Picking up the pieces, and single parenthood

I had a conversation the other day with a long-time friend whose life is not turning out the way she thought it would, and she asked me to share her story.

After a few years of marriage, she told her husband she thought she was ready to start trying to have a child if he was. He told her that he didn't want to have a child, wasn't in love with her anymore, and wanted a divorce. She was still in shock by the time the dust settled and the papers were filed, and it took a few years for her to get back on her feet (her job was on track, fortunately, so she was ok financially, but emotionally she was devastated). In the several years since she's dated, but hasn't found anyone she wants to be with and can trust.

She just found out that her ex-husband has gotten remarried and his new wife is expecting a baby. Although she has processed the divorce, the fact that he didn't want to live a specific life with her but is now living it with someone else is cutting her to the core. She is in the middle of a grad school program to advance her career, and has started getting serious about her health and fitness. But this news about her ex has brought up thoughts she's had for awhile of trying to have a baby on her own. She's 42, so she doesn't even know if she can at this point, but she's thinking about it. She's always wanted to have a child, and felt like she needed to be married, but that doesn't look like it will ever happen.

I think there are two things to talk about in this story. The obvious one (to me) is that I think that if she wants to be a mom she should be a mom. Most single parents didn't grow up thinking we were going to be single parents, but now that we're here it's fine. Would we want an engaged, loving partner to parent with? Of course. But I think the vast majority of us would rather be single parents than single non-parents. (If you disagree, please speak up in the comments.)

There are all sorts of ways to become a parent, of course, so she may have more time than she thinks she has, depending on what ways she's willing to consider to become a mother.

The bigger idea in her story (and the reason she wanted me to tell it) is the question of how you move on from the destruction of the life you always thought you were going to have. That's a topic that's near and dear to my heart, as I am not living the life I thought I'd have, either. I think what makes my story and her story different, though, is that I chose to get off the track I was on when it became too painful for me. I had to form this vision of a new life that I could love more than the life I'd thought I was going to have (but wasn't actually living). She didn't choose to get out of her marriage, and the rejection still hurts. She didn't know that she wasn't in a happy marriage until he wanted out, so the divorce felt like the end of that life, and she didn't have a new vision to replace it.

So how do you build something new that you love, when you still wanted your old life? If she'd felt the destruction of her marriage as it happened and had been living in an unhappy situation it would have been easier to move on. But her experience was being in something good, and then suddenly it was gone. How do you get over something that was stolen from you?

I'd love all your thoughts on moving on and transitions and making a new life, and rejection and rebuilding. And on being a single mom, too, if you have thoughts about that.

33 thoughts on “Picking up the pieces, and single parenthood”

  1. There can be the fatalistic approach, looking for all of the ways that the path you’re on is the one you’re meant to be on.But I also find that I need time to express the anger and allow myself to feel it. I’m not in quite the same situation, since my partner and I are good with each other, and have the same goals. But we moved in with a friend with the intention of co-parenting and creating a family together. We supported him financially while he finished school and looked for a job, and then (about a month after he got the job) he announced that he didn’t want to co-parent. And this meant we’d delayed starting trying to get pregnant by about 2 years (and those years were 36-38, so we’re pushing the timing now!). Oh, yeah, and I’m still pretty furious that he didn’t announce that he was backing out of the deal until he didn’t need us to support him.
    Mostly, though, I’ve focused on moving forward with our lives, and recognizing that I need to make the choices that work for me, where I am now.
    As for single parenting… there are no guarantees in life. Even if you have a strong partnership with someone who is deeply committed, you can’t be certain they won’t get hit by a bus. So if it’s a choice between being a single parent or not being a parent, and especially if you’ve got a good support network, go for it.

  2. This topic hits close to home. My husband and I are in the beginning stages of divorce….because I am coming to accept that I am gay and would rather be with a woman. I love my husband and our kids, and we have a great life together in many ways, but there were many years of sadness that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Now that I have figured it out, I see hope for the future–and hope to build something new that I will love–even as I am devastated to be blowing up my own life and his. You and your readers have been a tremendous inspiration to me throughout this process! Your friend’s situation is different, but grief over life looking different than expected is probably common to everyone in one way or another. I can recommend a book on this topic–Unattended Sorrow, by Steven Levine. It’s fantastic! Otherwise, I am excited to read thoughts of everyone else, because I’m too new to this to do offer anything else.

