I cried when I compared my life to a perfect family’s but the joke was on me

Last month, as part of our big Midwestern roadtrip, my kids and I stayed for 10 days in a gorgeous five-bedroom turn-of-the-century lake house in northern Michigan, a home swap with the older couple who live there and, in turn, stayed at my apartment in Queens.

The kids and I drove more than six hours from Niagra Falls that day, still fresh road warriors a mere few days into the adventure. As we cruised by Toronto and up through the fields of Michigan, I thought a lot about a good friend whose mother recently passed away. There was a line in her obituary that got me:

“They lived in Biloxi, M.S., Fulda, Germany , and Rapid City, S.D. In October, 1968, they returned to Illinois to continue to build their life and family together.”

Build their life. 


A lot of the time I am happy in my single-mom life. The kids and I have a good thing going, they're turning into great people. I am building my business, and as a family we have friendships and family relationships that grow. But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family. Doing a fine job keeping the ship afloat. But building not much.

At our Michigan destination, the Subaru cruised into the beautiful resort town just as the son was setting over Lake Michigan, and pulled into the driveway of our temporary home. It was 9 p.m., we were all hungry, but ran through the rooms of the this giant house, which was far lovelier than the online pictures (I found the arrangement through the very excellent HomeExchange.com — which costs  $199 per year — and allows you to connect with other home swappers, including my host in Copenhagen, where I am spending three weeks for, essentially, free). Being from the Midwest, I have known many big old homes, and this was an excellent one, the kind with solid walls and surrounded by giant Sycamore trees, both of which leave the house cooler inside than outside in the summer.

Scattered throughout the house were many family pictures of the hosts, Harry and Nancy, in their 70s, and glowing and smiling alongside four of five grown, blond children with their handsome spouses and a mess of blond grandkids of all ages who appeared to excel in nautical sport.

The home was so lovely, filled with very good antiques and lots of floral bedspreads that coordinate perfectly with drapes and rugs without being stuffy — but rather call to be featured in Traditional Home magazine.

This is a real family home, I thought. I imagined this couple must have known each other since college. That she must have stayed home with the kids and devoted herself to this beautiful place and her beautiful blond children and her smiling, committed husband with whom she is nuzzled in the silver-framed photo on the walnut dresser in the giant master suite that I now occupied. This is why women stay home. To create all this wonderfulness. 

While my own kids ran through the rooms, turning on all the lights and deciding which rooms would be theirs (sharing a room in our apartment, they opted to sleep in the same queen bed all week), I hit the kitchen, outfitted with an enormous assortment of good china, endless baking tools and a second refrigerator in the adjoining pantry where Nancy, clearly a prolific cook, kept an overflow of excellent cheese, beer and condiments.

I could hear the kids squabbling upstairs, and in the kitchen I, too, felt exhausted and ornery. The car would need to be unpacked, towels located. But first I had to feed my kids. My children were hungry. I wasn't at my quickest. Not sure what foods might be rude to use from the kitchen. What would be quick and tasty to cook. The assortment of bottles and cans and boxes and pans and utensils was so vast, so overwhelming. Harry and Nancy were so perfect. I was such a mess. I couldn't even feed my children in that moment, much less build a life for them. I am a failure in this moment. And I am a failure in life! I thought, and a giant, desperate sob overtook me before I was able to collect myself and boil some expensive, imported pasta in a shape I had never seen before.

The next day I called a contact Nancy had left for me, and the lovely woman who contributes to the local magazine came by to chat about kids and writing. I asked what she might tell me about my hosts. “Oh Nancy was a divorced mom, too — for many years,” she said. “Her first husband was a terrible alcoholic, and she was a successful real estate agent here.”

I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because, really Nancy. Oh Nancy! I had told myself so many stories about who you are, and they had nothing to do with anything at all except for my own bullshit. My own bullshit about not being or doing enough. That everyone has it better than me. That out there, somewhere, there is a perfect family in a perfect big house on the lake that a stay-at-home mom decorated and bakes all the live-long day so that her gorgeous, functional extended family can come together for weekends and drama-free holidays.

When I got done laughing, I started to see. I saw that yes, Nancy, you have some lovely traditional oil paintings that coordinated perfectly in your rooms that are indeed traditional, but also so graciously laid out and in colors like bright apricot or the palest of lime green that are quite modern and sophisticated. Your art collection was not what it first appears, but includes sly folk pieces, like a painting featuring a 3D papier-mâché woman with the hand written words: “She looked in the mirror to find her youth had disappeared. The bitch never even bothered to say goodbye.”

Your books throughout the house — a wall in one of the sitting rooms, on end tables, not to mention the cookbook collection spilling from the kitchen to the breakfast room — say a lot about a person. But in the master bedroom, between two windows opposite the king-sized bed, is that narrow shelf of titles that I could not help but imagine are your favorite. Carson McCullers, Memoirs of a Geisha, biographies of Hillary Clinton and female Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nancy, you are smart, and you are edgy. Complex. You've been through it, just like everyone. Just like me.

