From the outside, there appear to be two kinds of single parents. You can do it all, strive for perfection, and pull it off. Or you can barely get by, almost fall apart, and struggle for breath. For me, though, it has always been both. Strength and struggle seem to go hand in hand.
I want to be strong and competent. I also don’t want anyone to think I make it look easy. I have been thinking about this a lot ever since I found out the rent is going up again. I have been in my apartment for five years, the longest I’ve lived in any one space as an adult. It is already too expensive. It is drafty, and there’s no central air. I spend all winter upstairs and all summer downstairs. The walls are thin, I hear any raised voice from either side. But it has a washer and dryer. The shower has good water pressure. It has normal-sized closets, a rarity in this area. It’s in a part of the city I love that hasn’t been gentrified all the way yet. And there are a bunch of children on our street so I can tell my kids to go outside and play without watching or worrying. My daughter was born here. I got divorced here, built my own life here. But the money makes the decision for me: It is time to move.
When people find out, we commiserate about how truly awful it is to find housing here in Boston. Everyone in Boston loves to talk about how expensive rents are these days. I am polite and casual on the outside, but inside I am quietly resentful. I am talking to someone who has a partner or spouse to split the rent, or someone with roommates, or someone who can get a tiny studio without worrying about school districts or streets that are too busy for little ones on bikes. But I stick to my default: be strong, be competent, be just like everyone else.
The apartment search happens mostly on Craigslist, through text and email. I send many messages. Sometimes I get one back. Usually I’m asked who will be living in the apartment, what their names are, and what they do for a living. These are not unreasonable questions, but I know this is how they find out there will be three people moving in but only one income. After I answer these questions, they usually stop writing back.
One time I actually get a viewing scheduled. I bring the kids because I have to, even though I know that hypothetical kids are more palatable than real ones. The apartment is in our same neighborhood, it’s a quiet street, it has a yard, it’ll do. The owners are a couple, and the wife is the one who takes me through the apartment one weekday evening. I tell her we’d like to move forward. She says her husband will email me an application. The next morning the husband emails to tell me the apartment has been rented out to the person who saw it after me. I never even got a chance, so it’s clear that they picked what they saw as the safer bet.
I know whenever I am up against another potential tenant, I will almost always lose. Technically it is illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of family status, just like it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion or race. But it happens all the time; two applicants present themselves and you choose the married couple over the set of friends, the professionals with two incomes over the single person with children. There is nothing I can prove and nothing I can do but go on to the next place.
The kids ask about the new house we saw and I tell them we’ll keep looking. For some reason, I know how to own my strength and my struggle with my kids. I know that I need to be solid for them most of the time. I know that it’s also important for me to show them when something is hard. I tell them when we can’t afford something; I tell them I have to work so I can pay for our apartment and our food and the fun things we do sometimes. I just don’t know how to find this balance anywhere else, not even in my own head.
I want to be strong. I want to be capable. I want to do by myself what two people usually do together.
I find another apartment, and this time I actually get to apply. I am thrilled to make it this far, but I’m also full of dread. A tenant application usually comes with a credit check and, as it often does, divorce wreaked havoc on my credit. If all I do is own my Strong Single Mom persona it could end up hurting me when the numbers say otherwise. It’s best to own the struggle, to lay it out up front, to say that my credit will have problems so I’ve been totally honest. When I talk about it, any of it, but especially the money part, I feel frustrated and vulnerable. That means there are tears, the worst part of the whole thing.
I keep going. I wipe my eyes and I return to selling myself as a responsible tenant. I talk about my career and my work and everything I have achieved since I’ve been on my own. It is hard to make that pivot. It is hard to act like I wasn’t crying two minutes ago. But this is where we need to end, with the worst cushioned beneath plenty of positives and smiles.
I get the apartment and sign the lease. I want to relax and appreciate the victory, but it is still nowhere near over. I have to borrow and delay and twist myself into financial circles to make the deposit. There are weeks of packing and organizing and cleaning ahead of me. I have to decide if I can afford movers, if it’s even possible for me to do it without them.
I have learned in my years as a single parent that you cannot rely on anyone else to help you. Should I put out a call for help and see how much assistance I can round up? If I do, there will be many well-wishes and many words, but at the end of the day there may not be many actual hands. If I do, I am showing weakness again. It is asking for yet another favor, going through yet another tough time.
Sometimes I feel like this is the only story I ever tell. Sometimes I feel strongly that I must tell it whenever I can.
I want to be strong. I want to be capable. I want to do by myself what two people usually do together. I want people to see my strength and resilience and know that they can do it, too. I want to post pictures of a room completely packed into boxes, a truck filled with belongings, a new apartment with everything in place. I want to post these pictures and say that I did this myself.
At the end of the day, it will be a mix of the two. I will work hard and do most of it by myself. I will accept some help and call in far more than my fair share of favors. It will not be pretty or fast or easy, but it will get done. And perhaps my strength and my weakness all mixed together like this is not just how it always is, but exactly how it should be.
Jessica Woodbury is a lapsed lawyer, single parent, and bookworm. She blogs at Don't Mind the Mess.