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‘I’m a Single Mom and My Friends Walk All Over Me’

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Dear Polly,

I’m a single mom. My husband passed away eight years ago, before my only son was born. Now I have a pretty good life in a fun city with good neighbors and friends. My son has a bunch of good friends whose parents I’m either friends with or are friendly enough with to arrange play dates and excursions together. This is a key aspect of my weekend life — since he’s an outgoing, extroverted only child, we really benefit from some time with other kids, at least on one of the two weekend days. He’s just not all that into chilling with me all weekend, and to be honest, I don’t really want to discuss the intricacies of shiny mega-ultra-rare Pokémon or have hours-long cannonball competitions in the pool. We do a lot together — that’s part of being in a tiny family — but playing with friends is key for both of our weekend happiness. Don’t even get me started on long weekends and March break.

So, I make plans to have other kids over, or take them to the pool or the movies or the science center or hiking. The problem is, his friends’ parents constantly bail on our plans. There’s always something more important or more pressing that comes up — like the mom didn’t realize the dad had made plans to visit Grandma; it turns out that Uncle Bob is in town, so they’re going to spend the day with him, they need to head up to the cottage early, etc. It’s crushing for my son and for me. I just smile and say, “No worries, we’ll plan for another time.” But inside, my rage is barely containable. I often put down the phone and burst into tears, anticipating my son’s disappointment and the constant “There’s nothing to do” whine if I don’t find a replacement plan. But sometimes these adults cancel with only a few hours’ notice, making it hard to come up with a new plan. Of course, my son is also mad — but being 8, he sometimes takes it out on me, which makes me more mad and sad.

My family often accuses me of being inflexible. I think if you say you’ll do something, you should find a way to do it, because people might be depending on you. They point out that things change and you need to be able to shift and adapt. But I feel like there’s a fine line between being flexible and being walked all over. I often feel like people let me down and then expect me to brush it off by being “flexible.” Are all of these people walking all over me? Are my expectations too high? Maybe they just don’t think about the effect their cancellations have.

I’m pretty sure the issue isn’t that my son is actually a jerk — these adults seem genuinely happy to make detailed plans, down to pick-up times, only to cancel them the next day. He doesn’t have social problems at school or other activities.

Here’s the question: How can I let these adults know how irritated I am, given that they are not a coordinated group? Am I just inflexible? It seems like they often truly do have something more pressing, or they’ve not communicated well with the other people in their lives before making plans, so is this just a long string of bad, bad luck?

Trying to be flexible,

A Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

People are disappointing, period. That’s not a feeling, it’s a fact. I’ve been disappointed countless times over the course of my life, and I really hate it. I hate getting distraught and dyspeptic just because someone accidentally double-booked or forgot. Most of the time I don’t care, but on those rare occasions when I really do care, it feels like the whole world can roll with anything under the sun, and I’m the only human being who gets crumpled and pissy when people bail at the last minute.

But what can you do? Can you confront every friend who cancels at the last minute, when most people do this at one point or another? Does it really make sense to confront the parents of your kid’s friend who aren’t exactly friends so much as acquaintances of convenience?

I think you need to accept reality instead. People are disappointing. Should people cancel at the last minute? Theoretically, no. But shit happens. Families have a lot of moving parts. Other people don’t play by the same rules that you do. In order to become a mature adult who can set a good example for your kid, you have to accept that other people have different priorities, values, and rules from yours. When you don’t accept reality, when you stubbornly believe that everyone should play by your rules, when you make meaning out of every cancellation, when you get off the phone and burst into tears and then pretend that you’re fine but there’s an edge to your voice when you explain to your son that his friend had to visit Grandma, you model resentment and insecurity for your kid. You teach your kid that when someone cancels, that means the person is walking all over you. You teach your kid that people aren’t just disappointing, they’re unfair and careless and cruel and they might even be trying to hurt you when they bail at the last minute.

That’s not an accurate snapshot of reality. No one is walking all over you. They’re simply doing what parents everywhere do: They’re muddling through and making a lot of mistakes along the way. They’re failing to communicate with each other or failing to keep a detailed schedule that they stick to. Some of them have marriage problems that you can’t even imagine. Some of them are very depressed and just barely getting by day by day. Some of them have always been careless and they can’t seem to snap out of it. Some of them have back problems or they’re falling into debt or they’re not having sex anymore or they’re about to get fired.

