Single Parenting in a Pandemic
How the crisis has dredged up one mother’s old regrets and worries about money.
Andrea Luttrell, with her son, Townes, in their living room in Farmers Branch, Texas. “Single motherhood is nothing if not chronic guilt,” she writes.Credit...Zerb Mellish for The New York Times
By Andrea Luttrell
Nov. 5, 2020Updated 9:29 a.m. ET
My 9-year-old son looked absurd sitting at the dining room table in his school uniform after a summer spent in pajamas. He tugged at his shirt collar while I hovered a foot away, my hair unwashed and undyed. A single mom who had the privilege of working from home — at least while his school remained online — I was desperately attempting to navigate our two schedules.
I leaned over and tried to help him interpret the swarm of apps on his school-issued iPad. The login directions were unclear, to the two of us at least. I attempted to take the machine but he swatted me, determined to do it himself. I watched him poke at the iPad’s screen with increasing force. I could hear the ding of my inbox filling up beside me. I too was on the clock, answerable to deadlines and colleagues and bosses.
Ten minutes in my son dissolved into exasperated tears, while I tried not to cry myself — frustrated at seeing him so miserable, at the demands of my own work, at the possibility I might get furloughed. Instead, I did what I had been doing all that no-child-care summer in Dallas, Texas: I took a few breaths and remembered that I was the adult in the room. Out of sight of the camera, so I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his classmates, I rubbed his back and whispered, “It’s OK, sweetheart. We will be OK,” wondering if it was the truth.
That night while my son slept, I sneaked into the shower to sob and then called my best friend.
“God, I wish I could drink,” I said. “I’m 14 years sober, and I’ve never wanted to drink this badly. Not even during the divorce. Who knew the thing to break me would be remote school?”
“Go easy on yourself,” she said. “None of this is your fault.”
“Well,” I sighed, “I may not be patient zero, but we can hardly claim I’m blameless.”
Lying in bed that night, I thought of my divorce, of my meager savings and wondered how long it would carry us if I got laid off. Even before the pandemic, I had been clinging to the middle class by my fingernails. I also worried that my son’s current unhappiness wasn’t solely attributable to the pandemic. Was it, really, my own damn fault? I counted my regrets. I should have gone to law school or pursued hedge-fund management rather than get an MFA in fiction. Surely if I had more money, I could insulate my child from the pandemic. If I were still married, we could tag in and out, managing our own work and remote learning. Maybe if I were prettier or skinnier or smarter or braver or less outspoken, I might have remarried by now and had help. In short, if I had made better choices, I could keep us both safe and happy.
These what-ifs had haunted me for years. Before the pandemic, they were easier to ignore. Covid-19 had made all my fears and resentments into a topographical chart of regret. I could suddenly touch and see every mistake I’d ever made in vivid relief. Each night, staring at the ancient water stain on the ceiling, I tried not to fall into self-loathing and self-pity. “You’re being selfish,” I would think, disgusted, knowing that at least we were healthy and unharmed. But I couldn’t help it — the pandemic, the impossibility of balancing everything, of attending to everything, had exhausted me.
Single motherhood is nothing if not chronic guilt. I realize guilt is a mainstay of the maternal experience, but I contend that this is something different. It’s thinking that the decisions you have made might ruin your child’s life. It’s listening to his friends come over and ask, “Where’s your dad?” and listening to your son mumble, “They’re divorced.” It’s wondering whether the back and forth between his parents’ houses will unmoor and unsettle your kid forever. It’s a profound isolation. Though my ex and I are friendly and can discuss logistics, we rarely discuss fears or regrets.
The hardest thing about single parenting in the pandemic has been the abyss of loneliness coupled with responsibilities that cannot be met. My son needs help navigating remote school; this is a situation built for stay-at-home parents, but I cannot afford to not work. And I am one of the fortunate ones. I have the privilege of my race, my job, my health insurance, an ex-husband who co-parents with me, and my parents who, though medically vulnerable, can babysit or loan money in a pinch. I am beyond lucky, and I feel like I’m drowning. Several single mothers I know contemplated suicide this past summer. Ironically, what makes the pandemic so untenable to them is being a single parent, but being a single parent is what also makes suicide impossible. It’s a Möbius strip of misery.
I think about other single moms a lot; I wonder what I might learn from them. I also worry for them. For those who are frontline workers, I wonder how much of their day is spent in abject fear. I feel for single moms who can work from home but don’t know for how long, afraid they will damage their career. I think of the mothers who wait in line for packages at the food bank. Poverty lurks like a shadow for so many of us.
At the end of the first day of remote school, my son and I went for a bike ride. School had been an abject disaster. During breaks in his lessons, we had cuddled on the sofa, my work languishing away. I could do it that evening; it meant less sleep, but it also meant keeping my head above water. Walking our bikes out into the street, I said to my son, “In January, this will all be over.” As if I was some sort of oracle, shouting affirmations that are more hope than promise. But I have to believe in something better to come.
My boy and I climbed onto our bikes and rode up and down the block. Sweat glued my shirt to my back and my hair was a mess, but it didn’t matter. I could watch my son, peddling like mad up ahead. For that moment, we were happy. It’s so easy to forget that the little joys can add up to something much bigger.
“Hey, Mom!” he hollered. “Watch!”
And I saw him attempt “a trick,” riding up a neighbor’s driveway onto the sidewalk. He misjudged the turn and landed in a bush, bike and all, but popped right up, brushed the dirt off his bare legs and shot me a thumbs-up sign. We both started laughing, a loud goofy guffaw we share. Kids are resilient — I remind myself of that a lot. And the truth is, I am also resilient, and in the end, the what-if’s don’t matter. My son is the only decision I’m absolutely sure of, and whatever happens, no matter how hard, he is the one thing I don’t regret.
Andrea Luttrell is a writer living in Texas. She is currently working on a memoir.