When I was two my Dad died leaving my mom to raise me and my five-year-old sister on her own. There’s a weird combo platter of feelings being raised by a single mom: you’re young, so you’re naturally kind of a selfish patootie, living your own life worrying about selfish kid-things, but in the back of your mind is this quiet, constant awareness that you only have one parent who has to do it all. You can be humming along living it up and then BAM! Something triggers the guilt to come roaring outta the dark and you wind up feeling bad about something you made your Mom do, like stay up late to make cookies for class because you forgot you signed up for snacks.
If there’s a story that sums up my raised-by-a-single-Mom-perpetual-guilt, it’s one that went down when I was fifteen and my sister was in college and I was living alone with my mom. Gilligan, a cool upperclassman, was throwing a party and I nabbed an invite, along with a firm “no” from my mom. I was a theatre nerd and an honors student, and, shocker, I did not go to a lot of parties (unless they were cast parties, which I swear were super cray!). As the proud new owner of a pair of skintight bootcut jeans from J.Crew, I was not about to let my Mom stop me from the night of my dreams. So, I did what any teenager would do: I hatched a plan to sneak out.
My friend Pat would pick me up at midnight. I said goodnight to my mom, went to my room, and in the deafening silence as the minutes ticked closer to twelve, that little internal guilt voice started chiming in: What if Mom comes in and sees my bedroom empty with the window open? And, because I’m not a rebellious kid she assumes I’ve been kidnapped? So I compromised: I’d still go, but would leave my Mom a note telling her 1) where I was, and, 2) that she could ground me when I got home. The headlights to Pat’s car appeared, I opened my window to shimmy out onto the porch, and my movie-worthy night commenced.
I felt exhilarated as we stepped into the wonderland that is the high school rager: music blaring, badass kids smoking cigarettes, and me, Hot Jeans McGee. But as we were standing in the middle of his living room in front of a giant stuffed bear his Dad had killed in Wyoming, Gilligan happened to mention something about his mom and BAM! the guilt monster appeared again. I couldn’t shake the idea of my Mom waking up in the middle of the night, finding me gone from my bed with the window open and thinking the worst. Because the worst had happened to her already; she’d lost her husband. I couldn’t be responsible for her thinking she’d lost a child. She didn’t have the option of waking up my dad and saying, “What do we do?” She didn’t have someone to reassure her that I was fine, that I’d probably just done a stupid teenage thing and would be back soon. No, she was the mom and the dad all by herself, and the image of her worried face was too much for me to take. I turned to Pat and said, “I have to go.” He looked at me like, “We’ve been here for 20 minutes – is this a joke?” But my face said it all. And, with that, he drove me home.
I crept onto the porch to hoist myself inside but my jeans were so tight I could barely lift my leg. I started to panic but then I did what I had to do: I stripped off my beloved denim down to my true self — a girl who wore cotton heart-covered underwear — and with my newfound range of motion and extreme desire to get inside as quickly as possible, I flung myself through the window, right onto my bed… and right onto the note. It was still there, untouched. She’d had no idea I was ever gone; I’d gotten away with it. I vowed never to sneak out again.
Nearly getting caught with my pants down didn’t stop me from continuing to push boundaries; I was a teenager, after all, and that’s part of growing up. But I do think the heightened consciousness of how my actions would impact my Mom made me pull back a bit and, in turn, probably saved me from some pretty stupid situations.
Sometimes I resented having that awareness of mortality and responsibility at a young age when so many of my friends seemed so footloose and fancy-free. I realize now that being raised in a single-mom household gave me a compassion that a lot of my peers lacked. I saw how my Mom fostered love and appreciation, even in the face of great loss when it would have been easier to despair over the hand she’d been dealt. Her ability to turn my dad’s absence into more than a tragedy taught me that sometimes you learn just as much from the absence of something as from the presence of it.
I’ve always been tremendously proud that I was raised by a single mother, and now that I’m a mom myself, that pride has deepened into a state of awe. There are so many moments that make me pause with admiration for her. Like after a recent road trip where my kid went haywire and my husband and I wanted to poke our eyes out, I reminded myself that that was just one of the many things my Mom did solo. She was, and is, a badass. Even though the circumstances were forced upon her, my Mom was the boss, and I grew up seeing how a woman could fill all the roles. She did everything and showed me that I could, too. Plus growing up in a house of three gals meant we could pee with the door open and I never had to feel weird about tampons or leaving my bras lying around.
There are things I know I get from my mother without having to ask: my love of Bill Murray, crisp clean sheets, deep discounts, and unsweetened iced tea. But things I get from my Dad like my love of blaring music in the car, running, and anything Italian, I also know about because of her. She raised me on her own and made me who I am but she always made sure I knew that my Dad was a part of me, too. That, to me, is the definition of a truly incredible Mom. If I’m able to be just a smidge of the mother she is, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something enormous. And, though I’m lucky to have a very involved husband at my side, I hope my son grows up to be the kind of person who will think twice about my possible panic before jumping out a window to go to a party where people are tacky enough to have a stuffed bear in their living room.