  3. As someone who had envisioned a different life (with healthy, happy, well-adjusted kids and retirement early, instead, I have 2 kids with special needs and will likely be a caretaker until the day I die) than the one I have I can only say the acceptance of that wasn’t easy, but for me, there just became a point where I had to blend my old dreams with my new ones and it took me a long time to figure out what the new ones were.I changed my expectations — some think I lowered, but I don’t. I think I just gave up certain expecations and found new ones (that appear lower I suppose). For me I think some of us have to make a life out of the one we’re given instead of longing for the one we thought we were supposed to have or had.
    Accepting that things doin’t always turnout like we want them to, and that bad things just sometimes happen, went a long way in helping me heal and mourn the loss of what should have been allowing me to move on.

  4. I am a fan of children having two parents, however I realize that is not always possible. I would hope that if this woman does have a child she has gotten her emotional health figured out and is not just trying to fill a hole left by her failed marriage. If she’s got the time and resources to raise a child effectively then go for it. But since she’s single, if daycare is going to raise the child because of her time constraints, maybe she should just be a Big Sister.

  5. I think the hardest thing about my divorce was letting go of the dream of my future life. I had it all figured out, and then was forced to abandon it. It’s taken me a while to find my vision for our new future, but the loss of that dream was a death, and had to be mourned as such. I still have jarring moments of ‘What!? This isn’t what my life is supposed to be!’ a year and a half after I took my two kids and two changes of clothes for us all and walked out the door. I can also say that my kids and I are fine, and have built a new future, and current happiness.As for single parenting, I’m doing it now, and I did it when I was married to an alcoholic, and let me just say, it’s much easier without that kind of partner. If being a mom is what you want to be, then go be it, and godspeed.
    And I’d like to gently say to Shelly R, do you realize that the phrase “daycare is going to raise the child” is awfully loaded and triggering for many women who choose or have no choice but to work and also raise children? Children know the difference between parents and other care-givers, and I hope that the original poster does not think that children going to daycare is some sort of failure or disqualification to becoming a parent.

  6. I think the first thing your friend needs to make peace with is that she wasn’t really in something good. Maybe it was at some point. That guy wasn’t who she thought he was, and he obviously wasn’t in the same relationship she was in. That sucks, and that hurts. But once she can see that he wasn’t “The One” or whatever, then she can move past it. If he was, he would still be there. So lessons learned, some good times had, time to find something better.In regards to her wanting to be a mom, she should go for it. I never really pictured myself getting married, (although I really wanted that November Rain dress) but I always knew I wanted to be a mom. I knew I would be an excellent parent and I am. My son’s father, not so much.
    I’ve kind of come to accept that some people get the marriage and kids, some get the kids only, some get marriage only, and some get neither. If I “only” get the kid, well, that is more than enough. There is no one right way to live your life.
    My best to your friend. May she move on towards her new dreams.

  7. Oh please, Shelly R. This is too intelligent a forum to fall for that kind of bear-baiting.I agree with Moxie. If you want to be a mom, be a mom. And remember, most moms use childcare, whether they have partners or not. (Seriously, I’m having such a hard time not rolling my eyes at Shelly R. OMG.)

  8. Shelly R, come on now. Be better than this. Daycare does not “raise” children of single parents – they provide much needed care-giving while parent(s) work.

  9. Also lost the life I thought I would have, not by my own choosing. And it was extremely painful. But I have come to peace with the life I have, and I delight in the kids I have. I am sorry that my kids have to cope with two very different households (step-parent and sibs in the other house, just us here), but they are thriving. To the OP, I was 45 when I adopted my kids. I am grateful to my ex for her role in my becoming a parent, but if I didn’t have to co-parent that would be ok with me. I suggest focusing on what will make you happy, and if you want to be a parent, go for it. But make sure you have supports in place so you can enjoy your child.

  10. Absolutely, have kids.I’ve never told anyone this before, but, my children are the first and only people in my life that have loved me unconditionally and that has been probably the most profoundly positive experience I’ve ever had. This feels like something that I shouldn’t admit to because as adults we’re supposed to have everything completely figured out and be absolute stalwarts of emotional stability and health before we even consider having children. This is just my experience and I know there are people out there that do regret having children but I think there are probably more that have had experiences that are just as life-changing as my own.

  11. I am SO glad to have this community. I am going through this adjustment right now, although in a different way. I am realizing as I get older that I have to accept my limitations, even while more and more limitations get discovered (I have several chronic illnesses), and this makes me not the wife, mother, or person that I so much wish I could be. It’s hardest on me right now that my husband can’t adjust very well. Makes me feel horrible, and I don’t really know WHAT to do, about any of it. But thank you all for being here and for knowing what I’m going through without actually knowing, and for having advice and resources and understanding. I know it will be okay, whatever “it” is.

