When I was in my twenties I never thought I’d be a mum. I was more interested in starting a career. Settling down and starting a family wasn’t something I wanted out of life, I wasn’t in a relationship, and I was careful about sex. Contraception is so readily available that it’s easy to take for granted we’ll be pregnancy-free. The reality it sometimes failed never crossed my mind.
I was at work when the thought first occurred to me. I complained to a co-worker that I couldn’t understand why I kept feeling so sick every day, and that it seemed to pass by the afternoon. I joked that if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was pregnant. Then it dawned on me that maybe I was. The thought scared me so much I made an excuse and went straight to the chemist and then home. The test came up positive.
I went to see my doctor and burst into tears. My GP has a dry sense of humour and said “I’m sensing this isn’t good news.” (Years later, after blood tests for constant tiredness showed nothing wrong, he diagnosed me as a single mum.) Thanks to irregular periods, I needed an ultrasound to find out how long I’d been pregnant for. My doctor gently suggested that if I wasn’t sure what to do yet, it might pay to let the ultrasound technician know, or they might say or show me things that could make the choice harder. But I couldn’t tell them. I was too terrified, confused and afraid of judgement to do anything but smile politely and pretend this had all been planned. I was eight weeks. They gave me a photo of my unborn child. I was too frightened to look, and went home and hid it from myself. I hid it so well that to this day it still hasn’t been found.
Then came the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. I’ve always been pro-choice, and I knew I didn’t want to have a child, but somehow I couldn’t contemplate termination. I found it an impossible choice to make. Eventually I realised if I didn’t start to think of myself as becoming a mum, it would be too late for any choice at all. I put on a brave face and decided to accept that life was about to change in ways I could hardly imagine.
Telling people I was having a baby was a strange experience. I felt awkward when people said “Congratulations” as though it was something I’d been trying for, instead of something that had just happened to me. When they knew or realised I didn’t have a partner, they didn’t seem to know what to say. Some people tried to reassure me there was nothing wrong with that, which only made me feel like they silently thought there was. One person rudely asked, “If you’re single, how did you get pregnant then?” to which I replied, “If you don’t know how it’s done, I suggest you look it up.” Overall, I coped by becoming very self-focused and mentally withdrawing. I had a lot of preparation to do, and didn’t have the energy to worry about anyone else’s opinion.
Going to childbirth class was the most awful experience of my pregnancy. I’ll never forget the empty, hopeless feeling it gave me to sit there and listen to the midwife speak to all the fathers there and tell them how much they were needed, because the mothers wouldn’t cope without their support. I understand she was trying to say something positive about men’s involvement, but my confidence was crushed that day. My first piece of advice for anyone pregnant who is doing it alone would be to avoid help that is meant for couples. It is just not worth feeling so invisible and demoralised.
After my son was born I was upset to find that to register his birth without a father, I had to provide a written explanation. It got even worse with Centrelink, who required not only a written letter but a humiliating interview where I was questioned about the father of my child and how he was conceived. Many single mums are criticised and accused of chasing money from their child’s father, but we are put under pressure forcing us to do so. If Centrelink could find the father of my child, I would have been refused all assistance that I needed to survive, unless I took legal action to make him pay child support. I didn’t think I could cope with that process on top of everything else. Thanks to social media I found my son’s father later on, but when I contacted him he first ignored and then blocked me. I didn’t see the point pursuing it further. Why force a dad into my son’s life, if he will be one who resents him and me for making him be there? I can’t see any good coming of that.
Caring for a baby was the loneliest experience of my life. I think every parent knows that desperate feeling when it’s 3am and the baby won’t settle and all you want is to stop the crying but nothing seems to work. Facing that alone, when there wasn’t someone else there to take their turn that night, that week, or ever, felt devastating. I spent nights crying and collapsing on the floor in a helpless mess. My family lived too far away to offer much support, and my friends were shift workers. My baby was my sole comfort, and I bonded tightly with him. I coped by getting out every day. Most days it was only to the local shopping centre, even if I spent most of the time in the parents’ room. Mothers I’ve known with partners have tended to avoid going out, but if I didn’t I’d spend days without seeing or speaking to anyone who could speak back. I managed my baby’s routine by making it portable. Anything to avoid feeling trapped at home.
I tried a mothers’ group but not for long. I was the only single mum, and a major topic of discussion was how to get more support from partners. It was too hard listening to them empathise with each other over men who couldn’t help them enough when I had no help at all. It opened my eyes to something though – I realised having someone there didn’t necessarily mean they felt supported. I became grateful that at least I didn’t have the added feelings of hurt and resentment towards someone I’d expected to rely on but who often fell short. Because there was only me, I knew from the start that I could only do the best I could, and I’d never be the perfect mum. I could forgive myself for any mistakes, which many women seem to struggle to. I accepted that my child’s life wouldn’t be perfect, and my aim was only to make the best of that.
After a few months I needed more of my own identity back. I couldn’t go back to shift work so I enrolled in part time study. It was the best thing I could have done. I had the chance to have some of my own time, more social interaction, something to achieve, and I was able to further my career to better support my son. People have always told me how amazing they think it is that I’ve managed to study, and then work, while raising a child on my own. What they seem to miss is that I don’t know how I could cope any other way. It’s tiring and busy, my schedule is always full, my housework is always behind, my budget is always stretched, and I’m endlessly tired. But I have a good career, a home, and a son I love dearly and feel very proud of. All of those things work together in my life – they’re part of a balance. Without a good job, I’d struggle to find the money to care for my son, and my mood and motivation would suffer. Working hard keeps me mindful to always make time to spend with my son and appreciate him. We have a great relationship and part of that comes from him knowing I value that time with him so much.
Having a two-person family means I get to be very flexible. I can offer my child my full attention and we talk a lot and have fun together. He counts himself lucky that he gets to have a say in little things at home, like deciding what’s for dinner or what kind of pet we should have, when other kids from two parent families might not get a vote. He tells me that his friends are jealous that he knows how to talk to girls, and he puts this down to living only with his mum.
If I was going to offer any advice to other mums, it’s don’t be afraid not to be perfect. I was lucky that doing it alone meant I had realistic expectations from the start. I knew I’d fail, I knew I’d be criticised, I knew I’d be blamed for all kinds of problems the kids of single parents are presumed to have. But who has the perfect family or the perfect life? My son and I are in the same boat, our little family is something we were both thrown into, and we’ve played it by ear and made it work the best way we can. That’s not very different to anyone else.
Corina, 36 is mum to Cayce, 10