station in response before booking an emergency doctor’s appointment just to make sure she wasn’t right (she wasn’t).
I doubt any mum would say that having a baby is a walk in the park, and I’m aware of my privilege in both having a healthy child and being able to pay for a babysitter. But doing it all alone makes a hard thing so, so much harder — like trying to do origami with one hand tied behind your back. The sense of responsibility, the understanding that you are the one person in charge of this vulnerable little being, is enormously daunting. You have no back-up or sounding board to pull you out of that nagging self-doubt. The loneliness can be unbearable, and on top of that is the inevitable mum-shaming from critics tutting about your non-traditional set-up.
Ironically, I did feel like some sort of badass superstar during my pregnancy. While I’d always yearned for the "simple kind of life" Gwen Stefani sang about in that No Doubt song — long before Gavin Rossdale two-timed with the nanny — the years had rushed past without me finding a man with whom I could share that life. And so I decided I didn’t need one, and turned to IVF. I obviously didn’t reproduce entirely on my own — hello, embryologists and donor sperm — but the process made me feel empowered, as though I’d conjured this beautiful being out of thin air. I injected the nightly shots into my belly myself. I went to scans and parenting classes solo. I cherished the idea of having this creature all to myself. I was on a mama warrior high, and it all came crashing down after I gave birth.
Though it was my fiercely independent nature that compelled me to have a baby on my own, I’ve never been more helpless and needy.
Though it was my fiercely independent nature that compelled me to have a baby on my own, I’ve never been more helpless and needy. It’s not just that I don’t have a partner who can take sleep shifts or even just hold the baby while I use the toilet; I also don’t have a single relative on this side of the Atlantic. My mum flew back to the States two weeks after the birth, and I cried for days. I needed help, and sleep, but had no clue how to get either. But here’s a tip: If you burst into tears when someone asks how you’re doing, it will alarm them to the point that they will do anything — stay up all night with you, bring homemade muffins, take the baby for a walk — to get you to stop, saving you the effort of awkwardly having to ask a favour.
Healthcare professionals will ask a lot of routine questions that can be irritating if you’re single — when asked about birth control, I find it best to just point to a crying baby — but I wish I’d taken the hint when the health visitor first asked if I had any support. Lots of people support me, I thought. I had two baby showers! What she meant was: Did I have people around who could step up and, like, put the kettle on or change a nappy?
Learning to call on those people — as a so-called "superhero" with a Bat Signal of my own — has been humbling, but it’s what’s keeping me afloat. And so friends will pick up baby ibuprofen and take out the rubbish; neighbours whose names I don’t even know will carry the pram up the stairs when the lift is broken. The first and last thing I say to people who come round is: "Can you hold him while I use the loo?" These days, having someone watch my baby so that I can wash my face in peace (or, let’s be honest, at all) is an indulgence better than any massage.
But it’s not enough. This summer the baby and I are moving back to Texas, where the support of family will make things less gruelling. Did I ever think I’d be 40, with a baby, and living with my mum? Not in a million years. Am I counting down the days with breathless anticipation? You bet.
Being a single mum has forced me to swallow my pride, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud. I think back on all the times I welped 'I can't do this' and realise that, well, somehow I did.
Being a single mum has forced me to swallow my pride, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud. I think back on all the times I welped "I can’t do this" and realise that, well, somehow I did. I have. I am. I will. Perhaps it’s not quite superhero status, but certainly worth a pat on the back — or better yet, a lie-in.
And I’m not alone. With Mother's Day — a holiday that so rarely results in spa vouchers and breakfast in bed for those of us without a partner to plan it all — looming, many single mums will be feeling isolated. Sure, one can be the loneliest number at times, but it’s important to remember that there are a lot of us out there and together we can make it work.