The first time I saw my mother, and maybe you

by Janelle Hanchett

He sat at our kitchen table, wrapping presents. The kids had finally gone to bed. We did the hot chocolate tradition and ate spaghetti like always and they opened their one Christmas Eve gift: pajamas. I bought them matching ones last year, because I guess I’ve become that mother.

the pajamas in question

the pajamas in question

Sometimes I surprise myself with my cheesy parenting. I do things now I never would have done at 22, when my first child was born. Too cool, I guess. Above that nonsense.

As I get older I find myself moving beneath it all.

At one point while I made us some tea he looked over at me and I felt connected to him in a way that stopped and silenced me, together on this Christmas Eve, a whole pile of gifts yet to be wrapped, kids in matching pajamas sleeping on the floor in the bedroom, the baby in our bed. The surprise. Their faces. The gifts we saved and planned for.

Our 4th child born that June. Six months old. The first Christmas of our last child.

I thought of the years we’ve wrapped presents together, of the 14 times or so, with one two three now four little sleeping beings in the house. Maybe one year we were apart. Maybe a couple we fought. Maybe a few I was drunk.

Now we’re just here.

Sometimes it irritates me how stupid moments give me the most insight. The banal, meaningless ticks of my life move on and on, and then they just stop ticking, and I’m there, here, new. It was a stupid leaf blower that made me realize I was a slave to alcohol.

It was looking at my husband on a Christmas Eve that made me see my mother for the first time.


I saw my mom in her bedroom alone, wrapping gifts while my brother and I slept soundly, oblivious to her hands. I saw her writing “Santa” on the tags, sorting the pile she created herself. When? When could she buy the gifts? When were we not there?

I saw her carry each gift under the tree, sure we were asleep, sure it was enough. The lights, the paper, the bows. They fell into the middle of the room and glistened. I wonder if she stopped and looked and smiled, the way he and I do, when it’s all done and we see it all and anticipate and hug each other, right before bed.

Though I saw her crawl into bed alone, and rise when my brother and I did, oblivious again to the hours, hands, thought, writing and preparing.

I wonder if she missed a friend. I wonder if she missed my dad. Or her mom. I wonder if she wished there was somebody to share it with. Somebody who would care as much as her. Our eyes. Our jumping up and down. Our glee and delight and joy. The tiny expressions. The things only she and my dad would notice.

We lacked nothing. We wanted nothing. We knew no empty because our mother was there.

We took and took and took, as kids do. We just felt what she created, breathed it in without a thought: home, life, Christmas. We never wondered how it got there. We never questioned how it appeared.


You. You are how it appeared.

And I don’t think I ever saw you before, fully, mom, before that day, when I looked at my husband and felt the warmth and love and energy between us and thought how Christmas had become as much our tradition TOGETHER as it did something we did for our kids, and how many glances do we throw to one another each year? How many? A hundred? A thousand? How many times do we send a knowing smile to each other when she is about to open that one gift? Or we see them dance. Act silly. Hug each other.

Or just watch them being them, really, when the beauty of the moment and tradition and family comes barreling into the room in all its sacredness and MY GOD somebody must see this with me. I can’t be the only one.

And I am not.

But she was. And maybe you are.

And I understand a little now what that means.


And now, I see you again, mom, a few months after Christmas Eve. Now that my husband is gone 5 or 6 days a week and I’m alone most days nights and mornings. It’s all on me when he’s gone.

And I see it’s not just the Christmases.

It’s the little freaking things. It’s the little, everyday, every moment things. It’s every breakfast and lunch and dinner. Every trip to the store. Every event every school paper every early release every tantrum every sick kid every swim practice every this and every that. Every conversation diaper change bath. Every appointment. Every bill due yesterday.

Every fire. Put it out. Get up. Do it again.


at my college graduation

And when the baby waves for the first time it’s just the kids and me. Nobody in the world cares as much as I do. In that second there’s nobody else to see, laugh, freak out. I wish he were here. I take a picture and share it.

But it’s not the same.

But I get a break when he comes back, so I don’t know what it was like for you or the hundred thousand women and men alone right now with the baby who just crawled, or walked, or graduated. I don’t know what it’s like for my friend who lost her husband one night, stolen from the home and bed they shared with their baby girls. My best friend who raised her son and two brothers alone for 18 years.

I don’t know what it’s like for you single mothers and fathers, but for a few minutes lately I’ve been feeling what you do, and I was damn near crushed under the weight of your strength, determination, love and almost insane fucking bulldog tenacity, because there is no choice and no other way, and the kids need to live, know, know you’re there, know it’s okay, know it’s home. It comes rolling out beneath and around them and they don’t even wonder from where. From whom. From when.

