The most important choices I have made in my life have not felt much like choices at all. They have been the moments when no matter which way I looked, there was no way out. My greatest “rock and hard place” experience came by way of a divorce within months of my daughter’s birth. Becoming a single mother at 25 was up there with the top 10 painful plot twists I could imagine in the story of my life. Having always hoped and dreamed of becoming a mother, the imagined scenario never involved shared custody.

When people would see me out alone and ask where the baby was, I recall feeling a mixture of rage and shame. The answer was simple: Not. With. Me. Even though that is where I felt she should be. In her absence, I wondered if it made me less of a mother. A non-mother. Half-mother.

The truth came in trickles, moments of clarity clouded by times of fear and sadness. Whether I liked it or not, I was not living my dreamed-for motherhood. I might take this much-longed-for-child to the park, but there would never be a partner waiting at the bottom of the slide as I sent her down from the top. The realization that came was that it was never really about what I had wanted it to be…it was what I was going to make of it. I didn’t have a single moment of enlightenment. It has been more like 10 years of daily choices to accept the gift of single motherhood as it is.

Early on in my parenthood journey I learned the lesson that life had to be about more than my child. And her life had to be about more than me. She was not there to make me into a mother. In fact, my ability to tolerate the time apart was what would make me into the kind of mother I wanted to be. Someone who loves her enough to give her space and loves myself enough to have my own identity. I imagine these are lessons my friends will learn as they send their children off to college, I had to learn them when I packed up her diaper bag for “daddy time”. There is a certain freedom that comes when we we realize there is not one way to live or parent. It lets us be and grow as we are.

I am not a half-mother. I am the only mother I know how to be.

I am not saying I would have wished for this scenario. There is a special kind of sadness we single parents know. It creeps up on holidays without our children, saying goodnight over the phone or realizing there is an entire world she experiences that I don’t know. But, if we choose, I believe we can also know a special kind of joy. It comes in choosing to let go of the “it was supposed to be” moments and, instead embracing the “this is how it is” reality.

This means I can hold my head high when you ask me where my daughter is. I am (mostly) not embarrassed that there are times I can’t or don’t see her. I used to fantasize about parents who could see their child whenever they wanted. No schedule. No sharing. Now I dream of being totally at peace with this increasingly common way of parenting.

I am not a half-mother. I am not an un-mother. I am the only mother I know how to be. Which means staring this plot twist in the face and declaring, “Okay, I will show up.” On my “on” days I’m really “on”. I savour moments most parents might not even notice. I remember when my daughter, then 3 years old, woke up at 4:00 am with the stomach flu. “Thank God,” I thought. “I get to clean up and hold her. I get to have this parenting moment.” Normal. Mundane. Not fun. A gift. I’d have it no other way. And on my “off” days I’m really “off”. I’ve travelled, run (half) marathons, went back to school and slept 8 hours some nights.

This “show up” capacity is wired right into our DNA and dates back to Mt. Sinai.

It seems there’s this “show up” capacity wired right into our DNA. It dates back to Mt. Sinai when the Jewish people were offered the Torah. Without really grasping its contents we said “Okay, we’re in.” Yes, it contained all the wisdom for living, but we didn’t know what that meant. In that moment we had one choice to make: show up. By declaring as a people “we will do and we will understand,” we accepted the Torah, even if it didn’t all make sense yet or wasn’t the way we’d dreamed of it unfolding. We trusted that the understanding would come.

In the dark “I’d rather not be here” moments of our lives, we too can receive the Torah. It’s really in our hands to say, “I don’t get this, but I’m going to do my best, and some day, I’ll understand.” It takes trusting that God-size gifts come in plot twist packages.

Today, I am working on receiving the Torah of single parenthood. Some days are better than others. But most of the time I am able to choose life as it is – messy, imperfect but mine to receive. When I wonder about my mother status, I no longer worry about half-mothering. I know this is an “all in” kind of job. So I simply show up and say, “I will do and I will understand.”