It’s funny how life never works out how you would have planned it. I’ve always wanted to have children in my life; my maternal instinct has always been very strong. But, having grown up in a very traditional family, it never occurred to me that I would by 23 years of age, be a single mother to a 20 month old baby boy.
Lachlan was born in December 2001, the year I turned 21, following a problem free but emotionally harrowing pregnancy. I had been in a relationship with my then partner for nearly 2 years when I found I was expecting a baby. I had been using oral contraceptive, so this was a very big surprise to both of us. Our relationship was not stable, and having experienced a very secure and loving upbringing, I could not in good conscious bring a baby into an unhappy environment.
Leaving my partner was the most difficult decision I had ever made. I was, and still am wracked with guilt, having made the decision for my son to grow up without his biological father in his life. It wrenches my heart to know that my son will not have the close relationship I experienced with my father, and I often find myself re-thinking my decision. I know in my heart I have done the right thing by my son, I have allowed him to have a stable and secure childhood, but at what cost?
Single parents are a growing phenomena in today’s society, either as a result of divorce, separation, artificial insemination or spousal death. Many social commentators believe that the breakdown in family structure is the cause of many societal problems, including teen delinquency and pregnancy, behavioural problems and educational difficulties. The prognosis is increasingly bleak if it is a male child being raised in a single mother household – without a father figure in a boy’s life the child will have little hope of growing up to be a social and well adjusted adult. As an article authored by the respected Dr John Irvine and published in Australian Family’s winter edition stated “Many bullies come from aggressive or hostile homes and aggressive children often come from homes where dad is absent …” Similarly, a report compiled by Bill Muehlenberg of the Australian Family Association in August of 2002 cited the condition of ‘fatherlessness’ to be acutely responsible for issues such as poverty, low education performance and mental health problems.
So what hope do the millions of children like my son have?
Books such as “Mother and Sons” by Jo Howard paint a different picture. A son being raised in a single mother household has the opportunity to grow with the understanding that women are capable and strong individuals, able to change the oil in the car, mow the lawn and fix things around the house while still retaining their femininity. Children grow with stability and consistency, much more preferable than being raised by parents who remain together ‘for the sake of the children’. Male children learn that women are not reliant on men to succeed in life, allowing them to forge relationships were both parties are equal. Female children experience a woman who is independent and does not need a male for validation, leading to an increase in their self-esteem and self-belief as a woman of tomorrow. Thus, children from single parent families have the opportunity to redefine the gender roles, opening the possibility for harmonious future relationships.
As a mother, I implement many practices that are identified as Attachment Parenting, although I am reluctant to use this term as a label. Lachlan is still breastfed, and will be afforded the opportunity to self wean, his diet is mainly sugar and additive free, and as organic as possible. Lachlan shares my bed for part of every night, is treated homeopathically when ill and is selectively vaccinated. At times, I wonder whether I would parent differently if I were in an ongoing relationship, and sometimes struggle with the idea that I may be grooming Lachlan to fill a ‘void’ in my life left by having no partner. In my heart I know this not to be true, however society has a pre-conceived notion that children should not share the ‘martial bed’, and that a mother breastfeeding beyond 12 months is doing it more for her sexual or emotional needs than the babies health. It is misconceptions such as these that make me continually reassess my practices, despite knowing in my heart that they are right for my small family.
Making parenting decisions as a single parent is, in my view, both easier and more difficult than sharing the choices with a partner. I have the opportunity to implement all the parenting practices that I passionately feel are necessary, without compromise. Lachlan is being raised exactly as I want him to be, and I am very glad for the opportunity to do this. However, I don’t have a person who is as invested as me helping when the decisions get really tough. Take circumcision, the first major decision I had to make following Lachlans’ birth. I had never needed to think about this issue before, and really had no idea. I felt this huge burden, having to make a decision that really wasn’t mine to make in the first place, and ultimately being responsible for the outcome, whatever that may be. I followed my heart eventually, and Lachlan remains intact, but during the decision making process I acutely felt the absence of a partner. Looking back, it was the first time I understood the gravity of my situation – I was going to have to make these decisions alone indefinately! If any decision was wrong, Lachie only had me to blame, and I had never felt such responsibility before in my life. I was a new mother, and I felt very alone.
While pregnant with Lachlan, I attended a pre-natal yoga class on a weekly basis, which was a life-line for me. I was able to retreat into my soul for two hours every week, and focus on the miracle that was occurring while feeling safe and secure. It was during one of these classes that we were asked to voice our greatest fears about birth and mothering, and turn this around into a positive mantra. I recall admitting that I was petrified that this baby I was growing had the genes of my ex-partner, who during and since our relationship dissolved proved himself to be extremely unreliable and selfish. I naively felt that my baby was mine alone, and was reluctant to think beyond the birth, where I was likely to have to hand my baby over. I recall the mantra that our teacher helped me to develop, and it has remained with me since that day.
“I birth this child to share with the world”.
While my fears were not realised to a great degree, this mantra has helped me to understand the need that all parents, but especially single parents, have to create a community around their children. We cannot parent in isolation – it truly does take a village to raise a child, and as parents we must build up the networks now that our children can call on at a later date. As single parents, we must fill every role within a child’s life, often within a very short space of time. We need to be the mother, the father, the provider, the playmate, the disciplinarian and the friend. The mother-child relationship is extremely intense, and without having a partner to intercept and dilute this intensity of emotion, the single parent household is at risk of becoming filled with conflict and disharmony. For this reason I have welcomed my parents into Lachlan’s life, with great success. My mother cares for Lachlan while I attend university, and he has developed a wonderful bond with her. She has guided my parenting from the earliest of days, providing her wisdom from raising three children, but allowing me to parent in the way I feel comfortable.
But perhaps the most remarkable tale is of Lachlan’s relationship with my father. Lachlan and my dad truly are the best of friends, sharing an extremely strong bond. They are wonderful playmates, so much so that sometimes it is hard to believe that there is 54 years separating them. Lachlan learns so much from my father that I am not able to teach him – he is witnessing each day what it means to be male in today’s society. I relish the relationship that my son is developing with his grandfather, and will make every effort to ensure that this continues long after Lachlan and I have established our own home.
I am very fortunate to have the support, both financial and emotional, of my parents with regard to raising Lachlan. They respect my parenting decisions, despite them being somewhat different to the way they chose to parent. I understand that not all people in my situation would be able to lean so heavily on their parents, and for this I am very grateful.
My ideal is for a society that acknowledges all committed parents, be they single, partnered, widowed or same sex, as being what they truly are – generous, wonderful human beings struggling in a society that no longer values the hard work of raising well adjusted children. Being a good parent has everything to do with what is in your heart and soul, and nothing to do with what is on the third finger of your left hand.