Try home swapping with HomeExchange.com >>

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Whit on November 19, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    This was refreshing. I am 10 months separated and moved to another state with kids in tow to finish up a graduate program. Almost everyday I find myself feeling like a failure that my boys will not have a 2 parent household, nice home in kid friendly neighborhood, mom and dad attending all their school events, holidays together etc. I have trouble accepting this new path I’m on although I know the man I’m leaving is not who I would want to be with given some of the choices he made. So I feel stuck in this place of limbo. I can’t go back but I feel like I will just pass through motherhood and raising my kids without being able to create the family life I want. I know it sounds ridiculous that I can’t erase these traditional ideas at this stage of the game so articles like this help to remind me just because someone appears to have it all doesn’t mean that’s the case.

  2. Bobbi-Jo Romanishan on September 19, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Do we use the words “Real Family” to define a societal stereotype?

    Funny to read this post this week as an older, professional girlfriend and I were just discussing the words “real family.” Her oldest daughter recently gave birth to a son, a new younger brother to her 3-yo daughter. Upon seeing the photo of the happy family foursome – dad, mom, daughter and son – my girlfriend’s youngest daughter remarked, “Wow! They’re a real family now.”

    This comment surprised my girlfriend, a true proactive woman, who certainly did raise her daughters to believe that you need a man and kids to be a family. Our lunch continued with a good discussion of how we’re still subject to societal stereotypes. Great to read that Nancy is a “Real Woman.”

    • Bobbi-Jo Romanishan on September 19, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      Oops… should have edited before posting… she did NOT raise here daughters to believe you need man and kids to be a family.

    • Emma on September 20, 2015 at 7:34 am

      Hi Bobbi-Jo — thanks for chiming in … it’s very hard to accept a “normal” that deviates from the norm around us, whether it is in career, politics, religion, what have you. But when it comes to family, the reality is that the two-parent nuclear model is actually the minority now, so time to switch our paradigms!

      • Bobbi-Jo Romanishan on September 25, 2015 at 3:51 pm


  3. sanele on August 11, 2015 at 5:03 am

    As a single mother we most often make the mistake that being in a relationship is better. I love the sentiment that we view things externally without knowing the full picture. This story is both emotional and strengthening. It has shown me that my life goes on and that at some point, I’m still credible for happiness. I’ve wasted so much time asking myself if I’m a single mother cause I’m not worthy? I’ve been envious of people, their families, partners, lives etc. Being a single mom is testing everyday, no matter how full the schedule is, there is a moment, a flicker, a glimpse that makes me wonder “why can’t I”

    • Emma on August 12, 2015 at 3:49 am

      :) thanks for sharing Sanele — I think everyone (single moms included) share your sentiments.

  4. Eve in Silver Spring on August 10, 2015 at 8:23 am

    This part resonated so much: “But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family.”

    You really articulated my situation. I’m not sure what wisdom to draw from it yet, except to value the moment, love my kids, and trust that I’m figuring something out with these dating lessons. Having just spent some time with my happily married friends who have 3 kids, I can definitely say that parenting isn’t easy for anyone. Looking forward to reading more comments.

    • Emma on August 10, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Both are correct – you and I are not building anything with any one, but it is also not better on the other side. WTF …

  5. Kelly on August 9, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Hey ya’ll, I am a 24 yo single mother of 4 and 5 year old girls. I read the article, and its amazing. Half of me feels like i am young i will eventually find love, and will have the family i always dreamt of, the other half is like, who am i kidding im 24 with 2 kids , who wants that in their life! It took me 7 years to leave an abusive relationship (emotionally and verbally abusive from the getco and eventually physical) only because i felt that my children deserved a 2 parent home, my parents were 2 years shy of celebrating their 30th year together, and so it was only right to stay. Until I got to thinking my childhood home wasn’t all that great, my parents faught constantly, and because my father didn’t want to lay a hand on my mom, he was abusive towards us. I would pray that one day they would just go their seperate ways. They made each other miserable, my mom constantly pushing my father away, my father trying over and over to show affection only to fail. One thing that my ex was that my father never was, was a drunk. I knew i had to leave and i did but the thought remained, my daughters will never have a home with their father and their mother, am i doing the right thing?Should i go back? I cried thinking I was failing them, and finally stopped when my oldest came in the room and told me this, “mom, I know why we don’t live with daddy anymore, because yall fight too much, because all yall do is scream at each other” i just held her and cried on her shoulder. i cried on my 5 year olds shoulder, while she rubbed my head. A week later she came into my room and asked me this, “Mom, are you happy.” i looked at her cause it took me by surprise, I said “yes baby i am, are you happy” she says, “I’m happy if you’re happy!” Only then did i realize i made the right choice. Anyway back on track, im having lunch with my girls, in the kitchen, overlooking the living room where my dad comes in to hug my mom from behind and my mom says to him “get off of me”, dad:”i just wanna hug and kiss your beautiful face, you’re so awesome”, “i have so many things to do can you just not, go do something else” dad:’anything i’ll do anything, what do you need me to do” mom:’idk find something” and it struck me. I have never seen my mom love on my dad i have never seen her smile or take in his hugs not even a holding of the hand while driving. How can someone live that way for 30 years! It’s depressing to me , it makes me feel awful, and sorry for them. I really don’t know what the point of my writing was but i was just thinking about it a lot today. Although i lived in a 2 parent home , it was hell, and i’m so glad that i didn’t make the choice of staying in my relationship any longer.

