the smell of my desperation has become a stench

This blog about my life

For Kelly. Thank you, dear friend.


At the beginning of last September the girls’ father moved to New York. This impacted our lives in innumerable ways, but I am lucky and privileged to have an incredible support system that so many women (and men) in my position do not have. Yes, there are times when there is no fail-safe, and when the school calls to say that one of my kids is sick everything else in my life comes to a grinding halt. But even in those instances I’m privileged. I have a flexible schedule and can devote the rest of my day and the days after that to mending their fevers and soothing their coughs. So many single parents do not have that flexibility, and both they and their children are quite simply held hostage by the threat of unemployment.

I have in these last several months wanted to write about my experience, about the intense pressure that resulted when I began single parenting full time. I’ve wanted to reach out to other women who are faced with the same challenges that result in those times when there is no fail-safe, wanted to hear how they manage their time, how they schedule their lives, how often they have said quietly to themselves, “But I only have two hands.”

Some of my close friends have asked me why I haven’t written about it, and when I examine that question I play an involuntary game of The Pain Olympics. I absolutely hate it when other people do this, when someone jumps in to say that one level of discomfort is rendered void because it does not equal the level of discomfort experienced by someone else. It looks a lot like, “You can’t complain about your broken arm because my mom has cancer.”

But that’s exactly what I do inside my head when I want to pose questions to those of you who face this, to those of you who understand the complicated dynamics of this juggling act. Because who am I to call it a juggling act? My mother lives 30 minutes away and often watches my girls so that I can have an afternoon or even a whole night to myself. My cousin routinely steps in when I face deadlines and have to work a few hours on a weekend. I have a flexible full-time job. I live close enough to my girls’ school that we can walk and make it on time when my car won’t start. I have a fucking car.

And that’s not even a fraction of my privilege.

There are moments when I look at the enormity of what it takes to maintain the balance of this responsibility, and I feel irate on behalf of those who do not have a support system. Because if I’m feeling overwhelmed or frustrated it’s only because I was born into a position that lets me indulge even a moment of those emotions.


I had originally planned to write about a very specific moment I experienced as a mother with Leta in honor of her birthday yesterday and realized that it coincided with this huge change in our lives. At the beginning of September she had to start practicing and memorizing a 22-page piano concerto that she would eventually perform in front of three judges in the middle of November. This would be a daunting task for someone twice her age, so I understood the fear and anxiety she exhibited when confronted with this challenge. I do not use the word “challenge” lightly. This is the piece:

I have written before about the strategy I’ve employed to help Leta with her piano practice since her skill level long ago surpassed my own. I set a timer for 20 minutes and walk around the room while she gets through her pieces and then she gets a short break. We then go back and and she practices for another 20 minutes. Having me in the room is crucial not only because I can give her tips when I know what I’m talking about, but mainly for the reinforcement and comfort of my support.

Every weekday and at least one day on the weekend she practiced that concerto. And at first it was really rough. There were days when she’d sit on that bench and teeter on the brink of tears because she was convinced she’d never learn how to play it let alone memorize it. For most of September we both felt like we were pushing a giant boulder up a hill, two steps up and then we’d lose our balance. She’d learn two pages and then realize she had ten more to learn. Some days were better than others, but at the end of every practice she’d say, “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to memorize this.”

And every day I said back, “I know how you will.”

We continued pushing that rock throughout October, and in the days leading up to Halloween her teacher wanted her to have it memorized. She was panic stricken because she couldn’t seem to get past page 17 and 18 even though she knew the pages after those. That Wednesday I had her play page 17 and 18 over and over again, and each time she crashed. She couldn’t get through it. Again she’d try, and again she’d forget seven or eight measures here, four measures there. I finally told her she could walk away for the day and she completely broke down.

“I told you I wouldn’t ever be able to memorize this!” she blurted, her head buried in her hands. I walked over and rubbed her back, told her she needed to clear her mind a bit and that we’d try again tomorrow.

The following day when she sat down for the first 20-minute session I told her to take a deep breath and play the piece up to what she knew. I set the timer and started walking around the room listening to the exquisite relationship her fingers have with those keys. Leta feels music in her body, and when she plays you can see the notes coursing through her limbs. She’s so good. Her talent roars like opera through that instrument.

