For most of my life, when I hear the term "single mother," I do not think of my mom. She is a widow. My father died of lung cancer when he was 44. My mom was 39, I was 2, my brother was 5 and my half-siblings, from my dad's first marriage, were 15 and 18 years old.
She raised us in a house full of love -- with his photos on the walls, his law books on the shelves and the music they listened to when they first met drifting often from the speakers. We all wished we were raised by the two of them as a team. We wish he had been in the bleachers next to her, on the plane flying to our college graduations or just sitting in the kitchen after dinner. But my mom had no choice. She had to be everything to us.
As I grow older and see friends start to have their own kids, I realize more and more everything that our mother did for us. Below are 20 things I have learned as the daughter of a single parent.
1. Doing things alone is wonderful.
My mom loves to sit in an armchair reading a book, and has gone to movies alone throughout my entire life. I tried this for the first time when I studied abroad in college and made it a habit. She loves being with people, just like I do, but she also loves her time alone.
2. Value your independence.
Watching my mom take care of our family on her own has taught me to value my education, career and worth in an everlasting way. I don't rely on other people to take care of me, even though that's nice too.
3. Choose your partner carefully.
I have seen firsthand how hard it is to raise children on your own. I grew up noticing the ways it would have helped my mom to have my dad's love, support and guidance. She didn't have an ally at home. We were rascal kids. I want to build a family with someone who will provide help and love.
4. Bad things can happen to good people.
We were raised in a family that talked about my father often. My mom told so many stories about him, and we learned what his best and worst qualities were. I know what albums he loved (Paul Simon) and what alcoholic beverage he ordered (a White Russian). He was young when he died, and we grew up with the deeply-imbedded knowledge that life can change instantly and in unexpected ways.
5. Live life to its fullest.
My mom's greatest lesson to us is to live a full and vibrant life. I don't wait for things to happen down the road. She encourages us to be passionate, to love deeply and to live every day fully -- like our dad did.
6. Laugh often.
Even if that means letting your 4-year-old paint your face at Club Med.
My favorite picture of my father is one where he is teaching me how to build a sandcastle, and I look utterly puzzled. Another is him helping my brother learn to walk. My dad is wearing reading glasses and a t-shirt that says, "Shut up and dance." I grew up with photo albums everywhere and looked at them all the time -- with my family and also alone. I loved the photos of my mom and dad getting married under the tree in our backyard and the ones of me as a toddler in bed with him when he was recovering from chemo. There are photos from family vacations and ones of water fights in lakes. A picture of him wearing a striped beret still makes me and my brother laugh. Our photographs are the first thing I pack and unpack when I move. Just before my grandmother died, she trusted me with her oldest photos of her childhood, and I keep them safe to this day.
8. Always make new memories.
The absence of my father will always be a thread running through the needle of our family. But my mother loves life. She advocates meeting new people, seeing new countries, trying new things and always growing. I went far away to college and even farther away to study abroad. I have traveled to many countries and come back with new memories and, of course, new photos.
9. Women are just as capable as men.
But that doesn't mean you can't have numbers for a plumber, painter and handyman stored in your phone.
10. Your family is your deepest support system.
When I was very young, I thought my mom stopped existing when we weren't by her side -- but weekly sleepovers with our grandparents were probably welcome and necessary breaks for her. Our grandparents gave us a second home where we felt loved, supported and whole.
11. Your siblings are your greatest allies.
12. Be outside and barefoot as much as possible.
She had plenty of things to do at home after work or on weekends, so we delighted in being outside in the California sunshine, playing in the grass and getting our feet dirty.
13. Ask for help.
My mom was able to do more in one day than most people I know. But she couldn't be in two places at once so as we grew older, if she needed help, she asked for it. Sometimes my basketball coach would drop us off at home after practice or I would stay with a friend the night before a tournament. Our grandparents were there as a second and third set of hands, always.
14. Keep your friendships strong.
My mom's best friend is one of the biggest constants in our lives. She was around before I was. Now that they are retired and have adult children, my mom and her best friend have standing plans on Friday afternoons. Our families celebrate holidays together and they have watched each other's children grow up.
15. Wear something that makes you feel fierce.
My mom had half the manpower than many families do when it came to dressing us for school, getting our lunches ready and planning vacations. But that never stopped her from letting us express ourselves with our fashion. I thank her for that.
There were more kids than parents in the house. When my mom made a plan, she stuck to it and we typically listened.
17. No doesn't always mean no.
We learned how to cut deals and negotiate since we had to go to her directly and couldn't plead our case with a second parent.
18. Share responsibilities.
When the dogs needed to go to the vet, we took them as soon as we were tall enough. We got a puppy when I was 12 and I named her Shadow, took her to obedience school and walked her. My mom might have had us do these things if my dad were alive anyway, but there was one less person in the house to help with family responsibilities. When a lightbulb needed changing or the water had to be replaced, my brother did it. Clearing our dishes from the table was mandatory.
19. Dogs can fill a house with so much joy.
There was never a time growing up when we didn't have a dog. They are work to take care of but they made our house a home.
Neither is my mom. Our lives would have been different with two parents. But that doesn't mean they would have been better. I learned about sadness and frustration from her. But I also learned about joy, determination, passion, gratitude and love. So much love.
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