I have been single for several months now. But I haven't been married to Son's father for several years. So when I refer to myself as a single parent, the single and the parent aren't necessarily related. But because we hear this phrase so much, and I do at times refer to myself as one, it bears asking the question - what is a single parent?
I am a single parent in the sense that I parent Son on my own when he's with me. I don't mean that Son's father isn't involved, because he very much is - he's a committed and loving father, and Son is with him every other weekend and for some of the school holidays.
But this means that when Son has a moment - if you're a parent, you know what I mean by a moment - there's no other biologically related person present to observe, digest, and deal with it along with me. I deal with it - I define the crime, I dole out the punishment. And I deal with his reaction to the sentence, which means that sometimes I must also extend its length immediately after declaring it because the moment has become an episode in response to the punishment.
When I am parenting, I do so singly, most of the time. But sometimes Son's parents gather together for dinner and at birthdays. The whole experience of those times is another story, but a glimpse of it here will help explain what I mean. Let's stick to the theme of crimes and punishment as just one element of the multi-faceted experience of being a parent.
Once Son's father and his step-mother were over at my house when Son suddenly, and for no apparent reason that we could discern, shouted "FUCK!" We all slowly swivelled our heads in his direction, and I observed that he looked even more surprised by this outburst than we did. Without a moment's hesitation, he explained, "What? I said it with a p - h."
I burst into laughter. Son's father's face grew redder, and Step-Mom fiddled with her fingers and shifted in her seat. But Son was under my supervision, because we were in my house, so I was the one responsible for naming the crime, and for coming up with a punishment that fit.
So I kept laughing. Then I turned back to Son's father and carried on the conversation we had been having, as if what had just happened bore no more importance than something funny on telly. Son very quickly sidled off and escaped the room, as if being observed increased the likelihood that his extreme luck at not being severely punished would vanish. (It might have. He's a smart kid.)
So, you see, even when I am in the company of Son's father - even when, technically, I am not the single parent in the room - I am still parenting singly. That situation brought to life another facet of this experience - shortly after Son left the room, his father interrupted me and asked when and how I was planning to punish him. The ensuing discussion made me feel like I was being assessed for my crimes, and was itself my punishment for thinking that Son had absolved himself of his sin of Tourette's Syndrome-style cursing by being really fucking funny.
Or as Son would say - really phucking funny.
But my decision about whether or not to punish Son was not adjusted as a result of this discussion, despite Son's father's well-honed debating skills. Under ordinary circumstances two parents in the company of a misbehaving child decide between themselves after some period of deliberation (with anything from a single glance to hours of discussion) which punishment fits a particular crime. The way Son's father and I have managed to continue to spend any time in one another's company is by deferring to the supervising parent's parental discretion.
This is just as hard for me as it is for Son's father, who at one point went through a period of requiring that Son not disturb him in the night, even when there were most certainly monsters under Son's bed. When Son told me about it with tears in his eyes, it broke my heart. But aside from having long, laborious discussions with Son's father the merits of such an approach, there was nothing I could do about it. His house, his rules.
Over time and with experience, Son's father and I have negotiated our own Single Parent's Right to Parenting Contract (a.k.a. the Parenting Contract), and while it covers many topics and has been subject to amendments and alterations over time, it primarily reflects, and has mostly adhered to, a single defining principle - Thou Shalt Not Interfere With the Other Parent's Parenting Decisions.
The contract got a little more complicated when Step-Mom came into the picture (a few months after our marriage slowly burned out, following a conflagration that burned for what felt like years). We had to figure out how to make this new person a part of the Parenting Contract, whether this would merely require her to co-sign her name on dotted line of our previously negotiated agreement, or whether we needed to make extensive amendments to deal with the changing dynamics of our extending family.
Part of being a single parent is figuring out how to parent singly, and how to parent together with the other parent, assuming they're still in the picture (my mother's experience of single parenthood without a father around for the first few years of my life looked very different to my experience of it). But that's just one part of it, and it certainly isn't its defining feature.
So what is a single parent? Let's Google it.
Judging by the ads at the top of the results page, a single parent is someone who requires much support (or perhaps that's just what Google tells its advertising clients a person wants when they Google anything to do with single parenthood).
Scroll down a little further and you get a white box displaying the definition from Oxford Dictionaries, "a person bringing up a child or children without a partner." Based on that definition, Son's father is no longer a single parent. One more reason to hate him I suppose (I am kidding).
Wikipedia tells us that "A single parent is an uncoupled individual who shoulders most or all of the day-to-day responsibilities for raising a child or children. A mother is more often the primary caregiver in a single-parent family structure that has arisen due to death of the partner, divorce or unplanned pregnancy."
What strikes me (really hard in the gut) is the phrase "uncoupled individual". Looking at the concept from the perspective of the parent who is not part of a couple, we shine a bright, bare light on one of the most painful parts of my experience of being a single parent. It's the heart of the matter - or the heart in the matter, as it were.
In the deepest, darkest nights of single parenting, when Son has a fever and there's vomit everywhere, it's really hard not having someone by my side, mopping up the mess while I administer medicine and cuddles. But that's just one facet of being a "single parent" - a phrase that shines a light on the fact that I'm a also a single person. And the process of becoming not single, when I have time to focus on it at all, presents its own tangled mess of issues unique to "uncoupled individuals" raising a child...
And this is where I will punctuate the story with a "Part I". The answer to the question posed here didn't start out in multiple parts, but just like single parenthood, it's become far more complex and multi-dimensional than I could ever have imagined.