  12. I chose to divorce my ex, but I really really loved him and wanted to build a life with him (until he did something I couldn’t forgive). Anyway, it did feel like I lost all my dreams and plans. Eight years later, sometimes I still feel really sad about that life and partner I lost (and I’m remarried with a child now). And sometimes I felt really really angry! which was legitimate, and empowering in some ways, to be angry and righteous instead of hurt and abandoned. It is a loss to grieve. But what really helped me move on was to focus on the fact that the relationship wasn’t what I thought it was, he didn’t share these important goals I have, and we could not have created a long-term happy life together. Even if in the moment it was fabulous– he didn’t have the skills and goals to make it work for the long-term. I think your friend has to recognize that her husband didn’t want what she wanted and that relationship wasn’t a great one (for that reason alone, if no others!). It says nothing about her worth or lovability. Life is long, and there are many people to love. She will have love again, and friendships, and happiness. Don’t let that loss define her narrative going forward. Many of us have lost or drifted from our dreams. We all have the power to create and recreate and move towards the future.

  13. I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast of This American Life that has stories about “Plan B”. Not THAT Plan B, but just living your life in a different way (Plan B) than you thought you would (Plan A). A speaker asked a room of about 100 people how many people are currently living the life that they once expected that they would. One person raised her hand, and she was 23 years old. So, whether it’s by choice or by the current of life, very few people are living the life they wanted (or thought they wanted). When I graduated, I thought that I would be a high-powered executive travelling all over the world, with no kids. At age 43, I am now married with two young kids, working in a low- to-mid-level desk non-traveling job. My life’s not perfect, but if I got what I once thought I wanted, I would be miserable. I only know that in hindsight, however. I had plenty of cross-roads in my life that devastated me, when I couldn’t get what I thought I wanted, but I am now so glad that things turned out differently.

  14. @Elle, this: “Don’t let that loss define her narrative going forward. Many of us have lost or drifted from our dreams. We all have the power to create and recreate and move towards the future.”Giving energy and effort to the places we have power – creation, recreation, imagination – that’s where Life is. Asking our people to speak into our lives and tell us where they see Life lurking is really worthwhile too.
    As for parenting, I’ll just say there is a world of difference between parenting while not partnered but with a co-parent who is also parenting, and parenting alone. If there is no co-parent, make sure there is a big fat web of support in place – parenting is a team sport. For realz.

  15. Agree with poster who makes the distinction between parenting completely alone v. having a co-parent of some kind, even if divorced, separated etc. Perhaps I am projecting because I am completely alone right now and far away from all family support — it’s really really hard and can be incredibly lonely. This is not how I imagined/expected to parent my two kids and I truly believe they would benefit from a second parent. I’m tired – it’s hard to be the mom and the dad. If the OP has a lot of family support I’m sure she can make it work but I’m surprised at how many other comments make it sound like a no-brainer.I would also recommend checking out the website Anonymous Us — compiles stories of donor children both pos and neg if this is a route she is considering. Not all donor children are so happy with the circumstances of their creation and are beginning to fight for their right to know.

  16. To comment on the older, single mom thing, my HR director was in her late 30’s/early 40’s, was single, and adopted two little girls, sisters ages 1 and 4. Foreign adoption from Moldova. I don’t know whether she waited to “find a husband” and just didn’t, or didn’t want a husband at all, but whatever the case, she became an instant single, working mom to two darling sisters.Years later, the joy that her family has brought to her is impossible to quantify. Not that’s it been easy (is it ever?).

  17. As a mom of two under 6, with a supportive and involved husband: it is so hard! I cannot even imagine doing it alone, especially with no outside support. But, people do it, so it’s possible. I guess when you’re in the situation and have never known it differently, you just do what you have to do.

  18. I am going through the adjustment in a different way. I have always had dreams of teaching basically til I die, but in NSW there are new rules about how long you can be out of the school system without updating your accreditation. I have 2 kids and have been out for 4 years now, but we are planning to be missionaries and so updating my accreditation every 5 years won’t be possible. I have to give up the ideal of teaching forever in favour of the harder (yet more rewarding) missionary life in a 3rd world country where my kids can’t go to the schools I always wanted them to go to… It’s not the same as getting divorced, or trying to single parent, but it is definitely an adjustment…

  19. I agree with other posters about making sure you have a support system if you decide to have children. I have a very involved husband, but it can still be very exhausting—the kids themselves, but also the constant cobbling together of child care so we can deal with our differing work schedules or even go out on a date.If you don’t have a lot of family or good friends to lean on, being financially stable will definitely help. You’ll be able to afford childcare, babysitters etc. It sounds like you have a good job and a great education, so you may be all set in that area. (That is one area we are not so set in, which is why we are always cobbling stuff together.)

