I Don’t Know How You Do It

Children Welcoming Tired Mother Returning From WorkA phrase that my fellow Single Mothers by Choice (SMCs) and I are quite familiar with is, “I don’t know how you do it.”

Early in my parenting journey, I used to get extremely irritated by this phrase, and spent some time navel-gazing, trying to figure out why it bothered me so much.  I never really came up with a satisfactory explanation.  Was it because I was insecure in my abilities and that insecurity was exacerbated by having someone else point out how difficult single parenting is?  Was it because people who say they don’t know how I do “it” don’t really understand what “it” is, so the statement is meaningless — because it merely exposes a lack of critical thinking on their part?  Was it because I was uncomfortable being made out to be some kind of superwoman?  Was it because making a big deal of my situation seemed to devalue the struggles and triumphs of other single moms throughout history?

But naah.  None of those explanations really rang true. More simply, I now realize that it comes down to this: it was hard for me to figure out what to say in response.

“I don’t know how you do it” is generally intended as a compliment, but responding with “Thank you” doesn’t feel right.  It isn’t phrased as a question (“How do you do it?”) which could be addressed directly — though mind you, back in the days when I was a new mom, I would have been hard-pressed to answer that one also; too often I fell back on the semi-facetious, faux-ditzy “I don’t know how I do it either!” which, while amusing (and at times accurate), doesn’t give me enough credit.

Other sarcastic and/or self-deprecating responses that I used often were along the lines of “Ehh, it’s no big deal / I’m nothing special / it’s not that hard” and so forth, none of which are true, and all of which are unkind to myself.

As I think about how I used to fumble and struggle to respond to that simple phrase, it becomes clear how much more self-confident I am now, as a parent, than I was eight-ish years ago (or six-ish years ago when, as a single mom of two, I started hearing that phrase anew).  Nowadays I don’t agonize over this kind of thing any more. I smile and say something simple like, “It’s a challenge, but totally worth it,” often also referencing my wonderful support system and/or how great my kids are.

The truth is, also, that parenting is a lot easier for me now than it was 6 or 8 years ago, for a number of reasons, but mainly because a) parenting older kids is so much easier, at least on a day-to-day logistical basis; you don’t have to be “on” every minute like you do with a baby or toddler.  I even get to sleep in on weekends sometimes! And b) my financial situation is better, which in turn makes me less stressed (purchase of a new home notwithstanding).  The cost of childcare is the main factor there; in 2007 I was paying more than $600/week for childcare (Isaac in preschool and Ruthie in daycare), whereas today I pay $240/week for both kids in after-school.  Obviously, that helps a lot! And my income has risen in slow but steady increments as well, knock wood.  So maybe I’m in a calmer place overall, parenting-wise, and maybe that explains my more philosophical reaction nowadays to, “I don’t know how you do it.”

3 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How You Do It”

  1. I think the main reason the phrase bothers me is because I’ve never had a choice not to do it. This sounds wrong because I wouldn’t take that choice if it was offered – but it’s a nonnegotiable. It has to be done, no one else will do it, so I do it.

  2. Sometimes I think (but don’t say!) “I don’t know how YOU do it” when I look at their lazy good-for-nothing husbands that don’t lift a finger and I see these women doing it all, not just for the kids but the man as well. I think they have three kids around even if one is officially a grown-up and I don’t know how they do it. It would drive me crazy to have a partner who didn’t pull his weight and I often think I’m better off doing it on my own; much easier.

  3. I agree that this comments comes up…a…lot. My stock answer has always been, “I’ve never known anything different, so I just make it happen.” In my experience, most who make this comment are people who have kids in a two-parent environment and who recently had to deal with doing it alone for a few days/weeks/months (in my military environment, “months” is not that uncommon). They don’t realize how much they depend on the other person until he/she is gone. Single parents who have never lived with another adult while they had kids don’t know anything different. When you have no comparison, it just is what it is. 🙂

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