Long before I became a single mother, I quietly envied them. When friends separated from their partners, I felt admiration and awe. These women were reclaiming the life that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t create with the father of their children.
So when single motherhood became the only viable option for me, leaving the family home with my two young sons, I wasn’t fazed. It wasn’t plan A, and it’s a letdown, sure. There’s inevitable financial pressure along with the crushing disappointment of a dream thwarted, the self-recrimination for not being able to save your family. But I was never worried about what other people thought of me.
I’m in good company.
Single-parent households are the fastest growing family group in Australia – the vast majority led by women. The paths through which they arrive here are as divergent as their circumstances: separation, divorce, death, or choosing to have babies on their own.
Yet, there’s a binding theme: one of resilience and growth.
Single motherhood is high stakes, relentless and, at times, achingly lonely. But it can also be profoundly liberating. When you’re raising children on your own or as a co-parent, there’s nowhere to hide. We don’t get to pass the baton when another adult walks in the door. It’s an invitation to step up and be the mum and the woman you aspire to be.
I’m not the person I was before. I’ve doubted myself – my eligibility and my essence – and had many sleepless nights fretting over my ability to pull this off. But along the way, I’ve softened and been emboldened, gaining the strength I didn’t realise was lacking until I needed to call on it.
This is the side of single mothers I wanted to share in my book The Single Mother’s Social Club: stunningly capable, big-hearted warriors taking on the role of their lives. Whether it was the plan or not.
The solo mother by choice
Alexandra Collier: Mother to a son (aged 22 months)
It was when Alexandra Collier was in her mid-thirties, a playwright living in New York, that she first developed “baby hunger”, a way to describe her deep longing for a child. After separating from her long-term partner because he wasn’t ready to have kids and she was unable to find anyone who was (anyone she wanted to build a life with anyway), she decided to “pull the trigger” and have a baby via donor sperm. “My reproductive timeline was out of sync with my romantic life,” she says.
Alexandra admits she had to “grieve” for her dream of having a baby with someone else. “So many women have this dream, which I’ve been inculcated with since childhood: that I would meet the person who I was going to spend my life with and we would have children together. It was very hard to relinquish that because it’s appealing to share the making and raising of a child with another person.”
At the age of 39, after choosing an anonymous donor on the internet, Alexandra underwent IUI and fell pregnant during the first procedure. When her son was born, all her reservations about solo motherhood instantly dissipated.
“It’s taken away a lot of that stuff because there’s so much daily incremental joy and love in having a child. There’s a huge amount of acceptance for women who have children. If you have a kid, you’re instantly in the club. But you’ve got to surround yourself with people who accept your mode of family making.”
Alexandra is proud to call herself a “solo mum” (“it sounds purposeful”) and is open about her son being conceived via anonymous donor. After watching several friends separate or have problems in their relationships, she’s grateful that will never be an issue for her.
But she’ll also never have a co-parent to share the load. Like many solo parents, Alexandra relies heavily on her family for support. “My family have become kind of co-parents to some degree. They’re very integrated in our life and we check in all the time. You’ve got to use all the modes of help that you can and not pretend that you’re not.”
She also occasionally pays for a babysitter to catch up with friends, or go on a date, and says she’s never felt less alone.
“It’s given me such a sense of groundedness and purpose to my life that I’m less lonely than when I was worrying about finding someone to have a kid with. The best thing about it is, I wanted something and I went after that thing on my own and I got it. And that thing is not just any thing. I got a child and that is life-changing and miraculous. So that is very happy making.”
Aisha Novakovich: Mother to two sons (aged 17 and 13)
Aisha Novakovich was seven months pregnant with her second baby and in the middle of her second uni degree when her husband left suddenly. At the time, she didn’t think she could go on.
“I fell into a hole of darkness – it was the loss of the dream of having a family,” she says. “I felt like I lost part of my own soul. Even though my husband wasn’t always present, I thought having someone there would be better than having no-one at all.”
But Aisha, who had been married since age 19, soon found out she was far more capable than she realised. Now she juggles her career as a lawyer with running her Muslim fashion platform, Modest Fashion Australia, and its retail arm, Secret Sky, while raising her two sons, aged 13 and 17.
It’s easier now her boys are teenagers, but it’s been tough going along the way. “When you’re a single mum, you have to be the nurturer and the breadwinner, and often your self-care and dreams are sacrificed in the process. You have to do your best to ensure your children’s needs are met, that they always feel safe and loved.”
She credits her Muslim faith for her drive to set an example for her sons. “My community reminded me to put my faith in God and not to lose hope. I wanted to show my boys I could do it. Also, a bit of poverty and struggle vaccinates them against arrogance. It’s been instrumental to their growth.”
Yet her strength has also been a handicap. “I learnt to be incredibly self-sufficient, which is not always a good thing because it blocks you from receiving. There were times when I had to move house and I didn’t have money and I had people saying, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’”
Aisha admits she’s had to make career sacrifices – “You can’t do world domination and look after a sick child at the same time,” she laughs – but says the experience has shaped her.
“I wear my single-mum title like a badge of honour. Because whatever I have achieved, I did it on my own. Being a single mum has given me the killer instinct, which I use in business and in life. It’s also taught me to be more forgiving and compassionate and show kindness because I’ve been through the darkness.”
Kelly Exeter: Mother to a son and daughter (aged 12 and eight)
Kelly Exeter was married to her soulmate, Anthony, for 14 years. Their life was on a trajectory of familial bliss when a freak road accident in January 2019 took her husband’s life, turning her world instantly upside down. Kelly was left to raise their two kids, aged five and nine at the time, on her own.
“It was a solid two years before the reality sunk in that this was going to be my life forever. That Ant wasn’t ever coming back,” she says. “I felt like we were still co-parenting at first. Every decision I made, I knew exactly what he would have thought. But as the kids grow older, I’m less certain. Those are the confronting moments where I realise that as much as I’d like to still think we’re raising them together, it’s really all on me now.”
Kelly describes reverting to a state of “numbness” in order to cope with her family’s sudden change in circumstances, conscious of shielding her kids from own profound grief.
“If I let myself fall into despair, that’s not good for the kids, who look to me to set the tone for how to proceed,” she says. “There was no choice but to hold it together and set an example for them for how we were going to approach life in the face of this terrible event. If there is one thing that’s kept me going, it’s holding us all to a standard of behaviour that Ant would be proud of. That’s been a guiding principle for me.”
The other big transformation Kelly has had to make is to get comfortable with accepting help in managing the “relentlessness” of solo parenting. “As someone who’s usually the helper, it’s been a big adjustment to be the one needing help. I struggle with that on an identity level. But I’ve absolutely had to lean heavily on friends, family and paid help to manage the logistics. I find the emotional load of holding myself together all the time while also being available to tend to my kids’ significant emotional needs a tough one to execute. I know I’m doing a good job, but it takes a huge toll and I’m constantly having to conserve my energy to cope.”
While she’s still coming to terms with being a single mother, Kelly admits she’s “hugely proud” of the way her kids are turning out. She’s proud of herself too for her part in that. But her greatest transformation is in finding herself again, the woman she’s becoming after life changed course.
“I’m still trying to figure out who I am now that I’m not part of Team Kel and Ant. I thought I had a strong self-identity that transcended our relationship. But a huge part of my identity was built on the foundations of my husband’s love and support. And while I still feel I have those things on a spiritual level, it’s not the same as having them in real life.”
This is an edited extract from The Single Mother’s Social Club (Murdoch Books, $32.99), by Jacinta Tynan.