She continued playing and about halfway through the piece I looked at her to get a sense of her confidence. She wasn’t hesitating, wasn’t slowing down, and when she hit page 17 I don’t even think she realized where she was. She sailed through it, and then she nailed page 18. I stopped walking and stood directly behind her, my hands in the air as if calling a touchdown. Because I knew what was about to happen. Page 19 complete, page 20, page 21… page 22. When she pounded that magnificent last note she completely froze. Very slowly she turned around to find me standing there looking like some idiot referee.

“I… I…” she was trying to wrap her head around what had just happened. “I…I…”

“YOU WHAT?!” I said with my arms still in the air.

“I MEMORIZED IT?” she asked.




I MEMORIZED IT!” She hopped off the bench, took a running leap and jumped up with her entire body into my arms wrapping her legs around my waist.

A video posted by Heather B. Armstrong (@dooce) on

I stood there with her just like that for several seconds and didn’t even realize that I had closed my eyes, an involuntary and perhaps instinctual reaction, one that enabled me to silence myself enough to grasp the significance of that moment. Which is this: I like babies, they smell good and are very cute, but I very much prefer what it feels like as a parent to witness my child learning. Not learning how to sit up or hold a spoon or how to say a word. Those are all wonderful developments, of course, but being in the room as my child learns about being human is beyond any honor I could achieve in my life.

She soon jumped down and went around the house to announce to everyone what had just happened. She was so proud of herself, yes, but it says so much that the way she told Dane and Tyrant and even Marlo was this: “I have been working on this piece for two months AND I FINALLY MEMORIZED IT!”

She recognized the work. She understood that it required work.



Why did this moment lead me down the earlier path?

I don’t think this scenario is easily replicable. I am more than certain that there are legions of kids out there who have talent that could crush steel if only it had the chance to be fostered, if a parent could take 40 minutes of their afternoon and devote it to walking around a room. If they could afford the expensive teacher and books, if they could shuttle that child to and from the lesson every single week. But so many parents simply do not have the means.

Leta and I, we are so privileged, both born into a position where all of this is possible. Yes, both she and I worked for months. But we both had a head start.

Which is why I will not let her quit. Which is why those weeks of work and learning about the work are so important, more important than the recital or the judges. She was given this leg up in life by birth, and she needs to understand that even though things will be handed to her so much more easily and readily than to others, that in no way means she shouldn’t work her ass off to have earned it in the first place. In fact, this birthright requires of her as a human being that she work to earn it in an act of solidarity with those whose exact same work won’t.


  • Anna Cabrera

    2015/02/04 at 4:01 pm

    The reason to share your joy as well as your pain — despite the internet trolls and other kinds of hater — is that even though we are all “connected” we are in fact getting farther apart in real life. Every one’s pain matters, every one’s joy matters — and however we connect to the compassion we need for ourselves and others matters. Thank you for so often reaching deep to share with this community — even when it means talking about your privilege. Congratulations to you and Leta! It is an incredible accomplishment and an important lesson.

  • Stephanie

    2015/02/04 at 4:32 pm

    Good for her! It is amazing how much kids can accomplish. Can I add something? My daughter is in Leta’s class and has really enjoyed getting to know her better this year. As you already know, the material that they are covering in 5th grade is challenging…some of it is downright HARD (the math – oh my god). The fact that she accomplished this while also navigating through the intensity of 5th grade is even more impressive. Great job!

  • carrie

    2015/02/04 at 4:39 pm

    One time I was tearfully telling my mom about a problem I was having. I told her that I felt bad complaining about it because I knew of someone who had cancer, or some other much worse pain than mine. She told me “that doesn’t mean that your pain isn’t real for you”. And she made it ok for me to grieve and move on. I won’t forget it and I love her for it. Your pain is real for you, and it’s ok to share and grieve so we can all help each other heal together. It’s being human.

  • Jenna

    2015/02/04 at 4:43 pm

    Heather, read the comment above again please. And then again. Goooooooooooooooooooooooal!

