When I first realized I was walking down a path toward single parenting, I worried about a lot of things. Money, mostly, but also finding a job, managing new responsibilities, and my children’s emotional health. I thought I knew what my trouble spots were going to be, and I worked hard to conquer them. But the one thing that never occurred to me has actually been the hardest part of single parenting.
It took me twelve hours to even write that statement. That’s the kind of hold it has, even now. It’s dead weight, this feeling, pulling against every decision I make, trailing like seaweed behind every step forward. Usually, imposter syndrome describes successful people (mostly women) who feel like frauds in their own successful, productive lives. They see their accomplishments as a fluke, and mistakes as evidence of who they “really” are. They fear coworkers will someday discover they actually aren’t knowledgeable or skilled in their field – even though, in reality, they are often the leading experts in their profession.
I feel it, all of it, but not about work. I feel it about home life.
To some degree, we’re all faking it. We make jokes about “adulting,” or looking around a room to discover we’re the ones in charge. On some level, we all feel unqualified for the tasks in front of us, at least at first.
But I’m also from a world where single mothers were invisible. In small town, southern, religious life, single mothers just aren’t part of the landscape. Which is funny to say, because many of the moms I knew (including my own) were divorced at some point. Most remarried quickly. There were a few who remained single, though. I only know as much about them as any child remembers about the adults who lived in their neighborhood – they were hardworking, respectable, quiet. Unequivocally beloved by their kids. As far as I can remember, they stayed on the edges of our community. I have no idea where they found social support, if at all.
But it’s more than that. In (rural southern) Christian culture, there is only one option for women: you must become a Christian-Wife-And-Mother. It’s a complex formula, and it only works if you are successful at each step. You MUST date. But not too seriously – God is your first love! – yet not too flippantly, either. When you find The One (usually around your junior year of college), you must learn to influence his decisions without wielding too much power – which is part of The Curse and a woman’s cross to bear – against her man. Submit, respect him at all times, while you manage a complex and flawless home. Continue to grow spiritually – God is your first love! – but carefully. You wouldn’t want to outrun your husband. If you find you’re at odds, don’t nag, don’t worry. Just pray for God to make your husband’s heart more like your own.
Do I sound critical? I’m sorry. I love the Church, and in many ways I’m deeply grateful I was raised in the Bible Belt. But what I’ve realized is that my confidence and sense of self has been wrapped up in my ability to live up to the Christian ideal of women (which I did pretty well for a long time). My entire life was built around living out the image of Christian-Wife-And-Mother. And if my life had stuck to that path, it would have never dawned on me to question it. This was my lot, and the Psalmist assured me that my boundaries had fallen on pleasant places.
Then the borders shifted.
Suddenly, if I kept doing what I’d always done, if I stood still and trusted that the Lord was going to fight for me, my life would fall apart. Well, it was already falling apart. But it would stay right where it was, crumbled and fragmented, unless I rebuilt it myself. The only way to survive was to rise to the occasion. I had to learn how to order car parts, for example. If the toilet broke, it was now on me to either call the plumber or fix it myself. If I bought new artwork for the house, I had to figure out those stupid toggle bolts, or the picture stayed propped against the empty space indefinitely. When a kid puked, I could no longer shrug and say, “I can’t handle it.” I bought a lawnmower. I opened my own checking account and paid my own bills for the first time in more than a decade. I even had to learn to fire up the grill myself (though I’m still terrible at this one).
In other words, the only way forward was to step outside of everything I’d come to believe about faithfulness. The only way to care for my children and my household was to quit living as a Christian-Wife-And-Mother.
It worked. Car parts aren’t nearly as complicated as they sound. Repair shops aren’t that intimidating, either. Broken windows, flat tires, norovirus – practically every household blight can be eliminated with google and determination. And the more I learned to take care of myself, my kids, and my home without a partner, the more my identity expanded. I no longer see myself as a Christian-Wife-And-Mother. I’ve grown into a Single Mom.
And I’m doing it pretty well. I’m two years into my new life. We aren’t as far along financially as I’d hoped, but we’re making it. I have goals and dreams (goals and dreams always require money), and I’m working toward them. The children are thriving, and thriving children don’t happen by accident. I’ve successfully learned a new job in a field I’d never even heard of a few years ago. I can kill my own spiders.
Yet the more life goes smoothly, the more I feel like I’m doing something wrong. It’s imposter syndrome, plain and simple. I shouldn’t be good at this. If I’m single, I’m supposed to struggle. I should be working toward regaining my spot as Christian-Wife-And-Mother. I’m not supposed to get better at managing my own money, or raising children on my own. Eventually, all of the people who think I’m Super Mom are going to see the little man behind the curtain. They’re going to realize I’m not special – I just refuse to stop pedaling. I feel guilty and uncertain. Making decisions, in particular, can paralyze me. A woman who confidently and successfully makes decisions for her family on her own, who raises boys and girls who are equally confident and well-adjusted without a man in the house or a grandfather filling in as head of the household – is that even allowed? If she existed in my world before now, I certainly never saw her.
Did you hear that? Allowed. Permission. I still have to fight to take control of my own life. But I’m no longer fighting with anyone but me. There’s a lot of talk about biases and sexism these days. In my opinion, the strongest biases are the ones we hold against ourselves. I’m not nearly as limited by others’ view of women as I am by my own. Still, the only way forward is to walk through it. So I spend a lot of my day telling the dubious voice in my head that I hear her concerns, but we’re going to do this anyway, so maybe it’s best if she just sits quietly for a minute. I’m trying to make a decision, and I can’t think while she’s talking.