Accepting reality isn’t just about accepting that different people have wildly different views of the rules of social interaction; it’s also about accepting that other people have gigantic challenges and problems you don’t know about and never will. It’s about accepting that some of the people you know seem happy but they’re drowning in plain sight. Their experience of time and space is as different from yours as a songbird’s perception is different from an elephant’s. You’re making this difference too personal. You want it to be personal, really, because it explains why you burst into tears when these people callously bail.

I want you to notice how much you hate surprises. Sensitive humans who’ve been traumatized often hate surprises. You don’t just hate having to think of something new to do. You also hate the jolt of the surprise, the shock of having your plan ripped out of your hands. You hate thinking on your feet after you put down the phone. You hate your son’s questioning look — “Did they bail again?” and then “What are we going to do NOW?” You hate having to improvise for the millionth time. And you hate feeling like a bad mother because you don’t really want to sit around alone with your kid again.

Parenting alone can be incredibly fucking hard. No one can say that enough, with enough force, to make it clear to anyone who’s never done it. My husband left town for eight days last week and I fucking fell apart, full stop. One daughter got braces and they hurt like hell. The other daughter was sick. I stayed calm for a long time. I shopped, cooked, and had a clear answer to every “What now?” and “What next?” I congratulated myself over and over. I was soothing and kind to everyone, without fail.

Then one of my husband’s relatives showed up for an unplanned visit. It was too much. I hadn’t exercised in seven days, and when I don’t exercise, I get anxious and grumpy. Moreover, I hate surprises.

It makes me feel rigid and awful to admit that, because I want to welcome surprises. I want to be an amazing host. I want to be a dreamy mom. I am at once too accommodating and too irritable and put-upon, and not being able to exercise or work made me irascible. I let the relative visit and chided myself that there wasn’t enough food in the house. I tried to please the kids to make up for how stressed out I was but then I snapped at them when I was at the end of my rope. After years of saying no to my kids without sweating it, I’ve unexpectedly turned into a mother who hates saying no. I can see how hard it is for them to get older, how many fears flood in, how many anxieties come to the forefront. I don’t want to add to their stress. I want to be a calm island in every storm.

I’ll bet that’s how you feel, too. It’s hard enough not to have a father. It’s hard enough to spend most of your time with your mom. And then your plans with friends keep falling through? You carry around the weight of your son’s experience at all times. You feel like it’s up to you to fix everything for him.

That’s the kind of pressure and guilt that practically guarantees that the wheels will come off over and over again. I know the wheels came off for me, even though I knew my husband was about to come home and help out.

When you’re parenting alone, you have no sounding board. You end up crying or saying crazy shit and then you have to deal with a young person who’s upset by all of it. You can’t just feel what you feel; you also have to grapple with what your kid feels. That’s why it’s so hard for you when friends cancel. When you put down the phone, it’s not just that you feel terrible, it’s that you know your son will notice that you feel terrible. You don’t want that for him. You want to be the amazing single mom who never lets him down.

So let’s accept reality again: You’re going to let him down. You’re holding yourself to too high a standard. It’s not terrible for your son to feel let down sometimes. If you don’t want to spend a whole weekend alone with him, you should probably make two plans and expect one of them to fall through. You should remind him that sometimes people cancel; that’s just a part of life. Sometimes it’s good for kids to be forced to amuse themselves, even when it’s an unexpected surprise. You can say to him, “Look, I have no plans for us today, and I need to get some work done around the house, so you’re going to need to occupy yourself.”

If you never ask kids to be capable or productive, they don’t learn to be capable or productive. Your son is old enough that he can be asked to fill his hours a little more. But you could also make a back-up plan in advance: “If they happen to cancel, we’re going to go to the art-supply store and buy some paints, then we’ll paint, and then we’ll both read in the afternoon.” Or “If anyone bails on us, let’s finally organize your closet and do the laundry, then we’ll make pizza for dinner and watch Kung Fu Panda.