  6. Natalie on August 8, 2015 at 7:47 am

    When I saw your title I was too scared to read your article.
    Only a single mom since a couple of months I have discovered your site 2 weeks ago. It has given me a lot of courage and strength and optimism for my future with the kids of 4.5 and 6 years. Seeing your title I was thinking: oh no. And I skipped it. I was not in a condition to read it yesterday after coming home from a nice 2.5 holiday with the kids but almost breaking down completely when stepping in our house and the harsh reality of a painful divorce to be arranged.
    After a better evening and night where I saw my therapist I decided to read it now.
    Reading the paragraph on building nothing, I felt and feel a lot of pain. I don’t think this kind of pain will ever go away. My kids will not be raised in a happy family with a dad and a mom. I have already come to a point that I feel that I have barely anything to blame myself for this, I have done everything I could to avoid this, at some point even completely ignored my needs and inner boundaries and self.

    But as other commenters write here, we don’t know what is going on in all the seemingly happily married 2 parents couples/families.
    Life is not perfect. For no one I guess.
    As a single mom I think one has to fight every minute of every day and therefore we don’t take anything for granted. Isn’t being gratefully one of the essentials of joy and happiness? Let’s hope.

    Thank you Emma for your reflections. It helps me a lot. I will keep coming back.

    • Emma on August 8, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Hey Natalie – so many moms here can relate. Everyone goes through what you are experiencing: Grief. But here’s the good news — It gets better. Way better. You will be happy again. Your kids may not grow up in a two-parent home, but they can grow up in a happy home. Certainly you participated in the end of your marriage, and that is OK. But you will also move forward and be OK. What other choice do you have, really?

  7. Bethany on August 7, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    I can relate. I was just having a similar thought today. My first marriage was a failure besides the three beautiful children. I then found a wonderful man, whom I’ve since built a life with, including having a fourth child with. But we really have his and mine. We don’t have the “together” I had always hoped to have. We have good moments… And what feels like a lot of distance. It’s hard. For me. He’s happy. I am having to come to terms with the fact that “together” may not be something I find … At least not in the way I’d always hoped. But happiness doesn’t come from without, so I know I just need to focus on what’s really important and find my happiness within.
    Thanks for sharing your own struggles.

    • Emma on August 8, 2015 at 2:34 am

      >>I am having to come to terms with the fact that “together” may not be something I find … At least not in the way I’d always hoped. But happiness doesn’t come from without, so I know I just need to focus on what’s really important and find my happiness within.

      Thanks for sharing this, Bethany. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot — how discontent in relationships really stems from our own, arbitrary expectations.

  8. Traci on August 7, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    BRA-VO, girlfriend. I can’t tell you how many examples of strong, independent single moms that have popped out of the woodwork and blown my mind since I became one. I’m actually starting to resent married people because they seem spoiled to me– until I listen to their marital woes!! Lol!
    Then I go home, squeeze my kids and the doggies and then make sweet love to my pillow (that doesn’t snore)!!

    • Emma on August 7, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      LOL xxxx

  9. Lorraine on August 7, 2015 at 11:33 am

    This resonated with me too. Thank you for writing it. I know I’m not alone in feeling the way I do sometimes, especially this: “But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family. ”
    I find myself feeling this way when I’m with the kids at Disneyland. We have passes and go often, and we have a great time, but I often catch myself feeling bad because I’m there alone, no one to help me take care of my little one. I always have to remind myself what a good friend of mine has told me about feeling that way, things (relationships) are not always what they seem. They can look perfect on the outside but we never really know what they’re like. And its true.

    • Emma on August 7, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      That is so true. You never know what goes on inside marriages. Or single moms’ lives for that matter!

  10. Amber on August 7, 2015 at 11:31 am

    I absolutely needed this, I constantly beat myself up for not having a “traditional” family. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this and that it’s really ALL GOOD! Thanks Emma

    • Emma on August 7, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      it IS all good!! You’re good!

  11. valerie on August 6, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    I loved this.

    • Emma on August 7, 2015 at 2:03 am

      Thanks, it seems to resonate with a lot of people.

  12. valerie on August 6, 2015 at 7:29 pm


  13. Beck on August 6, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Oh man the surprise ending made me cry. Nancy is cool.

    • Emma on August 6, 2015 at 11:17 am

      Who knew?

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