At about this time last year, my sons Jacob and Isaac (then three and one) and I would begin our days with a slow languor. We never awoke while it was still dark out; the first rays of light would spill across our beds unheeded. As the room brightened, we would awaken one by one, rooting and nuzzling over the still-asleep, teasing one another into wakening. We would often lie in bed together for another half-hour, comfortable in our warm pajamas and heavy quilt, and contemplate the day. The day unfurled slowly, with little regard to the time on the clock. Sometime after breakfast, weíd get dressed and decide what we were going to do. Looking back, I remember the almost endless patience we all possessed when warm, well-fed, well-rested and unhurried.
Since my husband and I separated in July, the routine has been more like this: alarm goes off while it is still pitch black out. I hit the snooze button several times then drag myself from bed. Since none of us are morning people, the early minutes are excruciating. Often one child is crying while the other flops about, rag-doll style, as I try to dress him. A breakfast gulped down in the dark, followed by the cold face-slap of early morning air, and we are off, ready to start the daily rush. The next sixteen hours, I know, will be full of driving, dropping off, picking up, working, worrying and hoping things go according to plan so that, at the very least, I can hang on to the thread of structure holding our lives together. For the first time in my life, I truly understand the phrase "not enough hours in the day."
When I was a stay-at-home mother, I took so many things for granted. I took mothering seriously and followed my self-imposed list of rules. The mental checklist that I compared myself -- and other mothers I met against -- left little wiggle room. I assumed I would homeschool my children and never really considered any other option. I carried my infants in slings, used cloth diapers and breastfed on demand, often around the clock. I sought out other at-home mothers to associate with and made little attempt to resist the rating system that set itself up in my brain: my potential friend-o-meter. Does she breastfeed? Ten points. Past a year? Twenty. Well, she works part-time, but only while her husband is home with the kids, so weíll only knock off five points for that. Ugh, is that a pacifier? Ten more points off!
I never considered the possibility that one day I might be looking up every daycare center in the yellow pages, trying to find the least unsatisfying choice. I never imagined that I would pry my screaming children from my legs so that I could hurry up and get to the car before I burst into tears myself. I never dreamed that after not having seen my children all day, my first instinct after returning home would be to go lock myself in the bathroom and take a long, solo shower.
My four-year-old, in his eagerness to convey the events of the day to me, talks loudly, directly into my ears, and immediately tries my ever-lowering level of patience. My two-year-old, having gone eight hours without his "nurses," attaches himself to my breasts with the tenacity of an octopusís grip. I force myself to relax and to sink into this bittersweet moment with my growing baby instead of jumping up to do the dishes. Itís difficult, though, resisting that go-go-go urge. Itís difficult to relax and just "be" around my children, when there is so much to do! My temper flares quickly, I am easily irritated, and, having maintained a certain level of detachment throughout the day, I must now try to re-attach myself to my children. Everything I thought I knew about myself as a mother is being challenged.
Maybe itís karma. I have become the woman I used to judge. Maybe my chakras are not properly aligned. Maybe itís just bad luck. Either way, there is a lesson to be learned here, I know. So what wisdom have I gleaned from my six months as a single, working parent? First and foremost, Iím amazed at the women who are able to function long-term with their lives so on the edge. Single parenthood is like building a house of cards: if one card falls, the whole house threatens to come crashing down. Iíve also learned a lesson in looking at the world through the eyes of someone elseóa lesson in withholding judgment and smugness, in offering understanding and compassion.
A few weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a client, a single mother, at my job. On the surface, she and I were very different: she a career woman with a child, me an underemployed and undereducated displaced homemaker. We made conversation easily, though, and soon she was telling me about a single mothersí group she was forming.
"We are a pretty diverse group," she said. "Weíve got divorced moms, separated moms, teen moms, all different philosophies and backgrounds. I love it."
As she wrote down her name and phone number on her business card, I told her a little bit of my story.
"Oh, you poor thing!" she exclaimed, pausing to look at me with compassion. "Iím a single mother by choice, so at least I knew what I was getting myself into! You should definitely come to our next meeting!"
As if on cue, a small voice in the back of my brain began to express its opinion. A single mother by choice? She chose to bring a child into a one-parent household?
I ignored the voice. With a smile, I accepted the
card. "Iíd love to come," I said. And I meant it.