They just get to be. You give them that. How the hell do you do it?


Someday I hope they see you, too.

And write a note or send a line that says “thanks.” Or better yet, show up. Open their eyes. Give it back.

I never quite saw you, mom, the hundred thousand times I didn’t need to, because you were air to me, everywhere, unquestioned, unmoved and unmovable.

I took a breath and you were there.

On Christmas Eve, and the day after, when only the mess remained.

I take a breath and you are here.

I see you now, though. Everywhere.


hey, mom, thanks.

33 Comments | Posted in Sometimes, I'm all deep and shit..... | March 24, 2015
  • Dawn

    Thank you, Janelle for thinking of us single parents. I have only found your blog recently and I have enjoyed your posts and felt moved by yhem as you communicate so eloquently things I would struggle to be aware of or put into words. I don’t want a competition around who has it most tough (!) but thanks for your awareness and compassion. Warm wishes to you xxx

  • Espy

    Wow, I needed that, thank you so much, just beautiful. Being a single parent for 15+ years was relentlessly difficult but no one really cared. Till now. I think there should be a Single Parents Day – so single Moms could have yet one more day in the year to be neglected and forgotten! (Grrr, I hate Mother’s Day.)

  • Caroline

    You’ve moved me to tears (again!) and I’ll be sharing this with my lovely friend who lost her partner when their baby was only ten months old.

  • loudwheeldog

    It’s staggering to think of it. Especially since you and I can only glimpse, since we are not ever a single parent, even when our husbands are away for days, they are still supporting us, still involved, will still be there on christmas eve, still care the most in the world not just about the moments and the kids but about us. To be truly the only one.. I can’t even grasp it. I think also there are people who are divorced who have joint custody, where each parent is as involved and invested as the other, I don’t think that ever should be referred to as “single parent” cause each really isn’t, it’s not the same as truly and only 1, always and for everything with no other in sight. That is just so immense.

    I agree with you, it is the most mundane, insane moments that bring the strangest, truest clarity; and you said it so beautifully.

  • Erika

    Thank you for this. I really needed it today. I am truly a single mother and it is the absolute most difficult thing I’ve ever done. My soon-to-be ex is a drug addict so he has zero presence in our kids’ lives at the moment (his decision). I’ll admit that I’m a little bit jealous of friends whose kids visit dad every other weekend. I don’t get that little bit of rest and time to myself. I know that I make mistakes with my kids out of my current pain and sadness over my situation but I hope that they’ll realize that I tried my very best to do this alone and that both will be proud of how I handled it. Trying to be strong for my children who have lost (only temporarily, I hope) their father doesn’t leave much time for me to mourn the loss of my husband and best friend. We’re just supposed to suck it up and march on. Thank you for recognizing that it’s not that simple.

  • erintheamazon

    My sister’s husband is about to deploy for a full year and her kids are going to be crushed. She will struggle but her kids will be crushed. I hate this for her and for them, as a year seems so long with no chance of seeing him more than six days over that 365. And people do this all the time, for years on end. It doesn’t help her now, or them, but we know it can be done and you put your head down and do it. I’m sending her this. XOXOXO

  • Katie

    The first time I felt my baby girl move in the womb, I was in bed, my Australian Cattle Dog, Daisy beside me. She laid in bed next to me in the place my spouse laid, my spuse who had died several weeks before that day. It was a reflex. He wasn’t there.

    There are so many moments…the first step, word, or tantrum that I always imagined we would share together. And then there’s that over-arching pain that no matter how hard I try, work, love her, I will never be able to give her a relationship with her father. She will never have her own relationship with him. It will always be muddled by the thoughts and filters of those who loved him.

    The parenting part is not so bad-the day in and day out. It’s the vulnerability of being alone of this child’s life being totally dependent on me alone (better not fuck things up Katie). It’s the night after night of having no one there to laugh with. That’s the hard part.

  • Blaire

    Thank you. I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks. On so many occasions I have had these same thoughts. Being a single mother is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I never blink an eye at what I have to do for my boys, but I hope with everything I am, that it is enough. When my boys do something wonderful or beautiful or simply normal, there is no one with me to share the joy that is reserved for parents. I wouldn’t change my choices for they brought me my loves, but I feel guilt over what my boys might miss out on. So again thank you for your acknowledgement. It’s always nice to know that I am not alone.

  • Corinne Knight

    Thanks…I needed that today….and many days!