I also think you need to make plenty of plans for both of you that don’t involve each other. Get your friends to drop off their kids. Ask them to take your kid for a night. Even though you’ve found a solution that works — hanging out with parents and kids together — it won’t work for everyone indefinitely, and you need more variety in your life. You need time to yourself on the weekends. Your son needs time away. You have to push yourself and push the people around you to try new things. You also need to dare to ask for help more often. You’re too hard on yourself, and too quick to assume that people undervalue you, partly because you don’t value yourself enough.

You can tell individuals, when the time is right, how difficult it can be to be left without plans at the last minute. When making a plan, you can say, “Just let me know as soon as you can if you need to bail, so I can make another plan — it can get intense to find other stuff to do when you’re a single parent.” Put it out there in a neutral way beforehand. And tell the truth when things are tough for you. When you dare to be vulnerable with close friends, they tend to take your feelings into account more than they do when you act like you’re bulletproof.

It’s not really an option to confront a big group of people about how they should ALL stop bailing. Whether it’s fair or not, this is how people act at this point in history. They bail a lot. Living in this culture at this particular time means recognizing that the situations you experience as rejections aren’t personal at all.

And even though your expectations of yourself and others are arguably too high, your expectations of your life are too low. Instead of just patching up holes in your life, you need to start to have a glorious vision of a Best Case Scenario where you and your son grow and evolve and feel better about the world. What if your kid could learn to be more proactive about what he’d like to do instead, in the face of disappointment, rather than getting mad at you? What if he could spend the night with friends while you went out with friends who don’t have kids the same age? What if you could cultivate your own interests and passions separate from your child, and really feed those areas of your life without feeling guilty about it? What if you could fall in love? What if you made a whole new group of childless friends?

I know that sounds like a pipe dream, but you have to try to expand your vision of what’s possible. Your son will only be dependent on you for a few more years. Then he’ll want to do things on his own, without you. Based on the way things are going for you emotionally, if your son begins to pull away from you in developmentally appropriate ways, you’ll be likely to feel rejected and left behind. You’ll be tempted to believe that he’s taking you for granted and walking all over you. (I know that doesn’t seem possible at the moment, when you need more time alone. But these things can take you by surprise, trust me!) You need to shift your perspective dramatically if you want you and your son to be independent, self-reliant, and happy as you both grow older.

I know it’s hard to read these words without feeling angry. You already do so much. I know a lot of things feel like they’re out of your control. I know there are a million different dimensions of your situation that I can’t possibly understand. I hope you can see that you feel guilty and sad partially because you’re not giving your son quite enough room to bounce back by himself, and you’re not treating yourself with enough care. Your son needs to start to see that you’re just a mortal human with flaws and shortcomings. That means you have to see yourself that way. You are rigid — your family is right — because you want to be better than you are, and you want other people to be better than they are. It doesn’t feel good to live there, though.

Reality is much more loose and surprising and scary and disappointing and messy and also more beautiful than that. When you live in reality, you have to improvise and sometimes you cry and then apologize for it. Sometimes you surprise yourself with how strong and flexible you can be, when you don’t expect yourself to be perfect. When you accept reality, you have to say the truth out loud, sometimes even when other people don’t want to hear it. You can say “I feel bad because I’ve spent the week alone with my son and I need a break” instead of saying, “I’m pissed at you because you let me down and it’s just careless and unkind.” You can tell the truth in a neutral voice, without casting aspersions on anyone else OR yourself.

After the wheels came off last week, I had to admit that when things get hard, I neglect myself as if that’s the only answer in times of crisis. I think you’re neglecting yourself, too, AFM. I think you need to figure out how to take better care of yourself. You need more exercise and more stimulation. You need your own, separate friendships that have nothing to do with your son. You need to imagine falling in love again. You need to dare to picture a full life. That doesn’t mean you’re unhappy. But your guilt and anger are warping your understanding of the wider world. You need some fresh air. Be more patient and generous with yourself, and you’ll naturally become more patient and generous with others. Give yourself more time and space to be happy, and you’ll forgive and empathize more easily with other people.

No one is walking all over you. You’re walking all over yourself. Get up, dust yourself off, and vow not to live this way anymore. You deserve a bigger life than this. You’ve come so far. Give yourself credit for that, and then dare to expand your horizons beyond what you thought was possible.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I’m a Single Mom and My Friends Walk All Over Me’