Today I am a single parent. Actually I have been a single parent several times in the 30-some years of marriage and the rearing of our five sons. There have been occasions when my wife left me with the boys for an hour or an hour and a half while she went on errands or some music practice. I barely survived, and I keep counting the boys to see if they did.

This morning our 17-year-old came in and reported that he had had a sleepless night with fever and chills. He threw up, also. My wife had an eye appointment, so just like every single parent, I had to call around and see if I could change some appointments. I had to figure out in my mind if I should stay with him or if I could go to work. I had to think about taking him to the doctor or doctoring him at home.

The point is, I couldn't handle being a real full-time single parent, especially a single mom. I am not strong enough, resourceful enough and especially not skilled enough to have to do what single parents, male or female, do daily, 24/7. I struggle just with the thought of my wife going to the grocery store. If I were a legit single parent, my kids would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, vegetable beef soup and cold pizza — and that would be breakfast. Dinner would be ramen noodles.

I would not know how to shop for the right clothes, shoes or school backpacks. The kids wouldn't be in any sports because I couldn't figure how to both sign them up and drive them to the games in the same season.

They would wear all the same socks and underwear because sorting the subtle nuances of colors and sizes would be beyond me. I could probably do homework, but anything as complicated as a vacation would be totally out of the question.

If I had to find a day care that would provide the nurturing care and sensitivity to my child that I talk about all the time to the parents in my practice, single or not, I am not sure I would be able to judge. I would probably just find something nearby so that I could get to work.

Then, once on the job, I don't know if I could see patients and handle a phone call from my son, Jeff, telling me that his brother is hurt. Fortunately, I wouldn't have to get a note from me telling me that I have a sick son and can I be excused from my own clinic, but every day it seems I have to do that for the many mothers who have to make the decision. Do I stay home with a sick child or do I go to work? By necessity one gets into this vicious cycle of putting a child into the germ-rich environment of day care with all the other kids with snotty noses, which makes the child more ill more often, which forces absences from work, which pays for the day care in the first place.

Wouldn't it be nice if single parents could stay home with their children? But then, who would pay for the rent, food, gas money and winter coats? Being a single parent is definitely not easy. It is hard on everybody, the child or children, the parent and society. No one escapes from the challenge. I have single moms come in because their live-in boyfriend no longer lives in, but this week I saw a brand new single mom whose husband was going off to war the next day. While prevention is the goal, the question is, what are we going to do to help the ones already in this very rough situation not made for wimps? Blaming, demeaning or, worse, ignoring them because they are single doesn't solve the problem or pay the rent. All I know is that real single parents are a whole lot tougher than I am.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected]