“I make Spencer hug me more than he wants to. He has to make up for his mom not getting any.”
–Helen Hunt’s single-mom character, Carol, in As Good As It Gets
Before I go to bed, I sneak into my kids’ room and give them one last kiss good night. I love to watch them as Lucas sleeps with one hand tucked under his fat little check, and Helena cuddles with her stuffed animal du jour. I stroke their hair and whisper to them things that mommies say to their babies — things we hope are enough to keep them safe.
The other night after those last kisses, I found myself laying on my back on the scratchy red and purple Persian rug between their beds, dozing off in the quiet and dark room. There was something so satisfying about being close to these two warm bodies that I love so much. Just next door was a perfectly comfortable queen-sized bed with sheets that don’t smell like a leaky pull-up, but I preferred at that moment to be close to my children. Even the aloof cat sensed the coziness of the scene, and quietly stepped onto my chest, purring and kneading.
The thing was this: my bedroom, steps away, was lonely. My kids’ room was not.
“This is messed up,” I thought. “I’m lonesome and so I’m hanging out with my sleeping kids while my cat massages my breasts. I need a boyfriend.”
Years ago, I read The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life, about parents who put their kids into the role of the partner through various neurotic scenarios:
The parent is using the child to satisfy needs that should be satisfied by other adults, turning to the child for intimacy, companionship, romantic stimulation, advice, problem solving, ego fulfillment and/or emotional release.
Needless to say, this effs up the kids:
When a parent turns to a child for emotional support, the child is rarely given adequate protection, nurturing, guidance, structure, affection, affirmation or discipline. It’s a flip-flop of healthy parenting: instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child, the child is meeting the needs of the parent.
Single parent homes are especially vulnerable to this show, the author writes. Divorcing parents lose the emotional support they’ve relied on at a time they need it most. Meanwhile, single moms are burdened with extra parenting and household duties, while finances are stretched thin. Old news, you say! But how does this affect our parenting? “Emotionally drained, physically exhausted and financially strapped, the single parent finds that the expedient solution is to stay at home with the child (opposed to dating or engaging in hobbies). Without realizing it, the parent turns to the child as the primary source of emotional support.”
I think about that a lot – when dissecting my own upbringing by a single mom who didn’t remarry or have longterm relationships, as well as in my own family now. We all need physical closeness and emotional connection with people we care about. Parents and children need these things from each other, but adults also need this companionship from other adults. If — like me — you find yourself without a romantic partner, it can be easy to unconsciously put your kids in that role — sharing too much about your daily problems, life challenges, or need for physical closeness in the form of too many hugs and cuddles.This heightens the call for single parents to date, but also to invest in our relationships with friends, neighbors and adult relatives. It also means putting up some physical boundaries. A couple of years ago I put my foot down about co-sleeping when I realized I missed my kids in my bed because what I really wanted was a man in my bed. That is sick and twisted, but it is also a normal way to feel. The point is that single parents have to be extra self-aware about our needs and wants — which can be much more than that of a happily married parent — and add to our never-ending to-do list “getting some,” lest we turn to the family cat to fill that role.