• Illustration by Ken Brown
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"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.

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