In her memoir, The Lunchbox Chronicles, writer Marion Winik tells how awe-inspiring she used to find single parents, wondering how in the world they managed to get by. She both admired and pitied them, and thanked her lucky stars every day that she didn't belong to their ranks.
And then her husband died, leaving her with a three-year-old and a six-year-old to raise all by herself. She writes that after the initial shock of her loss wore off, she suddenly realized that she had become not only a widow, but a single parent, and when she thought of the years of "hard labor" stretched out ahead of her, all she could say was "Holy %$&@!!"
I too am now a single parent. After sharing parenting duties for the last 11 years with my children's father, he no longer lives with me. My children still have two parents, of course, but we two parents no longer have one another. As a result, I am suddenly being forced into a steep learning curve at a time when I really thought I had this whole running-a-household thing mostly figured out.
I have never mowed a lawn. I have no idea how to fix a leaky faucet or clean the gutters. I don't even cook. In our family's unofficial and voluntary division of labor, these tasks fell on my now-absent husband's shoulders. And when the children are at his house, he too is now facing alien tasks that formerly fell within my purview. He is learning how to fix a ponytail, plan and referee play-dates, and get three children to three different lessons during his work hours. And both he and I are facing the reality that after all the kids are finally bathed, read-to, and asleep at night, there will be no cozy adult discussion of the day's events or shared laughs and commiseration over spilled milkóliteral or figurative.
Interestingly, since my kids' father moved out, many of my still-married friends with children have admitted to me in a somewhat furtive way that they envy me. Looking around as if someone might overhear their blasphemous confessions, one after another has told me of their secret fantasies of being able to run their households exactly as they choose, with no need for compromise or cooperation.
"I'd get rid of that ugly recliner in about two seconds," says one. "I'd use all the hot water every night and I'd park wherever I want to in the driveway," declares another.
Other pals have expressed their suppressed desires to eat in bed without fear of crumbs bothering anyone else; keep the heat turned as high as they like in the winter; or throw out the stacks of decade-old newspapers and magazines rotting in their laundry rooms.
As for myself, I never fantasized about single parenthood. In fact, I fought with every fiber in my being to prevent the break-up of my marriage, and I fell into a dark depression for many months after my husband moved out. I was sad for my children and I felt sorry for myself. Like Marion Winik, my commentary on the turn my life had taken was usually in the form of angry expletives or tears or both.
But as the longest, darkest winter I had ever experienced began to fade, and as the weather began to warm and the crocus and daffodils poked their first tentative tendrils up through the dirt in my yard, I began to notice for the first time how much I was enjoying certain aspects of living without another adult. I found myself reveling in certain guilty pleasures, such as eating ice cream in the bath tub and leaving my bedroom light on until 3 a.m. if I want to finish a book. I let my dog get on the sofa and I stopped storing the bread in the refrigerator.
Last weekend, my children and I moved out of the home our family had lived in for the past seven years and into a charmingly dilapidated 1940s cottage that I love and my husband would hate. I see built-in china cabinets, an appealing, ivy-covered exterior, and a yard that backs up to a library in my favorite local neighborhood. He would see a house with no garage and a topography that has "drainage problems" written all over it. I felt giddy on the day I signed the lease in my own name. And last night, for the first time, I slept in my own bedroomówhich I painted pinkóin my very own bed. The dog was snoring under the covers and I read a mystery deep into the night.
I still miss my husband and my marriage a
great deal. I have a feeling that I will grieve this loss in my own way
for the rest of my life. And there is no doubt in my mind that my
children have lost something irreplaceable. Some days I still have the
unsettling sense that I have somehow woken up in someone else's life.
But more often than not now, I am able to see that in fact, the opposite
is true: I am composing and reclaiming my own life.