Illustration by Ken Brown
"Single mother?" I've begun taking umbrage to the phrase. If you mean to call someone unmarried, you should simply say "unmarried" and assume responsibility straight out, instead of pussyfooting about with the word "single." For unmarried mothers like me, the world is difficult enough to negotiate without people being deliberately obtuse about what they mean to say. Put your cards on the table, will you? Step into my shoes, if you can. If only because you might find it nice to step out of them again. In return, I will share some shocking admissions, and a handful of observations made by other unmarried mothers — women who are out there, running around like savages, as I am.
I spend Saturdays with my son Pablo, assuming the fatherly role of reading the newspaper, while he spends the day playing video games. It sounds like a tedious way to spend my time, but listening to his running commentary, I find myself picking up nuggets of relationship-centered wisdom. And while Pablo is only six — and his advice can't possibly be intentional — he's pleased to have his mother sitting behind him as he plays Full Grizzly and Jet Ducks. He likes an audience. All the Finnamores do; it's a creative asset, as well as a narcissistic character flaw.
While playing Jet Ducks, I notice that Pablo is only shooting the fastest specimens. I ask him why.
"I only like the most challenging ones," he says, having shot 16 out of 20 ducks. That's about what I shoot, too. He then switches games, advancing to Level One of Full Grizzly.
The next nugget I pick up gives me a clue as to what to tell family and friends when becoming romantically involved with another person:
"Go on reading the paper," Pablo says. "I'll let you know if I get to Level Two."
Instead, Pablo's star falls off the edge and into a black void, and "Game Over" appears on the screen, spelled out in large print. The same happens in real life, try as we might to ignore it.
I ask him what he'll do now.
"Try again," he says.
In Full Grizzly, a golden pot appears at the very top of the screen -- Pablo is climbing up a very frail-looking tree to get to it. What happens if he does? I ask.
"I never got there before, so I don't know," he replies. "It's just fun to try to get there."
When Pablo's done with his video games, I take a long nap. I plan another for tomorrow. Sleep seems to be the best remedy for whatever ails me -- providing I am allowed to nap and putter around the house a bit, I can be fey and sporting; I can accept my life for what it is, instead of woolgathering and fashioning my single-motherhood into a sort of silent horror film.
Before I do, caller ID tells me that Pablo's father is calling for him; magically, I can hand the phone over to him without uttering a syllable. We live in such a wonderfully exciting age!
I might mourn for my marriage from time to time, but I know that everything happens for a reason and that my ex and I couldn't have lived together much longer without one of us getting hauled off to the asylum. Instead, Pablo's father now lives in New York -- a very nice state, which happens to be located 3000 miles away -- and can only get here by airplane, giving me lots of advance notice between visits and a good deal of time without any interaction at all between us. This is what I call an "amicable divorce." The courts call it "joint custody," which causes me to laugh out loud, full and hearty.
Here are some plot points you already know: The grief of a mother watching her son grow up with a faraway father, who is happily ensconced with his own, new family. The irrational grief of a tired woman who feels she is less than lovable. The unassailable fact that although tomorrow came, many things did not change. The feeling of being a member of the undead; feeling dead inside. And every time it happens, I can't believe it's back, this feeling.
It returns when I have a severe flu and still have to care for my son alone. It comes when I see a boy playing catch with his father and want to lie down on the concrete and weep. Instead, I keep walking, smile to passersby, pick up my son, make him dinner, read to him, and send him off to sleep. Afterward, I think I should have hugged that concrete after all. It would have been more honest.
Not long ago, I paid $3000 in biannual house taxes so that Pablo could live near a good school. I'm also paying for his food, housing, clothing, art classes, and after-school programs (which allow me to work) and making full medical and dental payments. Alone, on an unmarried mother's single income. One income. One.
Things get a lot better every day. Unless, of course, they get dramatically worse. If the child-support check is late, I let it be. I resent having to beg for anything. I used to be on my ex like white on rice, saying how I needed the child-support money and needed it on time. "I want mah $200!" I'd say, quoting Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. I'd tell him it was a court order, that his son deserves it, and that, if he were even a shade of the man I thought I'd known, he would put it in the mail right now. Just so you know: When a man hears that, he waits two more days: Silence is best.
