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.”