When a spouse dies and you have children two things happen at once. You become a widow(er), and a single parent. Simultaneously.
Overnight I adopted new labels. One moment I was married. The next I was not only widowed, but the sole care provider for our daughter.
What do these new labels mean? Do they mean anything at all? I would say it depends on the day. If I am missing my husband, my friend, I feel quite widowed. Other days I accept that he is gone and I embrace that I am single. Single-with-experience.
I can look at my labels and segregate myself. I don’t fit in with single people because I was married. I don’t fit in with married people because I am now single. I don’t fit in with the nuclear family model because, well, you know, it’s just me here, alone on my island.
Or, in the words of a great poet:
“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
–Maya Angelou, ‘Human Family’
I can look at my labels and integrate myself. I fit in with single people because I am on my own. I come home at the end of the day and I am the only adult living in this family. I fit in with married couples because I’ve been there. I understand the struggles, the triumphs, the victories and downfalls. As for the “traditional” family, how many families are actually traditional these days anyway?
Seven weeks ago I started attending a bereavement group. Many of their spouses died of cancer. Some died of other medical complications. Although illness did play a role in the death of my husband, it was not the same to me as the loss these individuals had gone through. After my first meeting I thought, ‘I can’t come back here. I don’t relate, and how will others relate to me?’
After our seventh meeting I find us laughing together, crying together, sharing and helping one another. “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Labels. What do they mean? Are they significant?
Mother. Daughter. Daddy. Where is Daddy? As my daughter grows up without a father at which points in time will that label be significant to her? When Father’s Day rolls around? When she graduates, or gets married? Or tomorrow morning when she wakes up sick and makes the connection that he was the one who used to stay home with her on the days when she came down with something.
Single parent. Tonight. Tantrum. One moment I am holding my daughter in my arms, loving her, caring for her, trying to reassure her. The next she is kicking and squirming, crying and screaming, to the point where I grab any limb to secure her body from falling so I can get her into the car to get her home to bed. Tonight I feel as though I am a very single parent. There were times I was a single parent while I was married. But on nights that I can’t even go to the drug store without my daughter in tow I recognize there is a difference between feeling like a single parent while married and literally being a single parent. When every choice and decision about our mutual lives rest on my shoulders, I am a single parent. And yet, my community has taken over in many ways where the death of my husband has left a gap.
My daughter is parented by me, and adopted grandma’s and grandpa’s, mothers, and fathers, sisters and brothers. The day when my husband died and my good friend picked my daughter up from childcare I was a widow, but not a single parent. Every Thursday when this same friend invites my daughter to dinner with her and her husband so my daughter gets male bonding time, I am single, but not a single parent. When my Pastor friend helps carry my daughter’s diaper bag to the car while she is having a melt down I am not a single parent, until I get home.
When my mother takes my daughter for the weekend, to pour love into her life and release me from my everyday, I am an amazingly blessed daughter, and free from practicality for a time. When my sister provides me with resources, and my brother-in-law does not hesitate to take my daughter for an evening as though she were his own, I am a co-parent-er in this incredible village that has come alongside me to raise her. And wouldn’t I do the same?
As Maya Angelou’s poem observes:
“In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same. I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unlike.”