I saw it in her face. It was the first time I saw that look, but it was as familiar to me as the sound of my own voice. She felt unloved, irrelevant, afraid that she didn’t matter to me. It was twisting up behind her eyes as they filled with tears. I asked her what was wrong and she tried to say something, but it caught in her throat. She choked on the words. She’s learning to swallow her pain, hold it back, keep it to herself because she won’t get what she needs if she asks for it. It was the first time I truly saw myself in my daughter.

I’m trying to figure out how to be a single-parent. I’ve been doing it for almost a year, but it still feels entirely new and I feel like a constant failure. (To be honest, I felt like this a lot when I wasn’t a single-parent, but now there just seems to be more weight on my short-comings.) I’ve had a boyfriend for the last six months, and it’s been tough to integrate him into my life with her. Not because of him. He’s a dad to three boys and incredibly easy-going and understanding. He’s a better parent than I am in his ability to be present with his kids.

What’s tough is watching her react to me with him. We aren’t overly affectionate in front of her, though we do kiss a little and hug. He never spends the night with her here (he barely spends the night when she’s not here, but that’s because I have deeply rooted intimacy issues, which I’ll tackle in another post). She talks about her dad a lot to him and clamors for my attention more, inserting herself right between us. She climbs in my lap when we’re eating, insists on sitting between us on the couch, and interrupts us constantly. Usually to talk about her dad.

It’s always an awkward dance between the three of us, and one that leaves me feeling drained and guilt-ridden. But this week things got raw. She pushed harder to get between us, which made me push back. She woke up in the middle of the night, climbed into bed with me and touched and poked me all night. I was so fed up with being harassed, I got in her bed to sleep. She just followed me into her room. By the end of the week, I was screaming at her in the kitchen at 6:00 AM because she wouldn’t fucking leave me alone. Every time I turn around, she’s there. I was feeling insane from exhaustion (emotional and physical) and trapped in this hell of just wanting a little something for myself and have that be ok with this little person who I have given everything to. Including staying in a marriage with her dad years beyond its expiration date.

What I saw in her face this week shook me to my core. It was me. It was 5-year-old me in my mother’s way as she was trying to find some freedom from the oppression of being a single mom. I can still taste that realization that I was an immovable obstacle to her happiness. By the time I was my daughter’s age, I knew so many things I shouldn’t have known. I knew I was a burden. I knew I was unsafe. I saw that creeping across her teary eyes this week when she kept pushing to get closer to me, looking for some spaces in me that still belonged to her. In that moment, I was both my mom and my daughter. I lived and relived all of that in the time it took me to wipe the tears off her cheek.

I saw my guru this week. (She’s trained as an energy psychologist, but she is also an intuitive who provides spiritual guidance, as well as practical advice for how to deal with this human condition. She has changed my life.) She told me that I was, in fact, avoiding spending focused time with my daughter because that’s what I had learned as a child. Somehow I already knew that, but when she told me, I came undone. She explained that’s why she is pushing back so hard, getting into bed with me, sitting between me and the boyfriend on the sofa. She gave me a plan of action, which includes regimented time with her at set times of the day (15 minutes right after day camp and a hour of play before dinner, bath, bed), as well as scheduled time that we are doing our own thing separately from each other.

Having time to yourself as a single-parent with one child, in particular, is a coveted experience, one we might cling to desperately and protect fiercely as the pressures of our obligations squeeze us. But my guru explained, and it’s really common sense, that kids can and should learn to play alone and respect boundaries. This is what will allow them to create their own as adults. And if she’s got all of me for designated times every day, she’ll be able to feel safety and comfort in her moments of scheduled solitude. And so will I.

I know there’s no formula for success with this stuff. Single-parent or otherwise. I felt grateful for having some guidance this week when I was experiencing so much pain about it. I think creating a plan is the best we can do and all we should expect for ourselves. And then we make mistakes and modify. And we can forgive ourselves. And our parents.