Single motherhood is like drowning and being on fire
Family Court doesn't care. Shout your story anyway.
First, a note: I was a middle school Humanities teacher when KUOW Public Radio shared this essay and it blazed through the affluent suburban school community that I served. My Principal came into my classroom: Parents were contacting her. They were concerned that my son’s father put their children in danger. I explained to her that he only wanted to hurt me. She responded by telling me that while she couldn’t forbid me from writing; I should keep in mind that as a teacher, I was a public figure who was watched closely by our school community.
I loved teaching and my students, but three years after the publication of this essay, I left that school and pivoted careers.
This essay was first published by Mutha Magazine, May 7, 2014. This version has been updated.
When my friend tells me she’s thinking about having a baby on her own my mind flashes immediately to that January morning in 2011 when, just as I settled my eighth graders into a rare calm, my son’s father burst into my classroom with a video camera, sloppy drunk, slurring demands about my son’s whereabouts. It was my first year teaching. My son was two. Single parenting, I wanted to tell her, is filled with so many unexpected adventures, so many of them horrible. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.
I had no idea. I was a nightclub bartender and first gen college grad still trying to figure out what to do with the liberal arts degree I earned on scholarships when I found out I was pregnant. I also had no idea about my co-worker turned supposed co-parent either. Although I had poured drinks with him behind a bar for years, I never could have imagined what lurked inside of him that would rear its violent, drunken head even before getting through those forty weeks of pregnancy.
I knew from the start that I would be a single mom and I thought it would be hard, but I had done hard things before. If I had known how hideous and consuming everything would become before it got better, maybe I would have made different choices. Maybe not. I was twenty-six. I thought I could imagine worst case scenarios. I was wrong.
The years-long warpath to the minimal legal protections supposedly keeping my son safe from his biological father has raised the eyebrows of even the most stoic judges and Family Court officials.
After breaking into my class wasted, the judge told him, Don’t ever do that again. And then nothing.
After my son was returned to me following a court-ordered visitation branded all over his little body with the word SEXY in black ink from a nightclub entry stamp, the judge said, That’s totally inappropriate. And then nothing.
When my toddler son was left on my doorstep with a grossly swollen and bloody mouth, his arms and legs bloody too, crying, wearing no shoes or shirt while his biological father drove away and then didn’t answer calls from me or the emergency doctors for three days, the judge said he couldn’t determine if the injuries were caused by abuse or neglect. I’m sorry, that judge explained, neglect is not illegal in this state. I held my breath and ground my teeth together, but the tears flooded out anyway.
I stood there in my mom dress and flats, more shocked than angry, unable to turn around and walk out of the courtroom because I was sobbing. Look at the pictures again. LOOK. He’s just a baby. Please, please, please. But nothing.
The stories go on and on.
Finally, those stories are starting to feel like a long time ago. There are now so many things to be grateful for. My son just turned six. Despite everything, he is happy and kind and light. There must be so much luck involved. And grit. At last life doesn’t just feel like survival.
Legally things are turning around too, slowly, one clause in the “Parenting Plan” at a time. A Family Court evaluator here. An arbitrator there. Gradually, the people with power to help me and my son are starting to see what I’ve known all along—fighting for visitation isn’t always about love for the child. Domestic violence and alcoholism can lie with charm and persistence that look uncannily like commitment.
Being a mom doesn’t feel like rolling a pile of laundry up the endless mountain of my poor decisions anymore either. I remember lying in bed with my sleeping son as a toddler, holding on to him like a life raft. What are we going to do. Someone just tell me what to do. I can’t do this anymore.
That was back when there was never enough of anything—money, food, work, childcare, time, compassion. And there was teething and toilet training. I had to find a preschool. He’s outgrown his shoes already. And grad school! And then he’s tantruming in Target over a box of tampons I took away from him and he’s screaming with his entire little self that’s been passed around, neglected, left on doorsteps, stamped, all of it, and it’s all pouring out out with so much pain and desperation that I just let him wail right there in the middle of the aisle while I dared anyone in earshot to say something just so I could scream back, HE GETS TO LET THIS OUT, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’VE BEEN THROUGH.
I have begun to sweat as I write about that tantrum. My chest feels like it’s closing up. I breathe in and out and think about his recent birthday morning.
It’s a Tuesday, a school day for both of us. I woke him up early to give him his presents wrapped shoddily in pages from a magazine. Two presents. A shark tooth fossil and a stuffed dog. An exact replica of the stuffed dog that my grandmother gave him when he was barely walking. Pancake.
This dog—its previously white belly is grey even fresh out of a hot wash, its eyes are scratched off, its fur is matted into gross little spikes—has survived so many moves, so many other fleeting comforts in and out of our lives. My son loves him with an animal ferocity.