  • Kim

    2015/02/04 at 5:03 pm

    Dammit I had to take like, 3 breaks while reading this to avoid being a sobbing mess at my desk. Beautifully shared, aptly stated.

  • Alexsulliv

    2015/02/04 at 6:44 pm

    I’m not a mother yet, nor from a single parent home, but this speaks volumes as to so many things I wanted to quit early on, but my mom refused to allow me to quit. Know you are doing a phenomenal job and both of your girls will end up the better for it. Kudos for acknowledging you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t by the internet – either way you are doing a superb job being a mom.

  • KC

    2015/02/04 at 6:47 pm

    Will you be my mother? My mom and dad were good parents. All our basic needs, food, shelter, clothing, were met. I am grateful for the nice, clean home I grew up in, and that my mom was such a fantastic cook. My sisters, brother and I had the privilege of attending good schools. But I oftentimes wonder where I would be today if I had the nurturing and guidance I longed for as a child. We were left to our own devices much of the time. As a result I made some really poor choices as a teenager, and got myself into some situations I never should have been in if someone would have taken the time to help me find what my interests were and fostered creativity. I was always envious of my friends that were given music lessons, or dance lessons or gymnastics. I always wanted to be a Girl Scout, but knew that my parents were busy and didn’t have the recourses available for those things. What you are giving your girls is the greatest gift of all. You are giving of YOURSELF! I truly believe that this is what will give them the confidence they need to find what makes them happy, and to find their way in the world.

    I am a single parent and remember that feeling of dread over having to call off work to stay home with my son when he would get sick. We somehow got through those years and it’s hard to believe that he is now in his second year of college and doing very well 🙂

  • michael from

    2015/02/04 at 6:53 pm

    I haven’t taken the time to comment in a long time, but I really loved this post. Glad y’all are well.

  • Jessica

    2015/02/04 at 6:55 pm

    You are 1000% right, but go online and look up the hate that Heather puts up with. Hell, when she and Jon split, people online were HAPPY about it. People call her a selfish and over-privileged mommy blogger (and so much worse). She puts herself out in the public eye and shares her life and every time she opens up, 99% of the readers cheer her on and 1% tear her down.

    Think about the last time you were insulted and complimented. You look nice today. You look like a fat slob. Which one will still with you longer? Unfortunately, probably the negative one. Now, multiply that by however many page views she gets and know that while most of us will welcome her and accept her problems on her own scale instead of our own, there are terrible people out there who forget she is human. Baring your soul means opening up and being vulnerable and when people online can be so cruel, sometimes you need to wait until the pain is easier.

    Also Heather? Wow, kudos to Leta. I have been reading since she was struggling to walk and to read that story was really moving.

  • Josey

    2015/02/04 at 8:15 pm

    I rarely comment anymore, but I’m always, reading, and I had to make the effort to come here and say KUDOS to you for sharing this. The pain olympics is SO draining and pointless, and I hate that we all subscribe to it on some level, even when we don’t want to. You are doing a fantastic job with a really tough situation, and I am so glad that the girls get to call you Mom.

  • Jo D

    2015/02/04 at 9:43 pm

    I just called my parents and thanked them immensely for supporting my ballet career for so many years. From 3 until graduation I danced at least twice a week, sometimes finishing class at 9pm on school nights. They never complained, they just shelled out for tuition, pointe shoes, and shuttled me to class and auditions and rehearsals and performances. I was so ridiculously privileged that my parents could provide that opportunity for me, and that they could support me through the years. Thank you for this post.

  • Kelli

    2015/02/04 at 11:07 pm

    Why are big sloppy tears running down my face?!

  • Rosemary

    2015/02/05 at 1:24 am

    “Saying someone can’t be sad because someone else may have it worse is just like saying someone can’t be happy because someone else might have it better.”

    Great great post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Tracie

    2015/02/05 at 1:50 am

    Agreed Monica and well said.
    My youngest son has a long term illness and it’s been tough. Interesting phenomenon – I have friends who played down their own kids illnesses, coughs and colds to me because they felt it was not worthy of sympathy or discussion because my son was sicker. I found this very strange. There are no ‘levels’ of concern for your child/situation that outweigh someone elses. I get that you are worried sick when your child has a vomiting bug or a high temperature or an ear infection and I’d like you to phone me and tell me about it. I want to be there for you.

