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Single Parent Guilt

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If single parenthood is a rough road, we're told to put on a brave face and "get over it." You know -- fake it until we make it. And if we can't manage to do that (to everyone else's satisfaction), we're saddled with disparaging clichés about bad attitude and poor judgment.

And then there's the guilt. You know -- guilt. If only I could have made the marriage work. If only I were better prepared when he (or she) left. If only I had a smarter lawyer, a more supportive family, had thought to insist on X or Y or Z in the visitation agreement. If only I had more patience, more energy, more something to give to my children.

Some of us swim in guilt, and we do ourselves no favors. We buy into the myth that life after divorce will sort itself out neatly: we'll forgive and forget, we'll co-parent civilly, we'll recoup our financial losses, we'll adjust to new neighborhoods. And naturally, there will be a love interest in due time -- as frosting on the post-divorce cake.

The kids? They're resilient, right? Everyone tells us it just takes time.

Some single mothers do manage to reconstruct a life with relative ease. And note I say relative ease. The many adjustments to a change in marital status are usually no picnic.

But in my book, those who put the pieces together in a year or two are doing well. Maybe they're lucky. Maybe they have a Next Partner-In-Waiting. Maybe they're drop dead gorgeous. Maybe they are fortunate in their cooperative exes, financial resources, stable jobs, close-knit families to assist with the load. And yes, a positive attitude helps with everything, but positive attitude alone won't cut it.

Women who find themselves mommy-tracked may struggle to regain their footing in the workforce. If you add worst case co-parenting scenarios, ongoing legal maneuvers, problems helping our children cope - we're living anything but a Happily Ever After Divorce. It's something else entirely -- a rough road, even a grueling one.

If post-divorce scenarios don't emerge as envisioned, it's understandable that friends weary of our troubles and drift away. Isolation makes our lives harder of course, and we begin to accept their judgment as the only possible point of view. We blame ourselves. We feel like quitters. We wallow in guilt.

As for the guilt? When it's excessive, not only is it pointless but it may deflect more complicated emotions that are brewing beneath the surface, and would do better to be examined in the light. When it's working "as designed," I think of guilt as a feedback system, a sort of moral compass that guides us soundly, and lets us know when we need to adjust course.

When guilt is functioning well, it reminds us to pay attention. For example, if I overreact with my kids, I feel guilty. Legitimate, I tell myself -- so I apologize and change the behavior. When I've had to refuse one my kids an opportunity because of insufficient funds, I feel guilty. This situation is trickier. Is it reasonable to allow myself to drift back to a time when there were two incomes to cover the parenting bases?

Comparing the present to the past is a self-destructive exercise. We should not judge our parenting by standards that no longer apply.

The worst of my own single parent guilt kicks in when I consider my own childhood. I recall dinners on the table without fail, laundry folded and put away in our dressers, rambunctious and memorable road trips to visit relatives at the holidays, and a home life that was far from picture perfect, but nonetheless felt secure.

Comparing the childhood I've given my kids to my own 1960s and 70s upbringing?

It's a slippery slope and I know it. Those were very different days. We all knew our place and it was this: kids towed the line, women stayed home, men provided income, mothers assisted one another in community, and divorce was uncommon.

Marketing guru, Seth Godin, provided a lovely parable a few years back that dovetails nicely to the single parent dilemma. He wrote of the distinction between a "diner egg" -- reliable, acceptable, perfectly edible -- and one he occasionally cooks for himself at home.

The extra pennies and minutes allow for a tastier free-range egg, better oil in the skillet, a perfectly crisped edge, and an eating experience that becomes special. Godin's lesson is about quality -- bringing something extra, when we can.

I liken Seth Godin's lesson to my parenting -- the ensemble of memorable moments created with my sons. They're different from those when I was growing up, but no less wonderful.

Guilt isn't the only element of the parenting compass, but it's proven to be an instructive one, as I've accepted that we all share the ability to create quality moments -- when we can. None of this diminishes the very real challenges that some of us face in our post-divorce lives -- from financial hardship that dogs us for years, to dealing with parenting responsibilities virtually alone.

Rough road or not, as I interact with my sons these days, for the most part, I feel pride. We have our rows, we have our worries, I've pushed them hard and feel guilty that I had to do so. And then I set aside that particular emotion, as I see the decent young men they are becoming.

As for life as a single mother, I'm reconciled to my measure of guilt. But I'm also utterly convinced of the wisdom of Seth Godin's egg.

A version of this column first appeared at Daily Plate of Crazy.