In my early days of being a solo mum I was terrified of people judging me, of people whispering behind my back that I wasn’t coping or feeling sorry for me because of the new burden I had to carry being a mum on my own.
I had wild imaginings of people leaving my home, shaking their heads and saying ‘Did you see how many dishes she had in her sink? Poor thing, what an awful thing to happen to someone’ or whispering behind my back ‘Oh, the dear thing, she just can’t keep it all together, can she? Did you see how tired she looks?’. And so I’d try even harder to hold it all together, to do everything, to be exactly the same mum I would have tried to be had my family not fallen apart when my son was only four months old.
But as I delved into the epic realm that is single motherhood, I realised that not only was it impossible for me to be that mum (and possibly thankfully so, but that’s another story), my fear of being judged by others was actually nothing to do with what anyone else thinks, it came only from my own insecurities, my own fears and my own lack of confidence. Part of that was from the fall-out of my divorce, part of it was the fact that I was a first-time mum who thought she was going to be a total shit-house mum and part of it was because I had, probably always, cared too much about what other people thought of me. For a while I was embarrassed of my lack of skill in juggling all the things that solo motherhood brings. I often felt like a failure because I couldn’t manage to get dinner ready by the time my son was hungry or keep my floors clean or get my washing on the line before it started to develop that smelly wet dog pong that washing gets if you don’t get it out of the machine in the first 9 minutes and 27 seconds after the wash cycle stops.
During the months that followed my surprise divorce, many people offered me advice on many topics – from how to cope with my divorce to parenting to life in general. Having all of that advice helped me in more ways than one; firstly because it made me feel loved and supported while I was grasping at straws to make sense of the situation I’d found myself in, but secondly because one day I noticed just how much all of that advice differed… none of it was right or wrong, none of it was better or worse, it was just different… and suddenly I realised that no matter what I did, I’d be going against someone’s advice, someone could possibly be shaking their head at me saying ‘What on earth is she doing?’ at any moment in time. So from that day, I decided that I’d do it my way – the way that I could cope with, the way that would make me happy and the way that would allow me to focus on the things I found most important in the new life I was building for myself and my son.
From that day if someone had to negotiate a Lego chicane down my hallway before they could get to my lounge room for a cup of tea, I didn’t cringe with embarrassment.
If they came to my house and I clearly hadn’t had a shower, my son had his jumper on back-to-front and I only had Milo to offer them to drink, it didn’t make me want to apologise for myself.
And if I went out for coffee with Play-doh smeared on my nose and a soggy Clix biscuit hanging off my butt, I’d say ‘It’s cool, I like it there, no need to pull it off’.
Because for me, none of these things are indicators that I am not coping. For me personally, not coping has different signs. I’d be more likely to start becoming obsessed with having an immaculately clean house that I never set foot outside of, I would be become inflexible, I would become quiet and avoid social situations… that’s how you would know I wasn’t coping, and we all have different signs.
Now, I heartily choose my mess.
I choose to embrace it so I can be present with my son.
I choose to let the washing build up for a week because it just makes sense in my world for me to do it all at once.
I choose not to vacuum every day because it’s only going to get couscous rubbed into it tonight at dinner time anyway, so I’ll leave it for tomorrow.
I choose to push the ‘Do I really have to iron that?’ or ‘Can that be worn another time before I have to wash it’ factor to its limits because I’d rather be outside exercising or taking my son to the ducky park.
And yes, there’s a difference between mess and neglect, I’m not suggesting we all run around with dirty nappies on our heads, covered in poo war paint eating the mould growing on what used to be last Sunday’s dinner, but I hope you can all see that’s not what I’m talking about. I also know that it’s a great feeling when all the planets align and you end up with washing done, floors vacuumed, bathrooms cleaned and the lounge room spotless before little fingers have had a chance to trash it, but that’s also not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about feeling like you’re not good enough, that your world and how you choose to run it is not good enough. I’m talking about ending up in tears because you’re stressed to the eyeballs that your home is not perfect before visitors come over or shrinking away from a group of mums because you don’t feel polished enough or skinny enough or alert enough to be able to carry out a coherent conversation.
Because however you do it is just fine. And just because Penny down the road always has an immaculate house or Shirley from swimming turns up every lesson with salon perfect hair and not a wrinkle in her perfectly clean silk blouse, it doesn’t matter. You’re only seeing one part of their lives, not all of it, and you have no idea what exactly all of it looks like compared to all of yours. Our life is not measured by the state of our home, the lack of grot on our face or wrinkles in our clothes, it’s measured by the size of our smiles, the wink in our eye, the joy we exchange and the memories we make.
One of the happiest families I know, the one where I can feel the love and joy just oozing out the doors the minute I step into it, is the one where there’s also just as much chaos… there’s baskets of clothes to be washed, baskets of washing to be folded, piles of papers on the bench and toys poking out of the couch that you have to grab before you sit down so it doesn’t poke you in the bum. The cupboards are bursting with camping gear to take on the many fishing trips they go on and the backyard is strewn with seedlings to be lovingly gown into veggies and balls just waiting to be thrown from child to puppy dog. Do I walk out of there thinking ‘Oh my god, look at that mess, she’s so not coping?’ No, I walk out of that home energised and hoping that my family will always be as happy as hers.
So today my hope is that every solo mum can bless her mess in whatever form it takes for her — whether it’s in her home or her clothes, her car, the way she organises her day or how she interacts with friends — and not feel the pressure of being judged as not coping, because it’s by embracing our mess that we’re then able to embrace the best parts of ourselves.
About the author
Naomi is the editor of Lift e-Magazine and single mum to 19 month old Jim. For the last 12 months she’s documented her journey of single motherhood in her award-winning daily blog ‘365 Days, a Diary of a Newly Single Mum’. When she’s not experimenting with new cookie recipes or planning her next trekking, climbing or snowboarding adventure, you can find her at her desk in the picturesque city of Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, weaving together solo mum stories… whether it be handy tips, triumphs, tragedies, exotic tales of travel or other tidbits to publish here. And before you ask, no, she doesn’t mind the freezing cold Tasmanian winters and yes, she had her second head removed years ago in an unfortunate accident involving a curtain rod and a drunk moose (and no, she’s not interested in hearing from anyone who doesn’t believe that drunk mooses exist in Tasmania… or those who may suppose that ‘mooses’ is not really a word).