    Anyway as Monica says so well: “ person’s struggle should be made no less significant than another person’s”.

    Leta plays beautifully. Well done to her and to you.

  • theboldsoul

    2015/02/05 at 4:15 am

    You do what you do best: live YOUR life and write about YOUR experiences. You don’t need to justify your struggles or your victories as a single parent, nor feel compelled to compare them to anyone else’s. My mother was a single parent from the time she and my dad divorced when I was 10. One of my friends was single parenting from the time her son was 3. The mom of my husband’s 13-year old son is a single mom. I know how hard that job is from seeing what they all have gone through and I have so much respect for how tough it is, no matter what their different circumstances may be. I occasionally play single step-mom on the weeks his son is at our house but my husband has to travel for his job. The first time I had to stay alone with the boy, he was 6 and I was utterly terrified (for one thing, we live in France and the boy was still very young then and didn’t understand English, and my French was lousy). I was an experienced babysitter and was never before intimidated or scared to take care of someone else’s child, but THAT – being the single parent for that 48 hours – that was the hardest “babysitting” I ever did in my life. Another time when my husband was away, the boy got really sick and I had to step in and take care of him when I knew he really wanted his dad or his “real” mommy. Ouf, that was hard. I only have to be a single parent for a few days at a time, and even then only 2 or 3 times a year, and as much as I love my step-son I am exhausted by it (though now that he’s 13 it’s much less tiring than it used to be when he was 6). All this rambling is just to say: it’s a tough job. It’s a rewarding job. You don’t need to feel guilty because you have more support or more advantages than other single parents might have. Your experience is still YOURS. Own it, don’t apologize for it. If someone out there is going to criticize you for your experience, then that’s about how small THEY are as a person, not about you not having a right to talk about how damn hard it is, parenting alone (even with support). You work as hard at being a mom, a single mom, a working mom, a business owner mom, a blogger mom, as all the other moms do, single or not. And seems to me you are doing one hell of a great job. Cut yourself a break.

    By the way, I started to cry when you got to the part of this story where Leta kept going past page 17 all the way to the end. Because I could FEEL her success coming off the page, and I knew what was coming next: the jumping, the screaming, her pride – and yours. Bravo to both of you.

  • Emily

    2015/02/05 at 6:06 am

    So unbelievably wonderful. I relate to Leta. At her age, I was memorizing those long and daunting pieces too. And I had the same help. If it wasn’t my mom sitting in the room with me (or cooking dinner from the next room) and yelling out “YOU MISSED THAT SHARP!”, it was my dad or my grandma. And 20 years later, I still reap the benefits of all the benefits of that work. In 20 years, when Leta looks back and her relationship with the piano, she will always remember you standing behind her.
    You should read “Piano Lessons: Life, Love, and True Adventure” by Noah Adams. He set out to learn one (simple) piece in 12 months. It is the only thing I’ve ever read that acurately depicts my love/hate relationship with my instrument.

  • Katie Kelly

    2015/02/05 at 7:43 am

    Thank you for drawing these connections, Heather. I’ve read along for the past 9.5 years, but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I began reading; I was an eighteen year old college student who certainly wasn’t interested in mommy blogging. Maybe it was because we are both former Mormons from TN. At any rate, I was raised on the opposite end of the spectrum, without the privilege, and I’ve always had the internal struggle of, ‘But that’s no excuse not to do as well as everyone else!’ Which resulted in some unnecessary self-blame when there were pitfalls. Only recently, I have come to understand that the disadvantages with which I was raised may not be excuses but valid reasons that I had been a step behind at certain points throughout my life. The old argument with its self-blame is still there, but it’s quieter now. Thanks for adding another voice to the right side of that argument.

  • Heather

    2015/02/05 at 8:22 am

    I’ve been reading since Leta was a baby (just before my Libby was born) and have had the phenomenal privilege of meeting you (California, epic play date) and chatting over wine about the similarities in our lives. The parallels have continued since then and I’ve been cheering you on from a distance – from health care reform (I, too, am self-employed), to single parenting. I knew you’d make it. And not only are you making it, you’re kicking-ass at it.

