At the time of writing, I’m 18 days away from getting married to a man who is not only someone I completely adore, but someone who has become a father to my three daughters. Two of them have even made the personal choice to take on his surname after discussing it amongst themselves (the third chose my maiden name, dropping the name of her biological father). Before he appeared we did eight years as a family of four girls together. There was something both intensely special and incredibly hard about this time.
Several years ago I wrote a piece for Parenting magazine giving my top tips for single parents. People have always commented on how incredible my three girls are, but I’ve always been painfully aware of my imperfections as a mother. I am certainly not a perfect parent and found parenting alone even harder than parenting in a violent relationship. It’s lonely, it’s hard, and you have to make constant, ‘this is the best I can do right now’ choices.
Was my experience as a single mother painful, isolating and difficult? Yes. Do I think it benefitted my children in the long run? Absolutely. I’ve got girls who are forthright, independent, capable, and strong. And my girls developed these qualities in a single-parent household.
I asked my 15 year old, Susie, to reflect on what it was like and she said, “Being the child of a single parent offered great opportunity for self-improvement. As the eldest of three, with only my mum around, I learned that I had to be independent, but also help care for my younger siblings. I was the one responsible in my family for all the extras – from office forms to persuading the youngest up the hill on the way to school. I think I had to grow up a lot faster than my peers, but I am also the person I am today because of the need to develop independence and maturity early on. I believe being raised by a single mum had many advantages, and only a few disadvantages.”
I’ve read lots of advice written for single mums of girls. I personally think a lot of the advice out there for single mothers creates more guilt for most parents, separating their mothering from other aspects of their adult life – adding to the pile of things we just can’t quite do right.
For me, being authentic with my children is more important than always being right. My mistakes in the past have been mistakes many parents make – choosing unhealthy relationships, not being great with money, and putting everyone else before myself. As I learned, I explained. My girls lived my learning alongside me. Sometimes I modelled what to do, and other times, to my shame, I modelled what not to do. Sometimes their childish wisdom helped me. More often than not, their very presence helped me remember I had to push through and learn, because my life was linked to three small souls who needed me. Every person is different, but for me, these were the parenting principles I lived by when I was a single mother.
You set the tone, and the standard
Eye rolling, back chatting, gossiping, and bitchiness aren’t must-have facets of a girl’s personality. They are not important parts of a woman’s character. The same goes for body image and confidence – you get to be the biggest voice inside your daughter’s head. Take it seriously.
Like it or not, you are their primary role model
My children thankfully have had many role models with family, babysitters, teachers and nannies, but in the end, I’m the chief one. It’s driven me to improve myself, to work harder and to be someone they can look up to.
Be honest, direct and matter of fact about the big stuff
You need your children to trust you. So be honest and direct (but not emotional or nasty) about why you are not with their father, why you can’t always come to school trips (if you are working), or why you can’t buy what they want (if there is not the money). Honesty breeds trust.
Your relationship will be close, but you are not their best friend
Living with girls is fun – I’ve let my girls dress me, we have created crazy hairdos, and we’ve had sleepovers in the living room together. But they are my daughters, not my friends – they are people with their own social networks and lives. You are there to teach them how to adult, even if you are still learning how that works yourself.
Your relationships with men will shape their view of men
I’d like to say my relationship with the girls’ father was the only bad relationship I’ve had since our separation, but that would be a lie. Thankfully, my girls have had plenty of opportunities to witness my healthy relationships with my father, my brother, flatmates and male friends (not to mention more recently, my partner). How we talk about men in earshot of our girls affects their views, and we need to be aware of this.
You need routines, responsibility and recognition
You may not be friends, but you can be a team together. Learning to share the responsibilities of the home helps you work better together, creates life skills your children need, and helps you to value each other more. We read Little Women together when the girls were young, and it showed me the joy my girls could get from loving their mum through help, and the joy of appreciating their hard work.
Being everything is impossible – it will cost you somewhere
Balance is near impossible when you are a single parent. But learning to find balance, and ‘me time’ to help reinvest in your children is essential for your mental health, and for your children. It is okay to experience imperfection in parts of your life and to admit when you are struggling – we were never meant to raise children alone, without support.
You will experience heartbreak
Grief for myself as a single parent of girls hit hardest on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day each year. My girls showered me with love on these days, but I felt the hole of having someone else around to manage the treat-sorting process on Mother’s Day, and the rage over my girls needing to explain why they weren’t making Father’s Day cards at school. And then there are the sorrows of seeing your daughters gravitate towards men at barbeques and parties because they have a need for a father that just isn’t being filled by relatives and friends. Or the stab of pain watching a loving father with his girls – something your children don’t experience.
You are allowed to feel grief. Remember it in the moments when your children need help to acknowledge theirs.
Release the ‘tiger mother’ when you need to
I’ll admit my children have a love/hate response to this part of my parenting, but I consider it an essential part of single parenting girls. I have released this towards their father when he was emotionally corroding their confidence and they were too young to resolve it themselves. I’ve released it any time my girls have not been able to advocate for themselves and they need someone in their corner. That person will always be me.
Resilience is one of the biggest gifts your girls will carry with them through life
My girls are strong, confident and resilient. Unfortunately, they are that way in part because some of our life was unstable with much change. We moved a lot due to work and finances. We had times of poverty, and we experienced more change than I’d ever wish on them. But instability provides a gift of resilience your children will carry forever.
Keep a space for a future love
There is one final tip that I, perhaps, had never expected. My girls and I decided together that it was time for us to have a man in our lives, about six months before my partner appeared. We sat down together, and they made a list of the qualities they believed we all needed. They were invested. They love who ‘we’ have ended up with and the transition from single parent to shared has been pretty easy, but there have also been occasional feelings of loss from the change it’s brought. Our posse of Goodchild girls was tight, and close. We’ve stretched our family to become a Goodchild-Potter-Klaver family, that has brought so much love, happiness and stability, but we’ve had to let go of some of that intense ‘us against the world’ resolve to get there.
I think there can be a temptation to make your unit with your daughters so tight there is no room for more love and companionship. But in loosening the grip, we’ve all ended up in a place where my girls now get to see what healthy, happy relationships look like. Being a single mother of girls is not without its complications and difficulties. It’s not something most of us choose, but once we find ourselves there, it can be an amazing journey that reaps incredible reward for our daughters long-term.
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