Marriage – a team sport or solo event?

There’s some discussion on the Work It, Mom! blog over the concept of the “single married mom.” From Nataly’s post on Tuesday 7/24:

I had an interesting conversation recently with a mom…She is a successful marketing professional and her husband is a high-powered attorney. They have two kids, ages 3 and 7. Very early into our conversation this mom said something that made me stop and think:

“I relate really well to single moms. Yes, I have a husband, but he is never here. He works from 7am until 9-10pm every night, and when he gets home, he is exhausted and is asleep within an hour. On weekends he has client dinner or golf outings, and when he doesn’t, he tries to catch up on sleep. I know he loves the kids but he works so much that he is not there for them.”

A single married mom – now there’s a term I’ve not seen much in the media (wait, we’ll have a new mommy war soon, Single Moms vs. Single Married Moms or some other silliness.) I thought about my own family and the trade-off we’ve made where my husband works at a more flexible, less demanding job that allows him to be with me and our daughter more…We sometimes talk about whether he should find a different job where he would make more and work more and we usually get back to the conclusion that time together is more valuable…

…Does your husband work long hours? How do you split up your responsibilities at home? Do you feel like a single working mom at times?

The controversy is cropping up in the comments, which include responses from women who are, or have been, single working moms and seem to feel that this idea breezes over the real challenges that they have to deal with when a partner or spouse isn’t in the picture at all. It’s not quite the new “mommy wars” variation that Nataly suggests, but there do seem to be some issues being aired.

I’ve been in both places, and as I said in my own comments to the post, there were many times in my first marriage when things felt out of balance, especially when my son was younger. First Husband often gave me the impression that his time was more valuable than mine, and that even though he did take some domestic responsibilities, they were on top of 60+ hours a week devoted to his work, and I should always be aware of how busy he was. And while he was definitely in favor of our being a two-career family, he was rather a traditionalist as far as housekeeping and meals went, and since I had “more” time and it was “less” valuable, most of the regular cleaning, cooking, chauffeuring, errand-running, etc. was up to me. And when he did things with our son, it was almost like it was booked into his schedule. From one perspective, you could say he was really good at time management, and you wouldn’t be wrong. And in reality, there was some degree of flexibility about who did what, but no room for slacking off.

At the same time, I can understand why it would rankle to hear a married woman call herself a “single parent,” just like it’s always bugged me when fathers say they’re “babysitting” for their own children. When you’re single, it’s all up to you or it doesn’t get done, and one of the things I missed the most during the first couple of years after my divorce was that extra set of hands around to help out if I was sick, or just overwhelmed. I had a very hard time learning to cut myself enough slack so that I’d really feel like it was OK when something didn’t get done (and honestly, I’m still working on believing it). On the other hand, I did learn that I could handle much more on my own than I would have thought, and that was very empowering and a confidence boost.

As far as the “parent” side of that phrase goes, I had a son in college and living on campus 2000 miles away at that point. While long-distance parenting has its unique challenges, they don’t involve after-school child care, and when the kids are sick, all you can do is nag them to go to the student health center (and worry, of course – worrying is what we do when we can’t control the action). And while I’m aware that another thing that can rankle is equating kids and pets, I did tend to describe myself as a “single parent to my dog” during those years. No matter how long my workday was or how I was feeling, there was no one but me to feed and walk her twice a day (at least), play with her, and clean up any messes she made. I didn’t go anywhere overnight without her for almost four years (that’s 28 years to you and me, as Lorne Greene used to say).

Now I’m married again, and it is great to have that extra set of hands around once more, although they belong to a different person this time around. (That’s not the only thing that’s great and/or different, either, of course!) We have pretty similar outlooks on domestic division of labor, although there’s very little specific assignment other than he runs the vacuum and I clean the bathrooms. It usually works out that each of us tends to be primary caretaker of what we brought into the marriage – Tall Paul for the kids on their days with us, and me for the dog every day (although either of us can and will step in for the other whenever necessary). We both work in full-time, responsible positions, and we’re flexible domestically when the job life gets more demanding, but we try to leave work at work (other than the venting about snafus, office politics, and the like – another thing I missed a lot when I was single was someone to discuss the day with).

As the saying goes, “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’,” and maybe that’s the issue.”Married single moms” may feel that way because they expected that they’d be operating as part of a balanced team, with their husbands, and it’s not working out that way – in the worst imbalances, they’ve got all the home-and-child responsibilities they’d be carrying if they were SAHMs, plus they’re working for pay at least part-time and probably more. Aside from their working, they are in a much more traditional-roles arrangement than they probably intended. That may be why they feel like they’re having to do it on their own – but an actual single mom will point out that they really don’t, because that other adult actually is available if he’s really needed, and he’s contributing financially even if he’s not doing much more domestically. But aside from the family-management concerns – although there’s no shortage of those – the bigger issues are what’s lost, and what can grow in the space left open, when one spouse is just not really there on an ongoing basis due to long work hours, travel, etc.

My own experience is that while it’s not necessarily true that “it takes two, baby,” at least not all the time, it can be a lot easier when it does, as long as the two are able to meet somewhere close to the middle.

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  1. I’m a single mom and have decided that I prefer it over being married for a list of reasons. Sure, the extra set of hands would be nice at times (like now that I am injured) but overall, I prefer having the ability to do things my way each and every day. There is nobody here to mess up my game plan. I just don’t play nice enough with others to let someone else under this roof right now. Maybe when the kids are older.

    As for single moms versus single married moms. Single married moms don’t know what the hell they are talking about. You haven’t been single until you have had to haul one sleeping child out of bed on a work night to take another child to the E.R.


    You haven’t been single until you have had to learn how to pay every single bill.


    The list goes on. Sure, they have their challenges as they EXPECT someone to be there to help them out. That disappointment of not having the other spouse around can be HUGE. But reality is, when the *h*t hits the fan there IS somebody there to pitch in.

  2. Kathy, you make excellent points – thanks! Life is full of compromises and tradeoffs. Having the extra set of hands around does mean another person to answer to. And not having what you expected when you signed up is, as you say, disappointing.

    This topic just resonated with me – and I guess it’s not just me. I’ve been both single and married myself, and I prefer married (or I wouldn’t be on my second go-round), but I’m doing it differently in version 2.0, and as I said in my post, the partnership is working better this time. But anyway, I’m not trying to defend one side over the other – or at least, I hope it’s not coming across that way.

  3. Being a Mom is so hard. Doing it alone is even harder. There’s no one to turn to and ask for even just a little help. What’s worse though, is being married and still being a single Mom. That’s what I feel like most of the time. Why do some men look at watching their own kids as babysitting?

  4. Jasyjen, I’ve never understood that one either, and I’ve actually told some men off for it – if they’re your kids, it’s called “parenting,” not “babysitting.”

  5. I think the debilitating factor for a Single Married Mom would be the anger – having to constantly manage one’s anger, try to suppress it, etc. Of course, a single mom may have anger at her children’s father as well, but probably not mixed with the same toxic cocktail of guilt and repression.

  6. Good point, Bubandpie – disappointment fuels frustration and feeds resentment. And expressing it may not get you anywhere in changing the situation anyway, so there’s the repression and the guilt. Again, I think it comes back around to expectations.