    Just like Leta: You got this.

  • Beth Rich

    2015/02/05 at 9:19 am

    This made me cry. And feel so much better about struggling as a single Mom. I too am privileged, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

  • DC

    2015/02/05 at 9:26 am

    Weepy piano teacher here. You’re a great mom.

  • Beth Rich

    2015/02/05 at 9:30 am

    I sent Heather an email saying this very same thing, that I wished I could personally tell each and every hater to go get a can of shutthehellup.

  • Jen Moore

    2015/02/05 at 10:10 am

    Ok damn you mommyblogger, I am crying. There I said it, CRYING. Beautifully articulated Heather. And now, from the now, not crying women’s studies teacher this idea–No Hierarchy Of Oppressions by Audre Lorde as it speaks and addresses this conflict you feel about privilege and still needing help and support. Hugs through the internet to you.

  • Areyoudoingthebestyoucan??

    2015/02/05 at 10:17 am

    Wow – you taught her a wonderful life lesson, Yay Heather. The cost to Leta? I would say the photos and your stories tell it best – you are feeding her anxieties like it gives you great pleasure. While Marlo remains ever-perfect, Leta looks exactly like the man who left you with your pile of oh-so-tragic problems (get a grip, Heather, you have no REAL problems beyond the fact your head is stuck up your butt -the misplaced anger is so obvious it’s embarrassing. You have two healthy, beautiful children. Parenting has some tough moments and it’s not always fun. But if it’s the hardest thing you ever done, you either haven’t done anything or you are doing it way wrong. Or both, in your case

  • Kim

    2015/02/05 at 10:22 am

    Thank you so very much for writing this.

  • Kim

    2015/02/05 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for sharing her story…it just made me burst into tears. There is nothing that fills a parent’s heart with more overwhelming joy then to see your kids succeed. Oh man, there’s no better feeling!!

  • Andrea

    2015/02/05 at 10:55 am

    Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how much privilege you have, it doesn’t negate any of the pressures and stresses that you feel. Even though you have a support system, at the end of the day those girls, and all of their wants and needs are on YOU! And that is sometimes a crushing responsibility to bear. You shouldn’t have to explain or justify that.

  • Andrea

    2015/02/05 at 11:31 am

    Wow, what a rotten human being you are.

  • Lauren3

    2015/02/05 at 11:32 am

    Heather, HEATHERRRR. When you talk about the Pain Olympics, well… other comments here have already hit that nail on the head, so I’m not going to say too much about that. I just so want for you to know and be OK with the fact that… all REASONABLE people know that YOU know that there are always people who have it worse. So for you to hesitate in talking about things that matter to you — you who keeps us coming here because of the way you engage your readers with your trials & tribulations and your inspiration and your humor, etc. — because you’re worried it will add fuel to the fire of a tiny but vocal minority… gah, it gets me.

    Heather, seriously… FUCK IT! Your words about parenting, privilege, vaccines, health care access, mental health… you know they matter and that they’re inspiring people to make changes and keep fighting their own battles and speak up for themselves, right? As long as you have things to say on your website, you should fucking do it.

    Re: what you said on Twitter about your platform? Whoever is proffering that concept is full of bullshit. You don’t owe anyone subtlety. You know what you do owe us? Your butt.

  • tomamanda

    2015/02/05 at 11:33 am

    i’m always baffled at people who make sweeping, negative comments to bloggers as if there are no repercussions.

    y’all should all listen to this podcast — this american life from two weeks ago — they tell the story of lindy west who confronted an internet troll. it’s fascinating. and it made me think of the crap heather has to put up with.

    (there’s also a great article here if you’re not the podcast type:

  • tomamanda

    2015/02/05 at 12:21 pm

    for the record, parenting is also the hardest thing I’VE ever done.

  • namamama

    2015/02/05 at 12:26 pm

    I’ve been reading you off an on for nearly a decade. But this one, this one made me cry. It’s so beautiful, and resonates with where I am in my life in a way that really spoke to me. Thank you.

