I’ve been a single parent for much of my adult life. It is a difficult road, and although there are a few compensations, they do not always outweigh the disadvantages. Being single, I can make my own choices without having to answer to a spouse. I can go where I please, when I please. But this freedom is only relative. I think of the Sinead O’Connor song, “Nothing Compares to You,” where she lists all the things she can do now that she is single, such as “eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant.” Well, the reality for most women who suddenly find themselves as single mothers – we can’t afford basic food necessities, let alone a fancy restaurant dinner! We may be free to do as we please – but most of what we would like to do is far beyond our reach financially. We can make our own choices – but we often yearn for a supportive second opinion. We may be free to make choices, but we carry a heavy burden – doing our best to bring up our children alone, assuming the full load of being not just the family breadwinner, but being emotionally both mother and father for our children.
At Athabasca University, around 60% of students are female. After listening to the testimonials at last years’ graduation, I would guess that a good number of these female students are also single mothers. I’d like to share my own story, in hopes that maybe I can offer some encouragement to those single mothers out there who are still where I was a few years ago – desperately struggling, discouraged, depressed, seeing no way out and no real hope for the future. Yes, there are single dads out there too, but men generally have options women do not, including an established career that ensures financial stability. I have nothing but deepest admiration for those men who do choose to take responsibility for parenting their children alone, since far too many men simply walk away and abdicate this responsibility to women. In my experience, however, any single dads I’ve known have not struggled financially, and have a great deal of family support. In addition they generally have many single women eager to “help” them out in raising their children, a situation that is much less common for single parents who are female.
I married at the age of 21, and while I consider that young, I had traveled and enjoyed extensive experience of the world, so I thought myself fairly mature. My husband was of a different culture and religion, but we had a great deal in common. He was a popular musician in his home country and we spent many hours writing music and performing together. We formed a band together with my siblings, and for several years performed all over Alberta. Although I idealistically expected love would conquer all, things did not work out as I expected. In addition to some severe culture shock issues and extreme jealousy, he had an alcohol problem. Even though we shared many good times together, I was also abused physically and mentally right from the start.
As the abuse worsened, I became increasingly isolated from both friends and family. It got to the point where I could not continue with the band, as his severe jealousy and alcohol abuse would make every performance a nightmare. I constantly rationalized and made excuses for what was going on, while making every effort to hide it from others. An emotional abuser convinces you that you are to blame for everything, and you gradually came to believe that you are at fault for everything that is wrong in the relationship. My husband never once took responsibility for his own behaviour – everything was always my fault, my inadequacies, my family, etc. At the time I was also part of a religious environment that completely subjugated women to their husbands, and the belief that marriage was to be saved at all costs kept me in the relationship for eight years. It took an acute fear for the safety of myself and my daughters before I finally found the courage to break free.
Even then I kept hoping that my husband would change, and that we would reunite – but looking back now I realize what a foolish hope that was. Change in a relationship can only be effected if both partners are committed to it, and change in an abuser only occurs with serious and long term therapy. As long as one partner refuses to accept any responsibility for their actions, there is no hope for improvement.
So there I was, alone with four small daughters, hurt and confused, my self-esteem and confidence trashed. Supporting my daughters became the focus of my life, and I had no choice but apply for social assistance. It was a degrading and humiliating experience, but my children had to eat, so I put up with the “holier than thou” attitude of the social workers. One social worker reduced me to tears when I initially begged for help – I had been using my credit card to buy groceries, and she criticized me for using credit so wastefully. Since I had been so frivolous, in her opinion, I did not deserve government assistance. It was only when I became hysterical that she finally grudgingly provided a food voucher. Another social worker praised me for baking a pie for my children, and suggested I should “plant a garden to save costs”. I had always done these things for my family, and it hurt to have them turned into some merit badge of survival that would let me prove that I was a worthy parent.
After some time I was fortunate to again find enough work as a musician to gradually be able to earn enough to maintain a basic standard of living. I had some family support during this period, but this support was always conditional. My family seemed to think that because my marriage had failed, I was a failure as well. I was made to feel that because I was incapable of making the “correct” choices (they had strongly opposed the marriage since he was a different religion), I was getting what I deserved and needed them to take over and run my life for me and my daughters. No doubt they considered this an act of “love,” but I felt smothered. My ex-husband had spent eight years making me feel guilty and worthless, and rather than have my inadequacies reinforced, I needed to repair the damage to my self-esteem. More than anything in the world I wanted to prove my ability to be independent, to prove that I was a capable parent who had not done irreparable harm to my daughters by divorcing their father. I finally moved to the other side of the city where I and my daughters could start to build on our lives independently and move forward.
Next week: A decision to change my single parent status
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.