Single mother.

The words may conjure images that are neither reflective nor encompassing of the reality. If you were to think “cold, detached career woman who has neglected her children in the pursuit of her own self-interest, paycheck, and career,” or “ragged, lazy, mooching-off-of-someone-else’s-paycheck occupier of the sofa and faithful reality TV viewer,” or maybe a combination of both or somewhere in between, you’d be off. Being a single mother is knowing all too well the stretch of being pulled in 15 different directions at once.

In the morning, I exist as a student. My day begins at 4am when I jump out of bed, hurrying to turn off the alarm blaring out of my iPhone before it wakes my sleeping children. I tiptoe out of the dark bedroom that the three of us share and prepare myself for a morning of productivity (or at least, that’s the goal). The next stop is the kitchen for coffee and whatever breakfast is the fastest to prepare and consume. I complete and submit the day’s assignments to my professors and take half a second to breathe before my second shift begins.

Once the kids wake up, I exist as Mom. I give good-morning hugs, lay out the day’s clothing, pack lunchboxes, serve breakfast, and hurry everyone out the door so we’re not late to school for the second time this week. This is the part of my day that brings me the most joy. No matter how many times the same routine is repeated, I continue to be in awe of these little humans that follow me around everywhere and call me Mom.

After school drop-off comes the rush to catch my train, where I exist as a writer. Believe it or not, the MTA can be an excellent makeshift office for the writer-in-training — if you can find a seat, that is. My two-hour commute to campus is spent brainstorming ideas for new pieces or improving and expanding the ones I already have. If I’m not writing, I’m engrossed in the latest book I’m reading.

On campus, I’m back to being a student again, and a darn good one, thank you very much. My hand raised in every class, classroom discussions are my favorite. As a student of international studies, there is never a shortage of theories to grapple with, current events to analyze, or debates to (respectfully) hash out in class.

After a day’s worth of studies, a downtown A train takes me to Amnesty International, where I exist as intern. There, I scurry around my desk in an effort to complete the tasks I’m focusing on that week. Phone calls, emails, meetings, brainstorming — all in a day’s work and for some of the best causes. I’m blessed to call it my place of work.

Another hop onto the train and I’m headed home for the day. For a brief moment I exist as daughter when I pick my children up from my mother’s — their grandmother’s — house, checking in to make sure she is doing well and has everything she needs. Then I’m back in mom mode, with after-school snacks, homework help, pretend games, puzzles, Legos, and more. This is usually followed by bath time and bedtime stories, at which point I transition back into student mode to go through the readings I need to be prepared to discuss for tomorrow’s classes. And the next morning, the cycle starts again.

The reality of single motherhood is living with society’s insistence that we are incomplete without that one last piece of the puzzle we’re always told we are lacking, be that a job, a partner, or whatever else is on the menu of deprecation for the day. It is the tendency for granola bars and caffeinated beverages to become your lifeline. It is mom guilt: that pesky little thought that you are always, somehow, falling short. It is the combination and juggling of all these roles, with their responsibilities and expectations, into one very tired woman. And it is experiencing all of that alone.

My life is hectic, there is no doubt about that. Beyond the roles I play in my daily life, I also occasionally cameo as older sister, ex-wife, and friend, among other things, every day. I exist at an intersection of sorts; as a Muslim American woman living in New York City in a post-9/11 world, the parts that make up my identity can too easily feel like they are at odds with one another, and adding “single mother” to the mix makes for an extra kick. To my right is the Muslim community, with all its demands of what I should be, how I should raise my children, and how I should live my life, and to my left are the Western notions of what freedom, success, and living well looks like.

And there I am in between, this person standing somewhere in the middle who is a part of both and none at the same time, eagerly trying to fulfill all requirements that both sides have for her. Early on, my head would constantly swing left to right and back again in an effort to satisfy all demands, to be everything I was expected to be and more, often at the expense of my own best interest.

Then these two beautiful little humans who call me Mom came to mind. And I realize that there is a lesson for them in everything I do. I think back to all the lectures I’ve given them about being all of themselves, unapologetically and openly, and understand that if I don’t model that, they won’t learn it.

Through them, I’ve learned the importance of putting down roots where I stand and allowing myself to grow there, uninhibited by the demands for conformity echoing all around me. I’ve learned that in order to give the best me I possibly can to my children, I had to allow myself to exist completely as I am, marvelously and completely with all of my flaws and accept myself as such. And, moreover, to celebrate myself for it.

So, sometimes my family doesn’t fit society’s mold of what it is to be “right,” or “correct.” And that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, this parenting thing? No one is doing it “right.” “Right” is a myth.

(Photo via Getty)