'I Suffered Single Mom Guilt for Years, One Day Changed It All'

When I got divorced in 2013, my biggest concern was the long-term impact it would have on my two young children. Although I knew on some level I would do the best I could as a single mother, I was saddled with guilt because I also knew that my choices were drastically changing my kids' lives.

The word divorce had been lingering in my marriage for years before it actually happened. As a military spouse, I initially blamed my marital problems on our lifestyle. It's not easy to resolve long standing issues when one half of the couple is living in Virginia and the other is in a perpetual travel cycle. But as we sat across from our third marriage counselor, I think we both understood that the real problem was us, that we would have the same issues with or without the military interrupting. Shortly after that epiphany, my marriage ended.

I never believed in the practice of staying in a bad marriage "for the kids." In fact, I told myself I was doing the opposite. I was leaving, in part, for the kids. My daughter was five, my son nine, and I didn't want them to spend their childhoods listening to their parents argue. I didn't want them to think that's what relationships should look like. I didn't want them to grow up seeing either parent unhappy. They deserved better, and so did I.

But when the kids and I moved into an apartment in Virginia Beach half the size of the only house they remembered living in, when they changed schools, when I had to budget down to the penny because I was living paycheck to paycheck, I started worrying that maybe the aftermath of divorce would be worse on my children. And that's when my single mom guilt kicked in.

Heather Sweeney Experienced Single Mom Guilt
Heather Sweeney with her son and daughter in Virginia in 2013. Heather Sweeney

It was more than having to say no when the kids wanted things their friends had. It was more than our move from a house with a yard, to an apartment on the second floor. It was more than their adjustment to spending weekends with their father. More than anything, I was spread too thin. What concerned me the most was my inability to give my children the best version of their mother in their most formative years.

When I thought that maybe we had all gotten accustomed to the custody schedule, my ex-husband moved overseas on military orders. While I loved not having to pass my kids off to their father every Saturday, I no longer had weekends to recharge my depleted batteries. I had to be two parents rolled into one on a full-time basis. I was a single mother with a full-time job as an associate editor and writer for a website, and no family nearby to help. I was exhausted, stressed out and lonely. This was not the mother I wanted to be.

As much as I once worried about the kids seeing me unhappy in my marriage, I started worrying about them seeing me unhappy after my divorce. And it wasn't even that I was unhappy. In fact, my newfound freedom and independence gave me a sense of empowerment I hadn't felt in a long time. But between parenting and working, I had little left to give to myself, and that special brand of fatigue overshadowed everything else I was feeling on my path to a better life.

At the time, I was unsure how much of my personal struggles my kids noticed or how they processed what they observed, but I knew the older they got, the more they would pick up on. I kept telling myself to pull it together, be strong and stay composed in front of them because I was their primary role model and they were watching. I couldn't let them see me fall apart. My single mom guilt tortured me, but in a way it also propelled me to keep moving forward, to be patient, to hold tight to the belief that life would eventually get easier and that the kids would be okay.

As years passed, the guilt loosened its grip on me as life did indeed get easier. I got a promotion at work and didn't have to live paycheck to paycheck anymore. I met a man my kids could call their stepfather. We moved out of that apartment. But the guilt never fully left me, hiding just beneath the surface and reappearing with a vengeance with every tween mood change, with every adolescent misstep. Even though my kids were growing and excelling, even though they both reached high school without a grade lower than an A and even though college acceptance letters were trickling in, I couldn't shake the thought that every less-than-positive experience my kids faced was a direct result of the things I failed to provide for them when I was a single mother.

It wasn't until my son's college drop-off countdown dwindled from weeks to days, and he prepared himself for an independence he'd never known before that it hit me. My kids had been watching me all those years ago, just as they watched me now. But what they had taken from those single mom years wasn't what I had feared.

I began to realize that they had watched me work hard to create a new life for myself. They had watched me budget, save money and get out of debt, claw my way through the muck to find happiness and create a family dynamic that prioritized open communication and support for each other. They may have watched me fall apart, but they also watched me get back up again.

Both of my kids are diligent about budgeting their money and understanding the importance of saving for the future. My 15-year-old daughter is too young to work, but she asks me to do extra chores around the house to earn more money from me if she wants to buy something. By senior year, my son had two jobs in order to build up some savings to bring to college with him.

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Like most teenagers, my kids both had a difficult time during the lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They missed their friends. They both played sports that suddenly stopped. So I implemented "mental health checks" where everyone in our house randomly asked each other to rate our mental health so no one felt alone in their feelings.

When schools opened back up, they struggled to get used to studying in-person again with the added fear of catching COVID. After my son wrote an essay for his college applications about those struggles, we talked more about how thankful we were that we supported each other as a family and how appreciative he is to be able to go off to college during such a tumultuous time period. Despite the pandemic altering the most important years of high school for him, he pushed through, kept his grades up, learned how to monitor his mental health and found his way to his first choice university.

So the Thursday in August that we arrived at my son's college campus, a few hours away from our home in Virginia, I had no question he was ready. The following day, I helped unpack while he arranged his dorm room, and then I hugged him goodbye, leaving him to be the adult I raised him to be. As I got in my car to drive myself back home without my firstborn, I exhaled, finally allowing myself to release the single mom guilt I had held onto for so long.

Nearly a decade after my fears about how I would cope as a single mom first emerged, I realized that not only did my children survive my divorce, they thrived. And seeing that, as I left my son at college that Friday afternoon, helped me to finally let go.

My son, now 18, was embarking on a journey he would create on his own, just as I did after my divorce. My daughter will follow his lead and do the same in a few years. There's no need for single mom guilt anymore. The kids really are okay. More than okay. And despite my struggles, despite my fears, I couldn't be more proud of my kids—and of my single mom self—for growing into the people we are today.

Heather Sweeney is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Insider and Healthline. She's currently writing a memoir about life as a military spouse and divorce. Follow her on Twitter at @WriterSweeney.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.