When you marry, you don’t get just the one person. You get their family and their struggles and dreams. You get their guitars all over the house and their artisanal bacon in the fridge and you have to figure out how to equitably share the closet. In our case, that was mostly good—I loved my husband Peter’s parents and his kids from a previous marriage.
But he also brought a mistress. I smelled her perfume on him every day. When pressed about her, he would flat-out refuse to discuss the issue. She was with us on vacation and watched James Bond movie marathons with us. She facilitated the erosion of my faith and trust in this otherwise good man. The day before our daughter, Grace, turned 2, we decided to divorce. His mistress was alcohol, and in early January of this year, she killed him.
Grace is 7 now, and I’m seeing single motherhood through an entirely new lens. After our divorce, Peter moved nearby and would keep her two days a week (and then when he moved an hour away, every other weekend), so at least I could count on that time to recharge, to work, or even go away overnight.
I began to date a year after our split. Any men who had an issue with my having a young child were immediately jettisoned. I’m thinking of one guy whose opener was to take me to a bookstore, buy two children’s classics for me to give my daughter, then say a couple weeks later, “I don’t know how I feel about your having a 3-year-old.” (Bye.) I’d tell prospective suitors that I wasn’t looking for their money (I make my own); I’m not angling for their real estate (I own three properties); I don’t need a father for my child (“she’s already got one,” I’d tell them). I made it clear that I will always, forever, be on Team Grace. I wanted someone who saw my kid is an asset, not a liability.
That “she has a dad” speech placated my last boyfriend, Mike. We’d stay up late laughing, take the occasional weekend away, and fell deeply in love. Mike was sweet to Grace, like the fun uncle who pops in and out a couple times a week. On Easter he arrived with bunny ears and giant rabbit-foot overshoes and a wind-up plastic rabbit that pooped jellybeans. When I was showing her Star Wars for the first time, he came over unannounced in full Darth Vader getup, complete with a lightsaber. His midnight Santa visit was masterful.
We dated for nearly a year and a half, joyfully, until the tension of me wanting something more stable bumped up against his need for space and his tendency to come and go like a feral cat. A couple days after Peter died, Mike, Grace and I were on our way to eat sushi. She had an uncharacteristic meltdown over a missing library book. Unable to bear the whining and crying, he declared he wouldn’t be joining us for dinner. In silence, I drove him to his car. Grace was fine and perfectly behaved the rest of the evening.
The next day we had The Talk. “If you can’t have the love and compassion and patience for a child who just lost her father, I don’t know how we can move forward,” I told him. We cried hard, together, lovingly grasping at each other’s hands, hugging and not wanting to let go, because we knew that despite the 90% that was everything right, the 10% that was wrong would always be there.
When Peter was alive, my biggest worry was that he’d die or get in an accident with Grace around–or worse. I was 90% sure that he wouldn’t dare drive with her after drinking, and I was soothed when he moved in with his fiancée, a sweet and fun person named Lisa, because it meant there were extra eyes on Grace. But every time I saw him, I could see him becoming progressively more unhealthy. When she was 2, I’d taught her my phone number as a jaunty song so she could call me, with instructions to go to a neighbor in case Daddy was really sick or couldn’t wake up. When I tried to get court-appointed rehab, the judge laughed me out of the courtroom and said only that neither of us could drive for four hours after drinking. As if I were the one flagged by the preschool for the persistent stench of day-old alcohol, with the distended belly from a barely functioning liver, with the sickly yellow eyes of alcoholic jaundice.
Now that Peter’s gone, I’m deeply sad that he’s no longer roaming the earth. I’m angry that he couldn’t get a handle on his disease. Daily, I douse the urge to send him pictures of Grace with her new electric guitar, or winning an award at school, or doing some crazy dance. And now my worry has been eclipsed by an unquenchable fear that something will happen to me, leaving Grace parentless. I have a tight estate plan in place with backup guardians (and second and third choices in case the first falls through). My daily contingency plans have backup contingency plans. I’m declining that third piece of cheese and that glass of wine at a party. I’m resentfully researching a membership at the Y, realizing my idea of a power workout every morning at home has solidly remained just in idea form. I’m trying to stay alive the best ways I can.
Though my daughter is an absolute joy and an easy kid to love, sometimes the weight of this 100% single mom scenario is bone-crushing. I bitterly, silently scoff at social media posts in which someone says something along the lines of, “Scott’s away on a fishing trip so I’ll be a single mom this weekend. Send wine!” Lady, you’re not a single mom. Not by a long shot. In 72 hours you’ll have that extra set of hands, that person who can stay home with your kid so you can take the dog to the emergency vet in the middle of the night. My heart goes out far and wide to those who had kids on their own from the beginning, or whose spouses disappeared into the night, and of course, whose spouses died. I see you. I am you. And I realize my great fortune in having the situation I do–I don’t have serious health problems, I am not digging myself out of extreme poverty, I don’t have multiple kids, and the one I do have is actually pretty much a dream. I know others have it much, much worse.
So I file these under “middle-class vexations of the spirit”: I won’t have help shoring up Grace’s college tuition account, and anything she’ll ever have in her life will be what she makes or what I give her. Now that there’s no “you’ve got her for spring break,” I will likely never get my own vacation longer than a few days until she’s old enough to go to sleepaway camp if I can afford it, and even then, I’d have to be within a couple hours’ drive in case of emergency. Dating feels like it was so last season. The thought of finding someone who wants the entire package deal feels exhausting to me. I have lost my attraction for feral cats.
I’ve traded a steady paycheck and benefits for working from home so I that I can be at Grace’s school in a few minutes if there’s an emergency, so that I can fold laundry on a conference call, so that I can just get in one tiny damn nap if necessary before I pick her up, feed her dinner, get homework done, get her to bed, and go back to typing late into the night. The plates need to keep spinning in order for everything to work right. Without a backup parent, there is zero margin to get sick, or to fail.
I realize that while I don’t have family nearby, I do have community. I’ll take care of anyone else’s kids at the drop of a hat. I’ll bring over soup to sick friends, and I’ll give $25 for the jump-a-thon to fight heart disease without a second thought. But to ask for help for myself is not in my nature. It is a kind of torture, the psychic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for me. But when I was researching logistics for my recent book tour and other work events, I realized I couldn’t bring Grace to everything, and I couldn’t not go.
After putting off the task for weeks, I finally I crafted an email to a few of Grace’s friends’ parents, as well as to Lisa the fiancée. I listed the all the blocks of time I’d need covered, as well the day I just needed someone to watch her in the afternoon. Within minutes, the responses came in. Sari could take Grace to her son’s baseball game on the day I spoke on a panel. Kim and Jenny shared the five days I’d be signing books in New York, and Kim would also have Grace for a long weekend I had to be at a book festival in Minnesota. Lisa would take another couple days for when I facilitated a writing retreat in order to meet my mortgage. For them, adding another kid to the mix for a few hours or a few days might not be a big deal. For me, their kindness is the difference between working and not, between gasping for air and suffocating. I am so deeply grateful I don’t even know how to string together words to tell them “thank you” properly.
So I’ll just say “thank you,” Sari and Kim and Jenny and Zoe and Lisa. And if you ever need a favor, hit me up first.