  • Laura

    Every time I think about how hard this parenting thing is, I stop and wonder how the hell the single parents do it. This was a fabulous piece- and one I only got to read because daddy came home from work and I got a break.

  • katy allred

    crying. no words. authentic and beautiful. hey Mommy, I love you. thanks, for everything.

  • emk

    wow. this was beautiful, thank you!

    i am a single mother by choice of a one year old and currently trying for #2 (i may be crazy…it’s also not nearly as much fun to get knocked up when it requires clinic visits, never-ending needles, and an arsenal of doctors). balancing my first year of being a parent with working full time has been challenging now and again, but so damn awesome i can’t sleep most days because i’m so giddy. there has been a handful of times when i’ve felt a little twinge of sadness – i have this little person in my life is super amazing and fantastically adorable and i am the only one that gets to enjoy him. i don’t think it will always be that way, but if it is, well, it is.

  • Carrie

    That was so beautifully written. Moved to tears.

  • Beck

    Yeah, it’s super hard alone. Not only the relentless, decision weary, never a spare set of hands in the middle of the night when every last clean sheet in your home has been puked on and/or you have to go to the ER. Not only the not having anyone else to get as excited over the first tooth, first step, birthday presents, funny things they say. But also how much people can be assholes to single moms. People hate single moms. I don’t use that word lightly. Not everyone – but A LOT of people do.

    Becoming a mother has been an eye opening, beautiful, difficult, amazing, lucky, exhausting rite of passage. Seeing how much some people look down on me for being a solo parent is an absolutely needless, senseless slap in the face. All it does is make life harder. (This is the part you don’t get a glimpse of when you are parenting alone temporarily). Thanks for putting a different narrative out there with this post. If you were my daughter this would be a pretty life-fulfilling moment! Your mom sounds awesome. Thanks for all you write.

  • Libby

    That made me teary 🙁 … because I do miss having someone to share the exact things you are talking about. Before we separated my daughter’s dad was happy to go to bed and let me stay up doing the wrapping etc whereas I wanted it to be a shared experience – just as you described. My boys’ dad was the same – seemed I chose men who would rather go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep rather than sharing an experience.

    So now I do everything alone mostly, although my 21 and 16 year old sons help with the wrapping and filling the Santa Sacks once we are sure my 8 year old daughter is fast asleep. And they are gorgeous boys and have sort of become a fill in but of course it is not anywhere the same as having my own person to share life’s ups and downs with.

    Thank you for your words – it is a nice feeling to know that somebody does ‘get it’. Being a single parent isn’t a lot of fun – we miss out on a lot of the little things 🙂

  • bel

    That made me teary.. I’m too far away from my mum and although she didn’t do it alone, she still did it all. And i think no matter how or who or what, you all do the best that you can do.. and if you do it well (i don’t mean results, but love and care) then all of you will always be forever in the air around your children.. because you made us and you gave us everything. I’m not religious at all.. but if anyone gave anyone a rib.. it was all you mums to your kids.. you gave yourselves so we could be. So on behalf of your children, whether they say it one day or not, and on behalf of your husband, who probably wishes he could be with you every day, thank you..

  • Ashley McEntire

    Thank you for this post, Janelle. As I read your piece I felt seen and it moved me to tears. A good solid stream. The depth of your gratitude and recognition of your mom is beautifully written and this piece makes me feel encouraged about the life I’ve carved out for my 3-year-old- twin sons as a single mom! I love your writing! Still smiling about ashram people.

  • Jo Eberhardt

    You made me cry. Again.

    I’m a single mother of two boys — their dad see sthem “when he can”, which usually equates to once a month, although he behaves more like a babysitter than a parent. There are challenges. It’s exhausting. But, you know what? You hit on the hardest part in all your eloquent glory.

    The hardest part is not having anyone to exchange glances with.

    The hardest part is watching your child do something amazing — something mind-blowingly awesome, like reading for the first time, or setting the table without being asked — and you have no one to share it with. No one who will experience that same sense of pride and love and feel tears prickle behind their eyes.

    That. That right there is the hardest part of being a single parent.

    Thank you.

  • Mary

    Thank you. I am just going to pretend you wrote this for me.

  • Shay

    Wow. Another insightful, honest post. This really hit home for me, not because I am a single parent but because I was raised by a single parent. It is so true that I have never acknowledged or knew the strength of my mom and all that she did for my sister and I, until, I too became a parent. What really struck me though and something I’ve never thought of before was what it was like for my mom to not have someone share those special moments, those glances of knowing or laughter when our kids do something. And how lonely that might have felt.

    Again, thank you for challenging me to think in a different way, with a new perspective.

