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The decision to become a single mother is hard. After that, it gets easier

Dec 11, 2019 by William Lewis.

Emma Brockes had twin girls when she was 39. There are, she finds, wonderful upsides to parenting alone.

 It's exhausting, financially crippling, logistically nightmarish and emotionally draining. In the three years since I had my twin girls, I have been out later than 8pm approximately five times and, with the exception of two overnight work trips, spent the entire evening each time checking my watch before scrambling home to relieve the babysitter/my guilt at having gone out in the first place.

Single parenthood is easy. You don't have to negotiate a partner's baggage about parenting. If you believe, thanks to your own baggage, that kids should be allowed to roam free until 10pm, or that Milo shouldn't have an iPad or eat ice cream until he is 12, then that's what darling Milo will do. There is no negotiation, no conflict, no irritation at having to pretend to consider someone else's nutty parenting ideas. And there is almost no dithering.

I had my children alone on purpose, which puts me in the minority among single mothers. Of the roughly two million single parents in Britain, the vast majority of whom are women, nearly half have children who live below the poverty line and most didn't elect to raise their children alone. Women like me tend to be older than the average first-time mother – I had my daughters a month after turning 39 – and, by some measures, more financially secure. Make no mistake: choosing to have fertility treatment to conceive a baby alone is a choice available to the few.

It is still hard – the choice, that is. One of the most surprising things I've learned about having kids alone is that, of all the hard things, the hardest thing of all is making the decision to do it. I was 36 when I felt the first tremors of alarm – that if I didn't act soon, having kids would become either prohibitively difficult or be taken off the table altogether. The longer I waited, the harder it would get. And yet, while I was sure I wanted kids, it took me another two years of denial and displacement activity before I got up the courage to act.

The reason for this was not to do with the logistics of single parenthood. Ahead of time, it is almost impossible to imagine them. (And if you had told me, at the age of 38, that 13 months later I would give birth to twins, I would have shrieked and fallen over sideways.) No, the problem for me was getting my head around the existential implications of what I was thinking of doing. Strangely, this turned out to be one of the advantages of having a baby alone – that although it is physically knackering and financially ruinous, after the faff and terror of deciding whether it's morally wrong to create a fatherless child (in my opinion, no), choosing a sperm donor (hard in theory but relatively straightforward in practice), wondering if people will judge you (they will) and if you can weather it (you can), not to mention the grim rollercoaster of fertility treatment, the actual slog of parenthood when it finally happens is a walk in the park.

Well, not quite. (I write with the memory of a twin meltdown at Newark airport fresh and hideous in my memory.) But going into the thing with no expectation of help means not only that all relief from friends, babysitters, neighbours and wider family seems like an unimaginable gift, but that it is psychologically fairly straightforward. It's a truism of single parenthood that you have no one to resent and, although this isn't quite true – there is always, in my experience, someone to resent – I found undeniable upsides to knowing, from the outset, that I could only rely on myself.

The sheer scale of the task of raising two kids alone gives me a satisfaction – a basic pride in my own stamina and resourcefulness – I didn't have before they were born

For a start, the business of getting everyone up, fed, clothed and out of the house every day gives me a sense of achievement equal to, I don't know, winning Olympic gold. Before I had kids, I laboured under the delusion I was a calm and rational creature. In reality, it turns out I am shouty, short-tempered and as juvenile in my own way as my three-year-olds. Nonetheless, while I know I fall short every single day, the sheer scale of the task of raising two kids alone gives me a satisfaction – a basic pride in my own stamina and resourcefulness – I didn't have before they were born.

There are shortcuts, too, and every time I pull one off it's like winning another race. From the time my girls came home from the hospital, I've had to figure out how to be the only adult in the room and simultaneously shower (drag both bouncy seats into the bathroom with me, or leave the babies in the living room and wash for two minutes to the sound of their screaming); take them on the subway (wear one in the carrier and push the other in the single pushchair); feed them at the same time (sit on the floor between rockers, with a bottle of breast milk in each hand); and do everything I used to do with two hands – load the dishwasher, clean the bath, make an omelet – with one, because I always had a baby clamped to my hip. (I’m kidding about the bath, obviously. I never cleaned it.)

When they both clamoured for care, I picked them up under the armpits, one in each hand, so that by the time they were two, I was able to bench-press two toddlers with relative ease. Above all, in those first months, I had to figure out how not to leave the house. In the early days, I truly believe the key to being a single mother of twins is to have everything delivered to your door.

