BY COLE BEDNARSKI
Growing up, I remember my family sitting around the kitchen table for every dinner. My siblings and I responsible for setting places, while my parents stood at the stove cooking something undoubtedly noodle-based.
Throughout middle and high school, this tradition continued. And while I was the eldest of the three and thus left the house first, I imagine that the act of gathering as a family for dinner continued after I moved across the state to college.
My parents instilled this behavior as one of great importance long before the commercials were released, so when I started seeing these 30-second moments between episodes of Friends — or whatever other angsty teenage show I was obsessed with and have now forgotten — I was shocked in a way, because I didn’t understand why there was a need to advocate for this.
In my mind, everyone sat around the table together for dinner. And the reality that some families did not, had never crossed my sheltered mind.
That’s because, in many ways, I was raised to believe that life simply goes a certain way. We get good grades, we go to college, we get a job, we get married, we buy a house, and we start pushing out babies to continue the cycle.
But there I was, sitting on the couch in the family room of my parents’ house, watching this commercial, and the light bulb turned on. “Holy shit, my parents have made a conscious effort (almost) every day for my entire life to have one hour of time to sit with me and have a conversation.” It was a few years later that I understood the significance of making us set the table, clear the dishes, and load the dishwasher — but I think my point has been made.
As I reached my early 20s, I started to discover what it meant to not follow the “traditional” path and another light bulb turned on…and then promptly exploded. I won’t bore you with the details, but let it be known that my parents weren’t always excited about my choices once I was able to make them beyond the reach of their parental guidance.
Life began to settle, I found a decent job, was renting my dream house on a lake, and met a dreamy guy. Things seemed to be creeping towards the path of least resistance, so I did what I thought I was supposed to do at 25. I had a baby!
But much like a majority of my hopeful, lost generation, things just didn’t work out with the other parent. We were young and stupid. We didn’t take the time to get to know each other. If we had, we would have discovered that there was no future between us. And while I could sit here and tell you that I wish I had been smarter, that I wish I had known better — I really don’t want to.
If I hadn’t been so stupid, I wouldn’t have my son. And I don’t want to live a day without him.
When my son was young and we were on our own, life was chaotic. I was fortunate to have an incredible bond with him, so being a mother came pretty easily. But doing all the other things I needed to do on a regular basis in addition to being a mother to this adorable, helpless little potato felt impossible.
I had to work to make money, I had to cook to eat, I had to do laundry to have clean clothes to wear. When you feel so burdened, so physically and emotionally exhausted, so alone and often desperate, you cut corners. Or at least I did.
My eating became infrequent, I practiced absolutely no self-care whatsoever, I allowed my relationships with others to deteriorate, and I took shortcuts in everything I could — just to get by. I told myself that I had to, that things for me and for my son would be different if his dad was still around.
I told myself that it was okay to not clean (and I don’t mean scrubbing the floors every day — our apartment was disgusting). I told myself that it was okay that I ate fast food in front of the TV every night. I told myself that it was okay to never return a phone call or accept an invitation. And in doing so, I became incredibly bitter.
I was angry. I was angry with my son’s dad for bailing. I was angry with my family for having their own lives that didn’t include us. I felt like we were cast out and incomplete because we were only two, instead of three. I felt weak, isolated — like I couldn’t count on anyone.
And I was very, very wrong.
In that state of hopelessness, I had done exactly what I felt everyone had done to me. I pushed people away and behaved as though my son and I weren’t a true family because his dad wasn’t there. I had created the circumstances that I wanted so badly to blame on someone else. And even worse, I had no idea how to recover from it.
I spent years crippled by the internal struggle brought on by the realization that I was at fault for defining my son and I as insufficient to be defined a “family”. I couldn’t accept it. As a highly introspective person, I applied every other imaginable resolve to avoid facing this truth.
The worst of which was that I simply longed for someone to share in how amazing my son is/was. I convinced myself that it was okay to feel the way I did because it meant that my little boy was just too incredible to be experienced only by me. I was angry with everyone in my life for not loving him the way I did — and that that anger was justified.
So I found someone to be his dad.
And when things went terribly wrong, I told myself it was okay because my son had a father figure in his life. I told myself that it didn’t matter how he treated me because he was always kind to my son.
And I was wrong again.
What I realized that morning — the morning I told this “replacement dad” to get out and never come back — the morning I stood terrified in the corner of a bathroom crossing my fingers that today wouldn’t be the day his temper got so bad that he hit me again — was that I didn’t need him to give my son a family.
It was in that moment of strength that I chose to stop being bitter, to stop isolating myself from the people who really loved us, and to stop viewing my son and I as anything less than a whole family.
There are so many single parents today, not just in my generation but in every age bracket, who believe that they are less than who they would be if they had a partner. There are so many single parents who perpetually seek out a replacement mother or father to fill that title in their own household. There are so many single parents who settle for less than what they deserve — and what their children deserve — because they believe they have to.
And they don’t.
We need to stop teaching our children that something is missing. We need to stop making excuses for ourselves because we’re doing it alone. We need to be stronger and smarter and care more about ourselves.
Because if we don’t, then we’re teaching our children exactly what we don’t want them to learn. That coming from a single parent household means that they’re not as good as kids whose parents are together, that they’re less likely to succeed — because we’ve all heard that bullshit statistic.
It was within a couple of weeks after my ex had all his things out of my house that I made a massive change to how our home functioned. I walked into the living room, I turned off the TV, and I told my son it was time for dinner.
As we sat at the table that night, he whined incessantly. The next night he did the same. But over time he came to expect that every evening, we ate dinner together at the table. Every evening after school and work, we sit at the table without the distraction of phones or TV or video games. Just like my family did.
And while it may seem like nothing to him now, I hope that someday he looks back at all the things we did — like eating dinner together at the kitchen table — and knows that it was family time.
I hope that he knows that he is loved just as much as a boy with two parents. I hope he knows that he is capable of just as much as a boy with two parents.
I hope as a community we are able to permanently erase the stigma of the single-parent home, and see it simply as a norm of our culture so that we are able to stop determining value by the number of parents a child has under a single roof.
But it starts with us.
For more self-study, The Urban Howl recommends Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment.
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