For the first two parts of Debbie’s story, see The Voice April 2nd [v11 i14] and April 16th [v11 i16] issues.
Being laid off was a traumatic experience, and I spent the first few days in shock. My immediate concern, of course, was how we would manage financially. But to my surprise…I was eligible for unemployment insurance! Since I had always been a self-employed musician I never had access to these kinds of benefits (even though I paid for them come tax time), and I was pleased to find myself suddenly able to take advantage of a government service that did not make me feel like a worthless loser.
My benefits ran out after a couple of months, but by then I had done some serious thinking. I had completed my first three courses at AU, and managed to add a couple more along the way in spite of the turmoil I was going through. I decided that I needed to start focusing on *me*. I had done enough crying for a lifetime, and it was time to move on. This new sense of purpose had the effect of eliminating my depression, and I suddenly found myself back in control of my life.
By this time my older two daughters had left home, and were in college and university, actively pursuing their dreams. We inspired each other, and I decided to apply for a student loan and try going to university full time. To my utter surprise, not only was my loan granted, but I received a high-needs bursary to get me on my way!
I eagerly planned out my full-time course schedule, and once I had my course work organized, I went back to the office temp agency I had started with, and they immediately found me part-time work with Capital Health. In contrast to my previous job, my new employers treated me with respect and encouraged my desire to pursue an education. In fact, they appreciated my work so much that they kept trying to give me full time hours even though I insisted that my schoolwork came first. I often found myself working far too much and my coursework was perpetually behind schedule. However I felt like I was finally back on track – my life was my own, and the future began to look positive again.
Things were not automatically resolved, of course, but since that time I’ve managed to reach the point in my coursework where I’ve finally applied to graduate this June. I’ve moved into a new job this past year where I’m utilizing many of the skills I’m learning at university, and I have plans to apply for the Masters of Counselling program next year. I’ve also been elected president of the student union, a position that has taught me a great deal and afforded me many opportunities for growth. I feel like I’ve achieved success, even though I’m still in the process of completing my goals. In contrast to where I was four short years ago, I’m happy with my life, and I embrace each new day as an exciting venture.
My story, of course, is far more complex and detailed than what I’ve written here. I’ve only shared a few of the surface elements, since most of my experience is far too personal and intimate to share with others. I’ve had some extremely difficult times in my life, and I’m sure things will not be perfect in the future. At a music therapy conference I attended several years ago, one of the speakers was Lorraine Sinclair; a Cree woman who is a successful writer and teacher. Lorraine had been through many of the same things I had in her life, and she commented that rather than feel sorry for herself because she had been abused, and rather than always dwelling on the difficulties she had endured, she took these events as something positive. She had become a stronger person by going through them, and had developed valuable qualities such as empathy for others – adversity had contributed to personal growth. I took her comments to heart, and have tried to re-visualize the many trials I’ve endured as positives that have contributed to my becoming a better person.
For most of us women who are single parents, attending university represents a way to improve life for ourselves and our children. Unless you have been in the situation, it is hard to understand what a struggle going to school really is for single mothers. A father is expected to get an education and go out and work, and his time and devotion to his children is usually never questioned when he does so. This is not the case with mothers. We are expected to be there for our children, nurture them, support them. Our needs and our education take second place. Even in a traditional two-parent family, the mother bears most of this responsibility. When you are a single mother, you already deal with guilty feelings that you are neglecting your children when you are forced to work to support your family. To compound this “neglect” by going to school increases this sense of guilt.
Although I believe my ultimate goal will benefit both myself and my family, at times I still question whether I should have postponed my decision until all my children were independent. My daughters support me in what I’m doing, but I know that at times they are disappointed that I can’t spend time with them. Even though our situation is greatly improved from where it was a few years ago, we still experience many difficulties. The lack of a supportive spouse is often very noticeable. When I hear my friends tell me that their husbands take their children out for the day when they need to focus on studying for a final exam, I am keenly aware that my children are fending for themselves while I study. When other women talk about how their husbands are making dinner or helping with housework while they are preparing a term paper, I give thanks that at least my girls are old enough to make their own meals – single mothers with young children don’t have this option.
Financially too, we continue to struggle. A student budget is small enough when you need to support yourself – let alone as a single mother trying to also support a family. There is also the issue of emotional and moral support. My children are wonderfully supportive for me, but they have their own emotional needs. They need me to be able to listen to their problems, to help them with their homework, and to do things for them. When I’m stressed about schoolwork, or worried about something, there is only so much I can burden them with. Much of the time I have to keep things to myself, and at times it feels very lonely. I confess that sometimes I feel a twinge of jealousy when my married friends talk about how supportive their partners are of their studies.
In the long run, however, my choice to use my time going to university has been the right one. It took me from a place of discouragement and despair, where I was not able to see a better future for myself and my children; to one where I have a sense of purpose. Although I’m still a struggling single parent – my life is infinitely better than it was before I started university.
On those days when I feel guilty because I’m neglecting my children for my studies, I try to remember – I could be neglecting them because I’m off doing something with my spouse. I could be neglecting them because I’m consumed with trying to make a blended family function, my attention focused on a stepchild or a troublesome ex-wife. Or I could be neglecting them because I’m depressed and too ill to function. I could be neglecting them for many reasons. But I’m not. I’m neglecting them because I’m trying to build a better future for all of us. My achievement of my goals will have many benefits – and I know that in the end it will pay off.
To all intents and purposes, my schoolwork has become my spouse, and some have commented to me that once I graduate I may feel differently about remaining single. It’s possible, but I doubt it. At this point in my life I have no room for a relationship and I do not see that changing. I’ve tried dating a few times, and it turned out badly. So I prefer to keep my focus on making *me* the best I can be, without any distractions.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. As women we are socialized to believe that we must nurture, and sacrifice ourselves for others. It is that type of thinking that can also lead us to believe that we are failures if we do not have a “relationship” with a significant other. I no longer reason that way. I believe that when a person is strong and confident within themselves, they do not require a partner to make them whole. Perhaps once I’ve achieved my goals I may once again make room in my life for a man. First, however, I will become the person I want to be: a successful individual, a woman who has managed to achieve her dreams and goals. A woman who is independent and can choose whether or not she wants to remain single or whether she wants to share her life with another person.
I’ve learned some important lessons as a single parent:
You don’t need a man to be successful.
You can do it on your own.
It is possible to rise above your problems no matter how bad it gets.
Adversity builds strength.
It is more important to be a whole person yourself than it is to be part of a relationship.
You can be a single parent and be a success.
If you are not content with who you are and the life you are living – you are no good to yourself or anyone else, regardless of whether you are married or single.
Focusing on YOU benefits everyone – you become a better person and more capable of being a good mother to your children when you are content with who YOU are.
As I approach graduation and master’s studies, I find that my single status is becoming less of a liability, and I am able to celebrate my independence. I do not have to adjust my course goals to meet the needs or wishes of a partner, and this gives me freedom to fully develop myself as an individual. The prospect of holding a degree gives me increased confidence in my ability to support myself and my family, and my worries about financial security are lessened. My ability to learn and my sense of accomplishment have restored my self-esteem. I also have the sense of belonging to an academic community, one where I have increased self-respect and the respect of my peers. Most importantly, I am in control of my life. I am exactly where I want to be.
“You do not need to be loved, not at the cost of yourself. The single relationship that is truly central and crucial in a life is the relationship to the self. Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.”
Jo Coudert, Advice From a Failure, Madison Books, 2001.
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.