A few years ago, I remember expressing my admiration to a friend who was the mother of small twins. “I don’t know how you do it,” I said. “I could never cope with that in a million years.” She looked at me, baffled. “But you’re bringing up a child on your own!” she said. “I can’t even imagine how you manage.”
We concluded from this that, when it comes to raising children, most of us are just playing the hand we’ve been dealt and getting on with it, because – let’s face it – you don’t really get a choice. Being a parent is bloody hard work at the best of times; if, for whatever reason, our situations make it extra-demanding, we generally adapt and muddle through without too much complaint, until our scrabbled-together routines and our fears and struggles and guilt and private tears all come to seem normal to us, as long as we don’t make the mistake of stopping to compare our lives with people we imagine to be having an easier ride. So, it’s nice when a bit of unexpected public appreciation reminds us that we are doing a tough job in difficult circumstances, and that it’s not weakness or failure to admit that.
Last weekend, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg chose to mark US Mother’s Day with a fierce and heartfelt post in praise and support of single mothers. Sandberg, one of the most prominent women in tech and the author of Lean In, was widowed a year ago when her husband, Dave, died after falling from a moving treadmill. “For me, this is still a new and unfamiliar world,” she writes. “Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
She could be forgiven for not “getting it”, though. As my friend and I discovered, it can be hard to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. But perhaps none of the single mothers she knew ever told her the truth about how gruelling it can be to hold a family together on your own. Perhaps their pride compelled them to put on a bright show of competence in public, as I did for many years, while under the surface they were paddling frantically just to stay afloat.
Of the two million single parent households in the UK, nearly two-thirds are in work. Yet still very few professional environments are set up to recognise and accommodate the challenges of having sole responsibility for a child
Sandberg readily acknowledges that she is fortunate enough not to experience the grinding poverty that affects so many single mothers, but she also points out that, while wealth can smooth the sharp corners of day-to-day life, it can’t protect you from the thousand tiny emotional cuts. “I never understood how often the world would remind me and my children of what we don’t have,” as she puts it. I know this feeling all too well: the day your child comes home from nursery with a pre-printed Father’s Day card to colour in, on which he has defiantly crossed out the word “Daddy” and attempted to write “Grandad”. When, a few years later, he comes back from playing at a friend’s and says, “Peter’s dad built a den with us in the woods”, with a little note of wistfulness that he can’t quite disguise. The nights you lie awake worrying about what would happen if you got seriously ill or died, because you are all he has. All the paid childcare in the world – even if you are lucky enough to afford it – can’t soften those blows.
But Sandberg’s post is far from a “poor me”, though she does speak candidly about her loss and its effect on her children. Instead, she turns her new understanding into a passionate call to arms, in which she readily admits that she too made assumptions in her book about the lives of working women, before her family was shattered. “Some people felt I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner, or no partner at all,” she says. “They were right.”
This might be because we’re not used to thinking about “single mothers” in a professional context. But of the two million single parent households in the UK, nearly two-thirds are in work. Yet still very few professional environments are set up to recognise and accommodate the challenges of having sole responsibility for a child, and we don’t help ourselves by trying to hide how hard it is, for fear of being thought less reliable than our married or male colleagues. Having a woman who understands those challenges in a position to directly influence workplace culture is a step in the right direction, and I salute Sandberg for her words. But it’s time the rest of us started talking about it too, if we’re really serious about leaning in to support one another. After all, as Sandberg says, becoming a single parent can happen to anyone.