  20. I too went through an extremely painful period of life when everything I thought would be turned upside down. I was young at the time (early 20s) and I think that compounded the loss (since young people don’t have perspective usually on how ugly life can be). Mine was through death, not through divorce, but I was angry for years – I mean *years* about how my life hadn’t turned out the way I expected, how my dreams were over and everything felt ruined. (Like I said, there was some early 20s drama mixed in there.) So my advice would be to respect the feelings that OP has right now: grief and anger. She suffered significant losses, and it’s okay to mourn them with the grief they merit. It could take a year or more. But moving through those feelings don’t need to stop her from thinking about what she wants to do next and it sounds like what to do next is to figure out how to become a parent (thinking about the different paths and which ones to pursue, in what order – pregnancy, adoption, foster parenthood, etc)). And remember that eventually the life you didn’t expect can you bring as much joy as the one you did, whatever it looks like.

  21. One of my good friends — one of my favorite people in the world — went through a similar experience with her first husband. They’d planned to start trying for a kid when she turned 30 and he refused and asked her for a divorce not too long after.Then she remarried a few years later, to someone who seemed very, very different from the first husband. They tried unsuccessfully for a couple years, then he completely blindsided her by asking for a divorce just as they were getting ready to try IVF. (It was literally a case of they’d been on vacation that weekend, they were both posting fun pictures from the vacation on Facebook, and he asked for the divorce when they got back.)
    I definitely admire how much she’s kept her life together over that time and the thing that seems (from the outside, at least) to be the magic ingredient is the support network. Therapy, friends, a support group, explicitly making time for the things in her life that make her happy. Acknowledging the suckiness of the whole thing and not dealing with people who aren’t helpful with that.

  22. I Was raised in a single parent home, which transitioned into a step-family with a total of six kids. The chaos, abuse and overall negative experience severely altered my thoughts about parenting. I made many poor choices and married the wrong guy, the relationship ended in divorce without children, thankfully.All of these experiences led me to finding a great guy in my 30’s.I was not a healthy partner at first, but am thankful he was patient and I grew up. We now have to kids and both work. We juggle the kid’s care and see very little of each other. It is stressful and difficult, but worth it.
    I think the most important lesson is to be honest with yourself, focus on bending not breaking when life is different than you thought it would be. There are no guarantees.

  23. Another note that being a single parent is different than having any kind of co-parent. Being responsible for every single decision is both huge freedom (no need to consult with anyone!) and a bone-chilling burden (it all comes back to you!) I’m so exhausted by decision-making about parenting, work, home that when I go out to eat I often ask my friends to order for me. Any decision that I can outsource, I will.Sure, I call on a large network of support to advise me when I want input on things big and small, but I’ve never felt so exhausted as I do in the moments when I think about how many bucks stop with me. Sleep deprivation is nothing compared to the weight of that responsibility.
    I don’t regret that I had kids and I have peace about the life I got v. the life I imagined. I think we all have to find peace in varying levels about that. I find that such grief ebbs and flows and likely always will, as will the immense joys and challenges of parenting.

  24. Oh please- go be a mom. Your ex husband found something different but the consistent note, for you at least, has been wanting to have a child. This you have the power to do. It will not be easy, it will not be conventional but many many moms are older these days and many many families are outside the norm. In my twenties, I thought I’d be a cavalier, single careermistress of the world as well. 41, 2 kids, married, desk job. Everyone’s life turns out differently. But please, do not let the loss of your old life take away the opportunity for a new one. I could make do without most things in my life….but not my kids. They are the single best thing. Do it.

  25. In some ways this is very close to my story: I got divorced at 38 from a man that I thought I was going to have a child with. While taking a couple years to get adjusted to my new life, I got laid off at 40 from a well-paid job that would have made it so much more comfortable to be a parent. 4 years later I’m the mom of a beautiful 2 year old girl who is the love of my life as well as her grandparents’ and her uncle’s.DO NOT WAIT for your life to be perfect, for your wounds to be PERFECTLY HEALED. In parenthood there is a time factor, even though there is nothing wrong with being an “older” mom at some point the clock runs out. Do not put off something that could be the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.

