It's spring break of 2016, and I'm finally about to get some time to myself after working and solo foster-momming every minute of every day with zero breaks for the past 5 months, my first 5 months as a parent. I climb the enormous mountain of Getting the Kids to Their Day Camp (pack lunches wake cranky sleepy kid dress cranky sleepy kids feed slightly more awake kids pack backpacks break up fight load into car break up fight navigate parking at OSU walk to rec center while preventing excited kids from leaping off of the sidewalk and into a moving car and FINALLY drop off.)
Walk to my car alone. Put my head on the steering wheel. Exhale.
Halfway through the massage I booked for myself (a once a year luxury via a gift certificate from my mom) I realize why deep tissue feels painful for the first time ever: I have whole body aches and feel like crap. I head home from the massage trying not to throw up, crawl under a blanket, and take my temperature: 102. I flash back to the long list of students who were out this week with the flu and close my eyes, fighting back nausea and tears. Day camp pickup is in three hours and I will be the one taking care of it, because I'm the one who takes care of everything. The only parent in our small three person household. There's only ever me.
It's December of 2015, and my brand new (foster) son is asleep on his bed at 7 pm. I can't get him to wake up fully and he has a fever of 104. I call my mom in a panic and she confirms what I already know: he has to go get checked out at the ER. I frantically dial every responsible adult in my phone until a local friend picks up (thank GOD someone picks up.) I inform my older child that he will be staying with this friend while I take little brother to the hospital, and watch in helpless horror as a massive trauma tantrum unfolds. He is still smashing toys and ripping pages from books in front of the bewildered and decidedly underprepared babysitter while I rush out of the house with my passed out 5 year old slung over my shoulder, limp as wet laundry, his eyes not opening at all. There is no partner to keep an eye on him in the backseat and my hands shake so hard I can barely get him into his carseat. The county said they did a medical exam when he first entered care but I knew, I knew he didn't seem quite right. My eyes dart between the rearview mirror and the road the whole drive and when we pull up I leave the car parked at the front entrance with the hazards on and carry him inside. I will end up sitting in a hard chair beside his bed all night while he's given IV fluids and fever reducers and antibiotics for Strep, and then the next morning I'll pay the babysitter and soothe the 9 year old and tackle the entire day with the two of them, because even though I'll be so bone tired from worry and stress and staying up all night that it will feel like my head is about to fall off of my weary neck...there will be no one else to take over.
There's only ever me.
It's summer of 2016, and the specialist at the Children's hospital is explaining to me that the little signs his mom and I have been noticing (toe walking, lack of strength, struggling to sit up when laying down) and the strange blood work we got back recently are not, as we thought, due to previous childhood obesity struggles and recent weight loss, but rather signs that all point to a devastatingly terminal neuromuscular disorder. My child plays with the nurse in the other room while I take the binder with a cover no parent ever wants to see, A Terminal Diagnosis: What Every Parent Should Know. There is no one's hand to grasp when I feel like I will sink through the tile floor of this hospital office, no other parent to write down the answers to the questions I am asking. The next few months we will walk the terrifying road a genetic testing and a surgical biopsy and it will all ultimately lead to no diagnosis at all, a blessed mistake, the best fluke ever, but in THIS moment, as my tears hit the cover of that horrible, hated binder, I don't know any of that. All I know is that I am terrified for the baby I am raising and I want him to keep running and jumping and LIVING. And there's not another day to day parent to lie in bed with at night and whisper my hopes and fears about that to.
There's only ever me.
It's May of 2016 and my youngest at the time is graduating from kindergarten and there's no one beside me in the crowd to clap the loudest for OUR kid, to smile over at me, to share in my pride and joy.
It's summer of 2016 and my youngest has had to have tonsil surgery and he keeps ripping the stitches and the doctor makes the hideous mistake of telling me that in very rare cases kids can rip their stitches in the night and choke and drown on their blood and so I lay awake nearly all night every night "sleeping"on the floor beside his bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to his breathing and there's no one to take turns with, so I just don't sleep until those stitches come out.
It's just another Tuesday night in 2017 and I am at the psychiatric emergency department with my child, AGAIN, and I'm listening to the doctor tell me AGAIN how this is what happens when you mix a neurodiverse brain with complex trauma and how there's not much else that can be done to help him and how I should talk to the county about institutionalizing him and can I have my husband come support me in being able to drive home safely with him in the car? Because sometimes a male influence can help in these situations. And just like I have so many times before, I square my shoulders AGAIN and explain that I can handle it, alone. And I totally can, but it's also not like it's a choice.
There's only ever me.
After bedtime during the long evenings, there's good tv shows and chats on the phone with friends and me time and alone time but there's no other adult there to watch the shows with, or laugh (or cry) about the events of the day with, or keep watch over the sleeping kids while I go grab that takeout or soda or ice cream I'm desperately craving.
This was my life for the first couple of years that I was a parent. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Empowering. Life as a single mom by choice via foster care. Partnered parenting has its challenges too, and its rewards. But in my experience, its valleys (and mountaintops) are vastly different from those of single parenting.
Because when you're a single parent, all of the challenging moments are all yours to tackle, but all of the wins are also all yours to claim. All of the decisions all yours to make. All of the responsibilities (and autonomy) that comes with being the sole leader of the family all yours to take.
So to all of you single parents, especially those who step into the wild and wonderful west of foster care and/or adoption...as someone on the other side who's been where you're at right now: Know that while some things are easier and I LOVE my partner...there are still things about that life that I miss.
Being the only fearless family leader. Calling ALL the shots about placement decisions. Being my kids' only day to day and receiving 100% of their love and cuddles and hero worship as a result.
Being an uncontested badass.
If you know and love a single parent, please reach out to them regularly to make sure they know that they are an uncontested badass, too.
And if you ARE a single parent reading this blog post right now, know this: Those of us on the other side of the single parenthood thing still remember the sky high highs and crushing lows of that life, and we are cheering you on with a little nostalgia and a lot of love.
There's only ever you, but you are all they need.
Image description: A closely cropped throwback snapshot of my single foster Mama days. Scrunch nosed eyes closed smile. Sun kissed in a sundress, group hugging my boys. The fullest hands and heart ever.