It was my freshman year of college. I was 20 years old and only two months prior, I had packed whatever belongings I could fit into the gold 1998 Honda Accord my mother had left for me when she moved back to her Caribbean home. I had made the brave decision to leave the only family I had nearby, my oldest brother and his family, behind in Oklahoma after having shared living spaces in a house that didn’t fit us all, for more than a year, and set out for a new life waiting for me halfway across the country in Tennessee as a college student.
I had worked really hard to get into university there, leaving with whatever money I had saved from my earnings as a staff writer for a small newspaper in Pushmataha County, Oklahoma. I had no job lined up yet in Tennessee, but I was confident that with my work experience, and newly obtained certification to be a nurse’s aide, that it wouldn’t be long before I would find employment.
The summer before my big move I had broken up with my first real love. We had spent a year and a half together making memories, whispering sweet nothings, vowing to keep promises we would only end up breaking. Timing is everything and just a few weeks after our traumatic breakup, I had fallen so hard for a new boy. He was the most charming boy I had ever met and I let whatever worth I felt I had be validated by the attention he gave me. The timing and circumstances were too perfect — in my mind he had been sent to me to heal my broken heart.
Though he was not my first boyfriend or love, he was the first man that I ever kissed. He was the first to hold me close in a way no one else had. He was the one to irreverently take my virginity. He was the first to ever get me pregnant.
For days I walked around campus in a daze, thinking that I must’ve fallen out of reality somewhere and I’d be sure to find my way back again, to the life that I was meant to be living. But there was nothing fake about the life growing inside me. I realized that this wasn’t a product of true love, but I would grow to love it anyway. This life would become our life and we were going to do it alone.
Nothing can prepare you for life as a parent. Being a parent is scary and weird and super expensive. But the weight of knowing you’re going to take it all on without the person who was your partner in this creation is crushing. It’s even more daunting when this major life change happens when you’re unemployed, a college student and lacking valuable life experience.
During my nine months of pregnancy, I had a lot of time to think about and plan what I was going to do next. As my belly grew and the initial shock of the pregnancy wore off, I embraced the challenge of single parenting. I envisioned us being happy, established, and making it fine on our own. I was cautious with my optimism, though, reminding myself that reality dictated that there would be seasons of serious struggle. Even then, little did I know of what waited for me up ahead as I crossed the line into motherhood.
Nothing from the start has gone as planned. As it turns out, very few things in life do. Some of the things that I’ve made it through are so bizarre and crazy that I couldn’t make it up even if I tried. There are so many things I wish I knew at the start of this journey that I have learned since then. As useless as it is, I wish I could get a do-over in parenting. I’ve learned a lot about myself — and life — that I can’t help but feel that I needed the perspective I have now five years ago. But there are six things in particular that I would tell myself if I could back with the knowledge I have now, things I wish for every single parent or parent-to-be to know.
There’s no shame in being a single parent.
Sure, it’s not ideal, but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. People will look down on you, especially if you come from a protective religious bubble like I did. I don’t understand why it’s this way, but there’s a stigma that sticks with single mothers more than single fathers. Some will ask inappropriate questions like, “Were you raped?” as if being raped is the only justifiable reason for having a child outside of wedlock. Ignore them.
Being a single parent is not easy and many would not last one day in your shoes. Don’t waste any energy on wondering what the world will think of you. What only matters is what your child thinks of you, and they think you’re the best and most beautiful person in the entire universe.
You don’t need to know everything, you just need to give it your all. No one ever gets it all right, yet there are so many great people in the world who owe who they are primarily to the influence their parents had on them. You will inevitably get it wrong sometimes. You will become impatient, miss doctor’s appointments, and depend on a babysitter more than you’d like. There will be times when according to your calculations there won’t be enough money for rent and you’ll question your ability to provide for your little family.