  • Misty, Handbags + Handguns

    2015/02/05 at 12:44 pm

    This is great.

  • Morgan Shanahan

    2015/02/05 at 1:03 pm

    Love this. So glad to read it.

  • Kristinec55

    2015/02/05 at 1:58 pm

    Ninjas snuck into my cubicle and just chopped a million onions. Single parenting full time isnt easy, I know firsthand – but you are kicking ass at it. Your daughters are very lucky to have you. I admire what you have, and I hope I am doing half as good a job for my two girls. Kudos Mama, you are doing a great job.

  • Jen

    2015/02/05 at 2:14 pm

    It’s soooooooo gooooood!

  • Beverly

    2015/02/05 at 3:55 pm

    I would hazard to say these are the best days of your life. My beautiful daughter is 31 now. I was a single mother and despite the hardships of that, we had a beautiful and privileged life as well. I sure miss hearing her practice and play the piano now on a daily basis. She went on to become an actress and watching her perform is one the most satisfying joys of my life. Enjoy your girls, as you obviously do. You are doing a great job! And Leta, you are an amazing piano player! My daughter now thanks me for not letting her quit her lessons when she occasionally wanted to.

  • Riley and Solveig's Mom

    2015/02/05 at 5:58 pm

    YAY! Leta deserves all the high fives and hugs. My mom insisted I continue piano studies for years. When I was very young, Mom standing there in the kitchen making dinner, listening to me play, and smiling when I finished practicing made the difference for me. As a teen I realized I didn’t want to stop learning. Music and the piano are still wonderful sources of happiness in my life. And I can play “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” like a boss.

    I have two children who live with me while their other parent lives on the opposite side of the country. It has been difficult in ways we never imagined, but we have learned to make it work. As a solo parent I have faced the same aching, crushing body fatigue I experienced when the children were babies. At times my mental stamina is tested, too. When the days, weeks, or months seem almost unendurable, I remind myself to look ahead, to reach in my mind past the current difficult moment into a view of the better times that will come. They always do.

  • Katybeth

    2015/02/05 at 10:44 pm

    When my husband /my son’s dad died I felt enormous gratitude for my support system. People loved us too much for me to even consider whining, complaining or God Forbid expressing overwhelm. I had a house, enough money, a school community that was amazing, and a wonderful family on both sides. But when the lights went out at night it was just me, I was terrified. I didn’t wake up and learn to say, “this is hard” or I am scared, I never stopped feeling bad for feeling overwhelmed when our situation was so much better than other people in the same situation (that sentence makes my head hurt) But I did/do let myself applaud the wins. The hard fought for battles.The touchdowns. Without guilt or remorse. Congratulations on your win. . .you and Leta are not quitters!

  • Lauren3

    2015/02/06 at 7:34 am

    Probably not a rotten human being. Probably an anxious human being dealing with a lot of pressure or something shitty in their own life. Someone who does not have good empathy skills and can’t fathom people having different life circumstances and perspectives. Probably an outwardly nice person in “real life” who has convinced themselves that Heather is the enemy, for whatever reason.

  • Kate

    2015/02/06 at 7:56 am

    Heather – thank you for this post.
    We ALL have those parenting moments thinking “How the
    hell am I going to do this?” or “I can’t do this” or “I
    suck at doing this and my kids are going to need therapy forever”. The difference is that most people will never
    admit this out loud, whereas you have the courage to share it. Please, keep sharing. Despite the haters. (Now I’m going to be singing Taylor Swift’s
    ‘Shake it Off’ all day…’Cause the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate and
    the fakers gonna fake fake fake fake fake…)
    Happy Friday!

  • anna

    2015/02/06 at 11:30 pm

    Just a wonderful post that made me cry and not feel so scared about having kids. Seriously, amazing.

  • deborahj

    2015/02/07 at 10:12 am

    I think you unwittingly preached a sermon here! My mother was very fond of quoting the bible verse that says, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.”

  • Lucy VP

    2015/02/07 at 2:39 pm

    Love the photo of “one buttock playing”. I assume you get the reference from the Ted talk by Benjamin Zander.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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