There were a few things I couldn’t work out. I worried endlessly about what to do in the event of a fire. Could I carry the two of them safely down 17 flights of stairs – we live in a 20-story apartment building in New York – on my own? Would I have time to put on the carrier, or is that the kind of thing that costs a woman and her babies their lives? Then, incredibly, there was a fire, smoke billowing in through the cracks of the lift one morning as I travelled down with the babies to the lobby. When the doors opened, black smoke poured in and both babies began screaming and retching. I made a split-second decision: to go back up a burning building, rather than expose their tiny lungs to one more mouthful of smoke, and, as the lift climbed, I called 911. Within minutes, half a dozen fire trucks were parked round the block. “You’re OK, you’re OK,” said the operator, over and over, until a fireman banged on our door and said it was a blaze in the laundry room and they had put it out.

I was radioactive with tiredness, but in those early days I wasn’t particularly lonely. This comes and goes as an issue but, in my experience, the loneliness thing is a bit of a myth about the downsides of single parenthood. This had as much to do with my children as with the kindness of my family and friends. Before my babies could talk and assert themselves as separate human beings, it sometimes felt as if the three of us functioned as one. The bond between a parent and child isn't closer in a single-parent family than in a two-parent household, but I suspect it may be subtly different. When I had a stomach bug one night and puked roughly every 20 minutes for eight hours, both babies were eerily silent. They understood.

When I had a stomach bug one night and puked roughly every 20 minutes for eight hours, both babies were eerily silent. They understood  

Harder, much harder, was the period when the girls got older and combined the needs of babies with the complicated emotional needs of toddlers. Some days, I wanted to run out into the street, throw myself at the first maternal-looking woman in late middle age, and demand she take me home and look after me. Since then, however, the loneliness has abated again. Perhaps it would be different if I didn't work, but I am busy all day, socially engaged and used up and, at night, after I have put the girls down, I am misanthropically grateful to have the TV remote to myself and luxuriate in a few hours of deep silence.

A much bigger problem is temper: being the only adult in charge makes it harder to hang on to one's sanity. There is no one to diffuse the tension when a stand-off with a toddler rears up, and no one to step in when I need a second to gather my wits. This is particularly true during the toddler years. My girls were early talkers and, before they turned one, we entered the period of strict toddler religious law: “Mummy hair” (down), “Mummy shoes” (off), “Mummy sit” (there). Spoons had to be the right colour and placed on the right side of the plate. Different dummies were required for different times of day and night. There was a whole subsection concerning lids – if I forgot myself and ripped the lid off a yoghurt, rather than tearing it halfway, so the dictator-toddler could rip off the other half, that yoghurt was rejected or hurled to the floor. On the other hand, if I didn’t twist on the lid of the sippy cup with sufficient force, that cup was poison to their lips. Sometimes I was good-natured about this and sometimes I lost it, and I think I lost it more because there was no one else there.

I sometimes worry that being a single parent puts the kids too front and centre; not that I am spoiling them, exactly – I'm stretched too thin for that – but that, like so many kids of their generation, they somehow rule the roost. When I was a child, no one co-ordinated weekends around the kids. If my parents needed to go and buy shrubs for the garden, we spent all Saturday at the garden centre and this was before garden centres had playgrounds. Now, my entire weekend is devoted to schlepping around New York, seeking exciting experiences for my children. Structural boredom – which it is fashionable to say leads to successful and creative adults – is not really a part of my kids' lives, because the best chance I have of getting five minutes off is when they are fully entertained.

Travelling is hard. (It took me three years to get up the juice to take the babies home to London and even then I had to travel with a nanny.) It's hard to be spontaneous. Public transport with a double pushchair is a nightmare. Going out is so expensive it's easier to stay in.

And yet, and yet. One can list the absence of all kinds of grim threats – no chance of a custody suit/no in-laws (a big one!) – but the absence of bad things is not the same as the presence of good ones, and there are so many good ones. Every minute I'm not working, I'm talking to my girls. They are who I come home to, my beginning and end. Work still matters, friends still matter – more than ever, in fact – and there are other things I care about, but life has become very simple: my girls matter most.

Single parenthood is hard. Single parenthood is easy. It's the oxygen I breathe, a fundamental tenet of my identity. The moment one has children, it is almost impossible to imagine how life might have been without them, or how you, and they, might have been different in different circumstances. I suppose this is a function of evolutionary psychology – we are programmed to be more or less incapable of regretting our children. Still, it felt like a choice, having kids this way and living as we do. It's the best choice I ever made.