I have worried before that he should have outgrown Pancake by now, that this stuffed animal has become some kind crutch that will make him into a weird grownup one day. Finally, I accept Pancake for what he is: just love and comfort. Totally unconditional, uncomplicated, reliable. And my son deserves that. Everything in our life is moving under us all the time. For the better. But still. So another Pancake. A backup, not a replacement. In our family we are loyal to the core.
After he opened his presents he didn’t say anything but he moved over to sit on my lap and I held onto him hard, six-something in the morning on a Tuesday, totally awake for this moment even as it passed.
He’s becoming so cool these days. He tries out sarcasm when he’s feeling gutsy. He wrestles me hello, and doesn’t want to hold my hand across the street anymore. He has clear opinions on sneakers. He’s quick to tell me his Lego guys have “lasers” when I tell him there’s no guns allowed. He tells me he has a girlfriend. I’ll take all the soft quiet moments that are left.
The other night he woke up and crawled into bed with me. Instead of walking him back to his room as usual, I let him stay. As he fell back asleep he reached under the pillow to hold my hand and we stayed like that for a long time. I could feel my heart glowing and swelling outside of my body. All of the clichés about parenting are true.
I think about my friend. She is kind and witty and beautiful and quick. She goes on meditation retreats with nuns on the weekend, when she is not scaring away online dates by getting into her sustainability politics too soon. She’s a teacher, too. She would be such a wonderful mom. I remind myself that she is not a lost twenty-something nightclub bartender having a baby with a sociopath. I want to tell her to do it.
I want to tell her what it’s like to learn about unconditional love through the shock of experiencing it for the first time.
I want to tell her about the unbridled joy of cheering on your child’s first shit in the toilet.
I want to tell her about being vomited on in the early hours of the morning and thinking only, dear God, just put all of this child’s sick into me, please, help him, take away everything that hurts him.
I want to tell her about what it feels like to cry, finally, after so long without crying, kneeling in front of the bed in the middle of helping him with his shoes because I really couldn’t take it anymore and then to have him—four-years-old—bring me a little stuffed elephant while he took Pancake and sucked his thumb next to me until I got it all out.
I want to tell her about what it’s like to finally get myself together because another human being utterly depends on me and there is nobody else—no backup, no breaks, no childcare—that doesn’t come with some kind of strings.
Single parenthood is like drowning and being on fire at the same time while everyone goes on and on about how beautiful the spectacle is—how strong you are, what brave work you’re doing, how they could never do something so incredible. And meanwhile you’re on fire, you’re drowning, and you can’t hear them at all. You just keeping thinking I’M DYING I’M DYING I’M DYING.
But then you don’t die. And your child gets older; starts making it easier on you. They learn to dress themselves. They can feed the dog. They can tell you if your yoga pants are see-through when you bend over. The threat of tantrums no longer looms over every trip to the store. And then sometime around kindergarten their jokes actually start to get funny. Their help around the house starts to actually be helpful. They start to feel like your sidekick and you start to feel like a superhero. You survived all that drowning and fire after all.
Yes, I want to tell her to do it and that I’ll help with whatever she needs—she doesn’t know yet how much need there will be. It’s impossible to imagine the village that children require and then to imagine having an actual child and realizing that that village is just rhetorical fantasy. What are you supposed to do then?
Keep raising that baby. Cry it out whenever you need to—in Target, wherever. Tell your story. As the waters rise and the fire rages on, just tell the story while it’s happening, scream it out like a tantrum. It feels good. And then it starts to feel good more and more, and one day you wake up and you realize that you’ve survived the babyhood and the toddlerhood, and your child is a person and he is good. And you did that. You get all the credit, you do, even with luck and grit in there too. It’s all you and now there is more love in your life than you ever thought you deserved and you are good too because of all of it.
Yes, I want to tell her. Do it. Have that baby on your own. It will be horrible and beautiful and the days will be long but the years will fly by and sooner than later you’ll look into the face of the human you raised on your own and think, yes, we did it. And you might not choose to do it all over again but no, definitely not, you wouldn’t change a thing. ⬛
Are you also a parent who has also stood in front of a Family Court judge swallowing rage and grief so profound you thought you might projectile vomit right there in your sensible heels and knee-length skirt? Are you a Family Court judge or attorney trying to right the system from within? The Unwed Mother Agenda is listening. Reach out. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you’re a subscriber, just hit reply to this newsletter and give me a glance (maybe 100 words—less is more) into what you’ve come through. I read and appreciate all of your messages, and although it sometimes takes me a bit, I try to respond to everyone.
Did you miss last week’s ROCK PAPER RADIO newsletter announcing The Unwed Mother Agenda? I’ve got you. Here it is: Sweet returns.
I’m sorry to read this and have learned more about the depth of your past struggles. However, there’s also a greater feeling that squelches that sorrow and it’s to have just been blessed to have also learned that your strength runs deeper than I had ever imagined! I knew you were strong and had a hunch…but my respect for you just grew tenfold! Much love to you and your family! You’re a gift to many!