It’s frustrating, I know, but believe in yourself a little more. The solutions might not come until at the very last minute, but they’ll come. In moments of doubt trust that your best is enough for your child. Trust that as they watch you model this process you are teaching them how to handle life’s frustrations with humility and courage.
Get on a budget right away.
Even if you aren’t an impulsive spender and you always buy from the clearance section, having a budget is a must that will save you. Even if the baby hasn’t arrived yet. No matter how modest your income or how high your debt may be, figure out a budgeting system that works for your needs and stick with it. Tip: always buy your food first.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
One of the reasons single parents are often looked down upon is because many of them receive government assistance for things like food and shelter. People don’t like to feel like they’re paying for someone else’s survival. But it shouldn’t be viewed in that way. Don’t let the shaming paralyze you with fear. Everyone needs help in some way throughout their lives and there’s no shame in that. Though you don’t want to live off of handouts for the rest of your life, or get into too much debt with someone, be informed about the kind of help that is out there for single parents and low income families, and take advantage of it if you’re eligible.
Have the uncomfortable discussion with your family about the kind of help they’re willing to give and their conditions should you one day need it. If living with a family member for the short term is an option, make it work. I know how stressful living with family can be. They will comment on just about everything you do, question your parenting style and will want to know everything about your personal life. There will be a lot of talks about what your plans are and unsolicited advice. But if you can, stick through it. Make it work for you and your baby until you can really afford to branch out on your own. One of my biggest mistakes was rushing out too soon.
Research child custody.
Even if you have sole custody of your child, it’s still important for you to be informed about the intricacies of custody disputes, legal jargon, and the difference between legal custody, physical custody and legal guardianship. Sometimes single parents will send their children to temporarily live with a family member or trusted friend while they work to get on their feet or finish school. I would recommend avoid doing that at all costs, but I understand if that’s a better option for you.
It may look like you’re running away from your post as a parent, but in reality it’s incredibly selfless to put your child in a stable and safe environment if that means being away from you for a while. But if you do that, know how to protect yourself and your relationship with your child legally. Don’t make the stupid mistake I did in voluntarily giving physical custody to someone, instead of guardianship, no matter how temporary it was supposed to be. Custody is a much bigger deal than guardianship and giving it up cost me nearly three years away from son and thousands of dollars in lawyer fees. If you can, sit down with a lawyer and have them explain custody laws. Most lawyers offer free consultations. Ask about your rights when it comes to seeking child support and how parenting time might be divided between you and the absent parent.
Also, talk with a lawyer about getting the absent parent to legally disown the child would mean. This is a serious and emotional decision, one that can have major repercussions not only for the child as they get older, but also for the parent who gives up potential to any rights. I believe that every child has the right to know who their biological parents are, but I realize that there are extreme situations in which the child is safer to not know or have any contact with them. Just make sure you’re not doing it out of bitterness. You end up stealing from the absent parent, but even more so from your child.
Don’t give up on your dreams.
It’s unfortunate how some people take on a defeatist attitude once they become a parent. They give up on going back to school, starting a business or traveling the world. Bucket lists are folded and put away. Our children are our world, and rightly so, and sometimes alterations must be made, but that’s life in general. Being a single parent doesn’t mean you have to toss your dreams out the window.
Hold onto them. You may have to allow yourself a lot of extra time to reach certain goals, but keep moving towards them. See it as you’re on this great adventure with your kids to make your dreams come true. Include them in your dreams. They will appreciate you more for it because they won’t feel like they kept you from anything you really wanted in life. This will model for them true grit and determination, something worthy of imitation.
Most important, be proud of what you’re doing, of faithfully showing up for the scrumptious little human that calls you mommy or daddy. My son is my motivation for continuing this journey because he makes me feel needed. Parenthood will always be my greatest accomplishment and truest joy.
Be at rest and cherish it all — the long lonely nights, the early hurried mornings, the exhausting juggling act, the hustle between jobs. You will be okay. You got this. Take delight in the fact that you’re right where you are meant to be.