So I plunge into debt for our boy. Practically speaking, child support is a drop in the bucket -- it doesn't even pay for the summer camp I never got to go to. Which, of course, is why Pablo must be able to. All the kids from Wee Care go; Oliver and Ryan will be there. And they love Pablo at camp. He's become a cult figure of sorts. They call him Pabbles. Paaah-bulls. It's like a mafia name, and his father doesn't know it.
A year after the divorce, I convinced myself that a limited amount of e-mail and phone contact between my ex and me would be safe and healthy for our son. Of course, boredom and nostalgia played into my motivation, as did that Father-of-My-Child, Master-of-My-History attachment that contact only enhanced and made worse, more aggravating, and prone to cause hurt feelings. I did not look at behavior at this time, his or mine: I listened to words -- a most dangerous tactic where he, or for that matter, anyone else, is concerned. Things were reminisced over. Blame was reassigned. Then would come a meltdown (mine), in which, just as during the divorce, I felt like hammered feces and thought myself the biggest idiot on the planet, next to him, of course.
Communicating with him on any level, I've learned, is potentially toxic.
"You'll be able to speak with him later," a friend says. "Just not yet. You're still developing the antibodies."
Sleep is the only restorative that doesn't come in a childproof bottle, and it has been my savior. People who allow me to sleep are my angels. I long ago decided that, at 3 a.m., I would rather take a Xanax and sleep than stay awake and remain drug-free. In the beginning, I changed my sheets every day. I had to start treating myself like the queen I was, because when you've become an unmarried mother, you feel like a beggar woman in rags. You think, perhaps it was your fault. That it was because you weren't young or good enough that the father of your child left. That's why you imagine him being perfectly happy, forever.
I found out later that they aren't perfectly happy, the fathers who leave their children. That made things easier. But when Pablo first went to visit with his dad, I had no job lined up and didn't know what to do with myself. I stared wildly around the house, as if I expected it to fall down at any minute -- probably from the sheer filth of the place, the dirt that only I knew existed. It was taunting me, the dust, the dirt, the grime, and the piles of bills, magazines, and newspapers. I started with the refrigerator and went from there. My rolltop desk was packed to the gills with detritus, so I cleaned that out. Realizing it was April 13, I decided that I might want to get my tax receipts in order, and did. Naturally, I filed for an extension, as I do every year. Another way to screw the government -- I take every opportunity. I got the data to my Thai bookkeeper just in the nick of time. I foiled the system.
All the same, I still need the occasional kick in the ass. Spouses do that for you. I have no spouse; therefore, no one kicks me in the ass. Therefore, I also missed the county house-tax deadline. This year, I filed an appeal and hope to avoid a penalty. It was a very fine appeal, though, of course, the attached documentation was entirely falsified. Sainthood is not yet within grasp, but I can live with that.
Pablo gets tutored at his school at 7:30 on weekdays. We blast out of the house at 7:00 -- I like beating the elementary school rush and seeing the sunrise with my son. Talk about what's blooming, what's dead. His tutoring adds an hour to my free time, and I like my days to be unstructured. To compensate for the lack of a regular paycheck, I get to wander about and stare into space, with no one giving me meaningful looks of disapproval. Yes, I like having a bit more time to clean house, procrastinate, and think about where it is I might be going. Does the furnace filter need to be changed? And where is the pour-top to the olive oil bottle?
On the other hand, you could argue that "unstructured" is simply a euphemism for "boring." For "not having a job that gets me out into the world." For "being single," and so forth. You can fill in the emotional blanks.
