Single moms must let go of dreams of fulltime parenting

After one meeting with my ex and our lawyers to negotiate the custody agreement of our divorce, I went home, busted out the calculator, and cried. I freaked out at the idea of being away from my kids for extended hours or days, and I need to know how many hours each week I would spend with my son and daughter under various arrangements. How many hours they would be sleeping, in day care and with their dad? How many minutes each week would they be mine? When we separated, I was pregnant and my daughter was not quite 2. I subscribed to many tenets of attachment parenting. I was used to being with my tiny children the vast majority of the time, running errands with one or the other strapped to my chest, their tiny bodies cozied up to mine in bed, the little one would nurse at least a year like his sister.

Anything less than that seemed devastating. They needed me so, so much, I thought. And I needed them.

Fast-forward three years, and when my ex texts to say he’s skipping a visit for reasons well within his control (a party, volunteer work, a last-minute weekend trip to California), I lose my mind. I get crazy-angry at his cavalier approach to parenting and how that affects the kids. I also resent that I don’t get my scheduled kid-free time. Those hours are a precious commodity I fully utilize to nurture friendships, date, work, exercise and relax. When the kids come home Sunday evening from their weekly overnight, we are all so happy to see each other and I can feel in my whole body how much more energy I have for them.

Never in a bazillion years would I have imagined I’d feel like that.

Recently I’ve heard a number of stories about mothers who fight against extended visitation schedules because, they insist, their tiny children should not be separated from them. In several cases, the mothers argued that their nursing babies should not be apart from them overnight, even though those babies were toddlers — a position my divorce lawyer friend says a judge would laugh at, especially if an enthusiastic father was pushing for more access to his kids. She’s seen judges order babies as young as 3 months stay overnight with their fathers.

When I hear about these cases, I sympathize with the women. After all, I was there myself! But I also see how easy it to get sucked into thinking of ourselves as mothers beyond everything else — women, wives, lovers. My first few years of intense motherhood were some of the sweetest of my life. The 24/7 selflessness required to care for a baby has infinite rewards for all parties involved. But then life changes, and it goes on. For me, being a single mother forced me to develop all the parts of myself: mother, women, professional, friend, lover. I cannot afford to hone in on my children as my everything. Eggs in one basket. One-legged stool. You know the clichés. Playing all these roles can be exhausting, but it makes me more dynamic and stronger person. And it makes me a more dynamic and stronger mother.

Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, 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,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

4 thoughts on “Single moms must let go of dreams of fulltime parenting

  1. ugh, I get annoyed even when my Ex just tries to switch the times by a couple hours. For me it’s also because it’s pretty much always for reasons within his control. I feel like he knows when he has the kids so he should schedule his activities around that and not expect me to help juggle stuff for him. And while I do appreciate the breaks, it would actually be easier (though, yes, more expensive) for me to get babysitters than have to pack the kids up and have them go back and forth (we do one night during the week and every other weekend). Alright, overnights would be very difficult that way, I know. But the reason why I do it is because it’s good for the boys that they get to see their dad. It is what is best for them that really matters. But sometimes I feel like he just doesn’t appreciate the time he gets like he should. And that he still acts like we’re married and I should bend over backward for him all the time. That’s the main reason a babysitter would be easier… less fraught with resentment and emotional baggage. Which I do hope will diminish over time.

  2. I read a lot of your articles and this one was very helpful. I am in the middle of a custody situation with my daughter’s dad. We just dated a little and ended up having her but were never really together. Her whole life he has probably seen her about 10 times and she is 15 months now. I have always told him that he had an open door to come see her cause we live close and tried to include him but he still has some growing up to do and is pretty selfish (which I was before I had her too) but regardless he could still be a good dad. So then now, out of nowhere, he had me served with custody papers after not seeing him for months or hearing anything from him. I want him to be a dad so it’s fine but I am terrified about being away from my daughter. I live, eat, and breathe being a mom. I know it’s not the best way to be but it kinda just happened. I feel so completely different from the person I was before I had her and I think it would be nice to get back some of the things I loved about myself before. I am just sad about missing her and letting go of being the one who takes care of her all the time and knows what is best for her. She is terrified of him because she doesn’t really like strangers and especially not men so it makes it even harder for me to want to have her go over there. You can email me your response if you get a chance, I probably need some tough love! Thanks for all your articles. I have been going through them page by page :)

  3. I totally agree with you. I was lucky enough to have had a gradual increase in co-custody that was largely driven by myself (we separated while I was still pregnant). I really don’t know how people parent with someone else, let alone every day. I relished the nights to myself and had no idea how much I needed them!!
    I’m definitely now feeling the need to fill the ever increasing hours of alone time. So there are dates and trips and new business and solo movie time that is nourishing to my soul which only makes my daughter’s life brighter.
    Kudos to those “intact” families. I was lucky enough to come through shit and become an “intact” woman.

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