  • Emily

    Wow, I’m just going to leave a space here for all my feelings that I can’t put into words.

    Also, Georgia looks SO MUCH like you! Ava looks like a college professor in her photo on the back of her latest book, I think Rocket looks like Mac but I’m not sure, and Arlo is adorably squidgy! Your mom is beautiful and radiant.

  • Robin

    Beautiful. Thank you, Janelle.

  • twos company threes too loud

    Another beautifully articulated piece. It never fails, every time I read your words, I’m left with the incredibly comforting feeling of ‘my god, I’m not the only one who feels/thinks this way’. They are thought provoking too, your words, and while I’m not sure how you manage to find the time to so selflessly share them with us, I’m damn sure glad you do.

    Question…(perhaps you’ve already addressed this and I’ve missed it) have you considered writing an autobiography?

  • Julene

    What a nice tribute to your mom and other parents out there doing it alone. Even makes me stop and think about times my mom has been there without me thinking and when I’ve been there for my littles. Thanks!

  • Jenna

    I absolutely adore you and your writing. Your thoughts mirror many of my own since becoming a mother! Thanks so much for sharing such excellent writing, and for your honesty! All the best <3

  • Melanie

    Beautiful. I’m going to print this out for my mom, who was always like “air to me”.

  • Nj housewife


  • LaToya

    This was moving, I felt every word.

  • Single Mama

    After reading the comments, I’d like to point out something that no one else has mentioned. While this piece IS beautiful and GREATLY appreciated, it hits a raw nerve–at least with me, perhaps I’m vain.

    YOU managed to do what no one else has done for me recently: leave your awe open-ended, and for that I am sincerely impressed. As a single mom of four, many people will spend a week, a month, a year without their partners and will say things to me like, “This single mom thing is HARD!” or “Oh, I did the single mom thing while my husband deployed–that’s a tough lifestyle…” And while these people MEAN well (and I recognize that), I still want to shake them.

    It is not the same people. Because regardless HOW long it was, you had a light at the end of your tunnel. You had a day where you knew help was coming. You had someone you could count on giving a damn about YOUR well being when they came home. I don’t have that, and I’m okay with it. And I am not so naïve to believe my life “harder” than anyone else’s. But trying my shoes on is far from taking a step in them. Much less walking in them day in and day out.

    Please, I am NOT trying to be a dick. I like my life, I wouldn’t have it another way. It is perfect for my children and I. But the comparison to me is something along the lines of “I drive fast on the highway, so I’m pretty much Richard Petty.”

    I hope, Janelle and readers, that you are able to appreciate an alternative angle–even if it is only my skewed view.

    • renegademama

      That’s how life is, right? Nobody CAN walk in anybody else’s shoes. All we can hope for is an open mind and empathy, and if a woman’s husband or man’s wife is deployed for a year, I’m pretty sure they have a decent taste of “single parenthood” and deserve all the accolades and awe, just like of any of us. We’re all fighting the good fucking fight. It’s not “difficulty olympics,” is it? Who has it worse? Let’s all one-up each other to see WHO HAS IT THE HARDEST! Nope. I don’t want to play, and yet it seems where most of these conversations end up (in general, on the internet. I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing.).

      We could play the “my case is different and therefore you don’t understand” game ALL FREAKING DAY. Where do we end up? Nowhere.

      Nobody will ever “understand” us completely — our struggles and fights and difficulties — we’ve all got our own. My experience of having all the responsibilities on me all day and all night – even if it is only 5-6 days/week and absolutely NOT the same as a full-time single parent or somebody without a partner at all, has opened my eyes to how hard that must be, and given me a new level of compassion for single parents. I’m pretty sure that’s all we can really ask for. The one-upping game just pushes people away, alienates and results in less compassion, connection and support.

      But yes. I absolutely agree that we should not assume we KNOW the struggles of another, either, as if it’s all the same. 🙂 thank for commenting.

  • KIM

    I saw several of my friends post this article and I was scared to read it. Scared because I knew it would hold so many pieces that would make me cry and make me feel validated some how at the same time. Being a parent is tough and amazing and crazy. Being a newly single widower with two girls is bananas. But we all do it. We figure it out, we find little wins and we find the beauty in the every day.

  • Jacques Owen

    That was really amazing as we all known with the fact that parenting is never been easy; it requires huge level of patience and dedication. And in case of single parent we can’t imagine how much effort we are going to put on it. For a single mother it is really tough to start the journey of parenting; but still in this post we have found huge level of dedication and I really appreciate the strength of being single parent.

  • Kelly

    Made me cry. All so true ❤️