  26. I come at this as someone who “chose” to end her marriage and “chose” to give up that life I always thought I would have. But it’s never totally a choice is it, and no one would go through this hell unless they thought they had to to survive emotionally (or physically, or spiritually ). And the choice is interesting, because you cannot really know the loss you have until it is upon you. No one can know the pain of the loss of family and belonging and solidity and dreams until they are well and truly gone. Not that i regret my decision, it was the right one, but that doesn’t lessen the pain. And although I know it does not seem that way, the responsibility of having “done” this to my ex husband, whom I do care about, and my children (who are fine) is an enormously painful thing to bear at times. And the fact that i “chose” to live apart from my children for part of the time is still, 2 years later, inconceivable, agonizing and completely flattening at times. There are no good choices in a bad marriage. As for how to move on from those lost dreams…I wish I knew. I try to live in the pure and joyful moment of my everyday, appreciate to health and love and magic of my kids, be occasionally thankful for the lack of animosity with my ex, and to be in the present, not the past and not the formerly imagined future. Because the future is never certain, and is ours to craft. Its just often so hard to see my way into it.

  27. We have a family friend who wanted children, and waited and waited and waited on her husband to become ready for them… in her late 30s she divorced him, went away to law school and then a job, and became a single mom at about 40.I can’t know her everyday experience, but everything I’ve seen seems to indicate it was the right decision for her. Her parents are retired and willing and able to help out with care, though several hours away. I’ve always been so glad for her that she followed her joy.
    I think loss is particularly hard when it’s paired with betrayal, because it’s easier to think what might have been. That’s an illusion, though (it couldn’t have been, or it would have been). The helpless (as opposed to directed) anger is particularly corrosive and awful. The last time I had to handle something similar, it helped the most to make a collage of dark scary, uncertain, images about loss and fear. Then I was better able to turn towards acceptance, “what do I do now”, and the future. Whether through art or journaling or action or however you do it, you have to try your best to leave it behind and focus on the best path forward, because it just eats you up otherwise. I know, though…. easier said than done.

  28. I’m not sure about this advice, but it does seem that if you’ve wanted a child for a while and you will be able to emotionally and financially support a child, you should have one. No one’s saying it will be easy or even that you wouldn’t regret it at times, but having a child is … indescribable. I had mine at 39. Oh my God, I love her.

  29. Something similar happened to a friend of mine. She divorced her husband after five years of marriage because she really wanted to have children and he didn’t. Less than a year after the divorce he remarried and had children with his second wife. Although my friend also remarried and had children she was haunted for years by the “why with her and not me?” question.

  30. And in the reverse I had a male friend who broke up with a longtime girlfriend because she really wanted to have children and he didn’t, but not long after that he reconnected with an old college girlfriend and they had a child together a couple of years later. What it came down to for him was that he could not picture spending his life connected to the first woman, which he knew would be the case if they had a child together, even if they didn’t stay together as a couple.

  31. I think the letter writer’s situation is very common. I immediately thought of the Holly Hunter movie, Living out Loud, which has this as its theme. Also in When Harry Met Sally, Sally has to face that her ex wanted a family but not with her. Same thing in Celeste and Jesse Forever.Fact is, we can be different in a different relationship. With any luck, the letter writer would be in a different (better, more fitting!) dynamic should she get into a new relationship.
    As for solo parenting…yeah I don’t know. It’s not just the immediate needs, it’s the long term stuff. You are automatically not having that spare set of grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins as a support system. While they typically only help out in a pinch, pinches happen!
    I had my child at 40. For all of the greatness, there are hard parts. Their needs are harder on you when you’re older. I suppose it helps if you’re in great shape, which I’m not. But another thing to face is that their college is on a collision course with your retirement. When they’re little the big expense is childcare so you can work (mine cost $9K a year) but when they get bigger they will get expensive. School age childcare, camp, braces, musical instruments, a car…Your income just has to stretch very, very far when you go it alone. I guess if you have a lot of family support from your side(we had one grandmother and all relatives were out of state) that helps. I have great friends, but none of us is really able to “do” much for the others beyond sympathy, the odd referral, and a bit of sharing of outgrown clothes. It’s nice but it doesn’t replace physical and financial support. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying go into it with your eyes as open as they can be.

  32. my mama coparented with me for ds’s first 5 years. it was & is a wonderful supportive loving relationship. if op has a single mother girlfriend, maybe…?so i also say ‘go for it’, with the addendum ‘look for the helpers’ and do your very best to have a helper very nearby. mama has a duplex, and it was ideal. so nice to be able to holler for help when baby has puked on everything, so she could hold & soothe him & i could start a load of laundry in case we needed the clean crib sheets before morning.

  33. I am a single mom by choice. I reached the stage in my life where everything was ‘perfect’ (as it can be) and I was ready to have a child. The only thing missing was a parter.As you said, I would rather be a single parent vs. a single non-parent. And so, I embarked on the journey of parenting on my own. It has been an incredible journey (so far) and if I had it to do all over again, I would!

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