In the meantime, I shall voice my alarm that the subject of online dating was on 60 Minutes II and Frontline recently. Everybody's doing it, and while I'm not ready yet, I'll admit, I'd admit to being a bit closer to ready. I could do it if I had a gun to my head and if somebody else typed the profile up for me. I'm not all that social; most writers aren't. I hate children's birthday parties, which I see as hell on a stick. I frown on forced interaction with a roomful of strangers, unless they are paying me personally and by the seat, and I get to just talk into a microphone. They, of course, get to say nothing. Otherwise, interaction feels the tiniest bit like dissection without anesthesia.
The biggest gift divorce imparts is the knowledge that I own my own experience. For example: If I can get a babysitter, I can rediscover the secret to life. I've done this. I've driven into San Francisco to have two drinks with eight friends. I've laughed until I've fallen down, not from drunkenness but from intense mirth, and a feeling of complete freedom:
Hangar One Mandarin Cosmopolitan in a large martini glass, Repeat once.
I am an ex-wife. I can live with that, now. I'm just fine, thank you very much -- much smarter and harder to fool. I can sense that any sudden "Oh I need a man" obsession is yet another diversion from the novel I'm writing, or the floor I need to scrub again. It's a way out.
Unfortunately, it was also the way in. I adore men, and yet, it was a man who turned me into a struggling and unmarried mother -- instead of a happy wife, a mother, and a financially secure woman -- in the first place. I don't forget that for a second.
Woody Allen's said that a wife is only yours for the length of your marriage, but an ex-wife is forever. So I get to be the witness and the torchbearer, the dream lover, Madonna, and whore. But I am kicking ass with this one good leg: That's what it's like to succeed as a single mother. It feels great; as though you've overcome polio to dance Swan Lake.
Yet, the anniversary of the divorce is always difficult, and every year, I'm surprised at the submerged feelings that surface. At some point you just have to say to yourself, "How much blood can I shed for this one, random man who can't even run anymore?" There. I laughed out loud just now. Which is how I get through: See how she runs.... I look at my life, I cry, I laugh, I lean ahead just slightly into the infernal and welcome wind.
Yesterday, I realized that Pablo's now the perfect size and age to help mama clean out her closet, which kind of dips back into the bedroom wall. So he slaved away while I gave directions from my bed, pointing with a yardstick. We made a large pile of clothing for the less fortunate. (Pablo sometimes slips up and calls them "the fortunate" -- it's very Jesus of him, I'd say.) And a pile of shoes and such.
When all was done, and I was on the phone with my best friend, my son took a big wool coat out of a dress bag and brought it upstairs to me. I thought about how my ex had given me that coat; my first, real "East Coast" coat, ankle length and double-breasted, with a fur-lined hood. Without getting off the phone, I brought it back downstairs and flung it on the bed.
Hours later, when I entered the room again, I was shocked at how much the coat resembled a body, a large black feminine figure against the white sheets. The arms stretched out, the hood a head with hair around it, the long body inert. A dead woman with snow all around her.
That's who I was: The wife. And that woman is gone. Ripples of remembrance of our courtship, the early years, wash over me. But it's a small wave and I look at it from all sides now, without repression or analysis. There was much good in my marriage. Some happiness before we actually wed, before Pablo was born. Some from the wedding, and some after. Unquestionably, Pablo is the greatest good of all, and worth a hundred bad marriages. The next small wave gives me a moment's pause, and I ponder: It was five years ago that he left. The very next day was April Fools' day. That fact alone may have saved me.
But no, you and I both know what saved me: My son. A gorgeous Botticelli-in-diapers on the day his father left for good. The reason I am a single mother, Pablo, is that, over long swaths of time, there's a certain amount of grace in being a single mother. Something exquisite and beautiful, crammed with the experience of life and death itself.
Only last Sunday, one of Pablo's frogs died. Greenie.
He cried a bit, and we talked it over on a variety of spiritual and practical levels. Blame was not assigned. We buried the frog.
An hour later Pablo came to me and said, "Now that the Greenie's dead, can I dig him up and cut him open?"
"Oh yes," I said. "Yes, we can. But let's not. Let's just enjoy this crate of strawberries."
And that's what we did. Two people and one crate of strawberries. No one could stop us.