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You’re not a solo parent just because your partner is away a lot

Solo parenting isn’t having a week looking after the kids on your own. Mum of three Julie Fairey explains why the comments about solo parenting don’t respect the real mahi of parents without that back-up – financial, social or otherwise – and why they don’t address the stigmas or inequality around sole parenting.

It happened again yesterday. Colleagues mentioned my parenting situation sympathetically, but they got it wrong. They mean well, I know that, bless. So I’m going to make it very clear: I’m not a solo mum. What I am doing, with my partner away a lot for work, and busy with work a lot when he’s here, is not sole parenting.

For a start, I have access to his very decent income, as well as my own, to buy the things that make parenting easier: childcare for the pre-schooler, regular trips to zoo, cafes, museum etc, school holiday programmes, a part-time nanny, a cleaner, groceries delivered, a family trip away each school holidays, babysitting whenever I need it, self-care for me. If we have health needs, or the car breaks down, or there’s a school trip, there is no stress – I can just sort it straight away, no need to juggle my own finances or ask someone else to pay their part.

I don’t have to make all the decisions alone, or in a convoluted communication process with another. Instead I have someone a friendly message away if I need input; Sometimes they even send me adorable GIFs. I know that the decisions I do make will almost always be backed up, and if they aren’t then the kids won’t necessarily know about any dissent because we deal with it out of their line of sight (usually).

There’s no undermining, no trying to win at being the best parent. We’re a team, even though four fifths of us play mostly at home without our Number Five.

I don’t have to manage a tricky relationship of my own with a fellow parent who is also an ex, and/or grandparents of my children who resent or dislike me. There’s no competitive gift giving and no barbed birthday card messages. Christmas isn’t easy, but there is no undercurrent of Cold War to try to hide from little eyes and ears. I don’t have to deal with the grief of loss, whether I’ve lost my lover or just the love of our relationship.

Of course not all sole parenting set-ups are tense like that, but so many are, or can become so. And even when the parents remain good friends there can be uncertainty and vulnerability. New partners (and possibly new children) can throw a careful balance off. What if one parent needs to move away and the other will lose access as a result?

This is all very different from my situation. Yes I get the nights (and days) when I’m the only adult around, and that’s why we have a cat so I can (absurdly) feel like there is another grown up person in the house. But I have the emotional support, the financial support, and the parenting support right there when I need it, usually as close as if he was just working long hours in the same city.

And, crucially, I know that there will be a time when he’s around again. In fact it’s in my diary, and his, and coloured orange for Family, so everyone knows it’s there. I always have an answer to the questions “where’s Daddy?” and “when will I see Daddy again?”

Unlike an actual solo mum, no one looks at me and assumes I’m “breeding for a business” (which is so hateful and so wrong). I don’t have to worry about work tests, or dread my child’s birthday because it means our entitlements change. I can be a stay-at-home parent or work outside the home if I choose with no more than the usual background level of patriarchal bullshit.

So while I appreciate the solidarity often expressed by people telling me I am practically a solo mum, it’s not accurate.

To call me a solo mum minimises the reality of those actually doing it alone. Many people have fellow parents who travel for work or do super long hours, meaning the bulk of parenting and household management falls mostly on one rather than shared between them. It simply is not sole parenting. There is another parent around, we’re in a romantic relationship and quite often we even manage to have a family dinner at the table with everyone there.

I have huge respect for those who are parenting alone. Parenting is a hard job even when you have a co-pilot, as I do. The added complications and stresses of flying solo (non-stop or long-distance) are real.

That complexity should be seen and acknowledged, both socially and by our collective support structures, such as Work and Income. We decide as a community to set these things up to help, and then we punish people for seeking that help, which just makes things worse. I’m glad there’s a compassionate Minister of Social Development, who has been a solo mum, now driving positive change; it gives me hope.

One thing that I suspect I do have in common with solo parents, and in fact it is by no means unique to those with kids, is that I just keep going. People often say to me “I don’t know how you do it”, unironically. I know exactly how I do it – with the resources brought by privilege, which is really just luck.

Those who keep going without those advantages, arohanui to you especially. Long may you succeed in your genuine sole parenting efforts, and may our society and our culture recognise and support your mahi properly if not now, then very very soon indeed.

Julie Fairey is a local government politician married to a central government politician. Together they are raising three kids.

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