'Nobody can raise a child on her own' were the words that got me banned from a solo mums’ online support group recently. While most parents wish to appear strong and capable, there seems to be a particular taboo among single mums to admitting that you’re struggling. But if you’ve no partner and you plan to have a child, you’d do well to find an extra pair of hands before you burn out. I know – because I am a single parent. And it has driven me to the brink.
Three years ago, I gave birth to my longed-for and much-loved son, Dex. But when he was four months old, my partner Chris walked out. We’d met through a screenwriting class when I was 37; I was in-between IVF cycles, on my way to becoming a solo mum with donor sperm. He already had two children and wasn’t perturbed when I asked him, early on, if he’d go out with a single mum. We talked about trying for a baby together but I didn’t want to add that pressure to our new relationship (and I didn’t want to wait a moment longer, either).
So I went ahead. Chris came with me to the clinic and I had a blissful pregnancy during our year together. He was the first to hold Dex after he was born and, to begin with, couldn’t have been more supportive. But when Dex was four months old, Chris left after an argument, never telling me exactly why. I found out later from a friend that he’d felt no bond with my baby. I was in shock and, soon after, I was brought to my knees.
Struggling to get home on the bus with a pram and bags of shopping one evening, Dex woke and wouldn’t stop crying. I lifted him out to cuddle him and, when the bus turned a corner, the empty pram toppled over, spilling my dinner all over the floor. Nobody helped. I got home and still my son cried. I changed him and he kept crying. It was November, it was dark and there was nobody else. No neighbours, no grandma, no auntie to help – just me and a screaming baby in our small flat.
Some dark, terrifying thoughts entered my head. Eventually, I got Dex to sleep, but the dread I’d experienced wouldn’t let me rest until I’d written a post on an online parents’ forum. I’ve always found writing therapeutic and needed some support. Although it’s hard to fathom why some people hurt their children, I could, for the first time, empathise with the thought process they must go through and I wanted to express the terror I’d felt. Less than 24 hours later, two policemen turned up on my doorstep to check on us. Someone had contacted the NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] because I sounded so desperate. The officers found a calm scene, with us on a mat playing with toys while classical music played. I talked to them for about an hour and they left, reassured that I was coping and telling me to expect a call from social services.
The experience left me both terrified and reassured. It also made me aware that nobody has the capacity to care for a child on their own, 24/7, 365 days a year in isolation. Sleep deprivation is a killer, and even women whose partners work long hours still have someone to talk to at the end of a long day, another pair of hands to take over early in the morning.
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Through most of history, one-parent families haven’t existed. While I’m truly grateful for having the option of becoming a mum through sperm donation, I want to be honest about how hard it can be. I’m strong, educated, organised and resourceful, yet I felt pushed to my limits caring for a baby with no emotional support.
Baby groups, NCT [UK charity, National Childbirth Trust] coffee mornings, play dates, playground friendships and mums’ networking apps all have their place in enhancing your new life with a child, but they don’t provide the safety net of a partner.
My mum, who lives in Germany, comes to stay for the weekend every four to six weeks and I cling to those little islands of relief. But when Grandma leaves, Dex misses her for days. Her coming and going only reinforces the sense of incompleteness when we are by ourselves.
Thankfully, I know that as my little boy grows, so will our network of helping hands. In sharing my experience, I want people to realise that single parents need support. Getting the building blocks for life from a sperm bank is the easy part – it’s human connections that make a baby thrive and help a mother cope.
If you, or someone you know, needs to talk to someone, call Lifeline on 13 11 44.
This story originally appeared on Grazia