When I was a single mom, I started a tradition of buying myself a pair of sandals on Mother’s Day. My kids were too young to take me out to brunch. Instead we went looking for sandals for Mommy.
I began this ritual because the thought of Mother’s Day brought up a storm of negative emotions: Regret that I’d decided to end my marriage, guilt that my kids didn’t have happily married parents, and self-pity that I didn’t have a spouse to make my day special. Sandals represented the optimism that accompanies the warmer, longer days and joys of summer. My new shoes were a reminder to stay positive on a day that, for single mothers, can be fraught with a myriad of negative emotions.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that all single moms should run out and buy sandals on Mother’s Day. I’m sharing my story to encourage single moms to create their own strategies for optimism and joy, especially on days when it’s common to experience negative emotions.
The buildup and hype surrounding Mother’s Day can be emotionally challenging for moms parenting on their own. As someone who works with and on behalf of single mothers, here are some insights I’ve learned along the way about regret, guilt, and self-pity.
Many of us who are raising children alone experience regret from time to time — that our partnership didn’t work out, or that we didn’t find a partner with whom to raise a child. On occasions like Mother’s Day, this regret can bubble to the surface. We’re bombarded with messages about the flowers and jewelry that partnered moms might receive, and the array of celebratory options spouses can bestow on the mom in the family. This can get a little annoying to the single mom, who knows she likely won’t be the beneficiary of gifts, pampering, or a nice meal. No matter how thrilled we are with our one-mom family, tinges of regret are normal and reasonable.
The good news is that regret doesn’t have to be demoralizing or depressing. Researcher Neal Roese, a leader in the field of regret research, claims that regret can be debilitating if it becomes a pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking that is characteristic of depression. It doesn’t have to be, though.
By harnessing the functional aspects of regret and discarding its dysfunctional aspects, we can move forward with clarity and purpose, according to Roese. For the single mom, this means analyzing our regrets can provide insight and an improved ability to pursue goals. The lessons of regret can help shape our future choices about how to live, who to let in our lives, and what’s good for us.
Instead of allowing regret to turn into unproductive self-blame, try to accept and appreciate where you are and where you’re going. I remember feeling awful because I instigated the dissolution of my marriage. I regretted that I couldn’t be happy and fulfilled with my children’s father. But as time went on it became obvious that my choice was the best for everyone.
If plagued with regret, work on framing the situation more positively. Use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to be grateful for your children, your strength, and your freedom. You might not get a fancy brunch, but you can have the kids serve you breakfast in bed or find a beautiful park to soak in nature’s bounty. Breathe, hug your kids, and celebrate by looking forward.
Every mother experiences guilt, but single-mom guilt can be epic. Single moms sometimes feel guilty that their children don’t have a traditional family structure and all that can come with it. On Mother’s Day in particular, it can feel like everyone around you has that ideal family. I know. I’ve been there. But it’s important to remember that behind those cute Facebook photos and public displays of seemingly perfect lives, everyone —both coupled and uncoupled —faces unenviable challenges.
Like regret, guilt can paralyze you, or it can motivate you to make things better. Ask yourself whether your guilt is helping or hurting you and your kids. Look for tangible ways to forgive yourself, and don’t beat yourself up for situations beyond your control.
Perhaps you’ve been overwhelmed and are not spending as much quality time with the kids. Welcome to most parents’ reality! Redirect your guilt to formulate a plan that will enhance your time with them. Read books, play games, go outdoors, and simply be there for your kids. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that single moms make wonderful parents and that children can thrive with one dedicated, loving mom. Even if there are things you wish you could change, be gentle with yourself as you move forward.
It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself around Mother’s Day. When friends excitedly share plans about dinners out or spa treatments, you know your Sunday might be like any other, with you in charge of the childcare, clean-up, and cooking.
Here are some strategies to let go of self-pity.
First, carve out your own celebratory ritual. Sandal shopping might not work for you, but how about a day where everyone hangs out in PJs and eats breakfast food? Or a day where the kids make a video or put on a show to entertain you? Or join forces with another single mom for a day at the movies or at the zoo? Make it fun, and make it about you!
Second, remember that we all face obstacles and setbacks. The trick is to find a way to make the best of them. Read your children a story or watch a movie about someone who faced unimaginable adversity and insurmountable odds. Get inspired! Inspiration and self-pity rarely go together.
Third, pay attention to what is undermining your joy. Is it unrealistic comparisons to other families? Some circumstance you can change?
Work on making the changes that are possible. Then focus on serenely accepting those you can’t do anything about.
I recall days when I had to will a smile to my face and commit to having fun with my kids. Even though I’d wake up feeling sorry for myself, by the time we were involved in a game or on the playground, I felt better and stronger. Soon that self-pity dissipated, and I felt powerful, proud of myself, and grateful for the life we’d made together.
Finish With A Toast!
Gratitude is a strong foundation for moving forward. Give yourself the best Mother’s Day gift of all: self-love! As a single mom, you are more than worthy of self-admiration for your selfless and tireless dedication to your children.
I end with a toast to you on Mother’s Day. Dear single mother: You are amazing, strong, and deserving of a journey filled with love, joy, and fulfillment. Don’t you ever forget it!
Bio: Marika Lindholm is the founder of ESME [Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere], the social platform for Solo Moms, by Solo Moms. A trained sociologist and former professor, she taught classes focused on issues of inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University.