When I was a kid I would scour the landscape for mothers with children and watch them as though through a microscope. Mothers with packs of children followed us everywhere – to our dentist’s and doctor’s offices, to the gas station, the grocery store, the laundromat and the bank. They drove up behind us at the window at McIlhaney’s Dairy to exchange their glass milk bottles just like we did, the back seats of their Pontiacs and Chevys and Plymouths stuffed with bored and grim-faced kids who had been dragged along on these usually Saturday morning excursions just like my brother and sister and I had been. They would pull up next to us at an intersection, check us out, then speed off down the road leaving our car covered in silky New Mexico desert dust.
After Unitarian Sunday School my mother would sometimes take us to the doughnut shop, where there were always other mothers with children in tow – pressing their noses against the glass cases, pleading, “I wanna a chocolate-glazed one,” or “I’ll have a vanilla cream-filled one, please,” or, “No, wait! I can’t decide. Okay, okay, can I have that big powdered sugar one in the front?” or, “Sorry, but I changed my mind…I want a chocolate on chocolate one…‘cause they’re fatter, okay, Mom?” and, “Can we have a box of doughnut holes please please please please please? For later on, please?”
And the sly looks on the faces of those other mothers’ children were the same as on ours – the smugness of knowing that our willingness to go along for the ride on chore days could only be pacified with a doughnut, a cookie, a popsicle, an ice cream cone…or the ultimate promise of sopapillas at El Pinto later…and woe be unto the mother who resisted this particular form of blackmail at which children all over the world are so adept.
I would size these other mothers up against my own, curious to know if their husbands had died like my mother’s, assessing the quality of their handbags and shoes – yes, little girls learn this measurement language at a very young age – wondering if they were short-tempered in private, yet acquiescent in public like mine was, whether they worked like mine did, whether they had maids to do the cooking, cleaning and wash, or if their eldest daughters helped out the way I did.
I noticed everything about these women, their jewelry, their hair and nails and could tell whether they had been home or salon-coiffed and manicured. I inspected the condition of their cars; a clean one surely indicated the presence of a man, or at least the money to purchase a wash and wax. I looked for any sign that other mothers were going it alone like mine was, that there were other little girls and boys who did not have fathers, that we were not weird. If there were others like us then I would know that there was nothing my mother had done to deserve this bizarre twist of fate that had built a strangely impassable mountain between our family and other families.
I imagined that everyone I met was wearing a sandwich board visible only to me, onto which I would write fictionalized personal stories about each of them: what kind of houses they lived in, what their their bedrooms looked like, what I’d find in their refrigerators, what they talked about at the dinner table. Did their mothers snore and fall asleep on the Barcalounger in front of the TV covered with the day’s newspaper like mine did?
For years I watched my mother struggle with the reality of having lost the man with whom she thought she would grow old. She struggled with the wisdom of having given in to my father, who didn’t want her to work when she was raising their children, such that when he died she’d been on the outside of the workforce looking in for 15 years. She struggled with the fact that the only close female friends she had were those with similar personal stories, women whose husbands’ had died or from whom they had been divorced. She struggled to connect – psychologically, intellectually, spiritually – with the mothers of my school friends, most all of whom were better off than we were, because she so often had to say no to our participation in some activity or outing or event that cost money.
She struggled to apologize to us for still being in love with our father and not being emotionally capable of remarrying so that our future would be more financially secure. She struggled with our callow insensitivity to the daily issues she faced, like not being able to reciprocate other families’ many kindnesses to me, to my brother and sister…sleepovers, dinners out…because she didn’t have the resources to balance the delicate and infinitely measurable scales of socially expected reciprocity.
For many years it felt as though we were living in a parallel universe. My classmates and I read the same books in school, but our home lives were not the same. We all dreamed of going off to college and wondered what we would become when we grew up, but no one admitted that the trains on which we would travel into the future would not run along the same track.
Gradually over time the similarities between my childhood friends, classmates and colleagues began to merge with and flourish among the dissimilarities. I learned, was generously taught, or accidentally discovered, ways to blend my life’s experiences with those of others so that I no longer felt alienated by having grown up in a home with only one parent, forging life-long friendships with people from backgrounds completely unlike my own.
Yet in spite of my intellectual understanding of the events that shaped my personality, it was not easy to fully crawl out from under the imagery of my mother’s struggles. We can watch our favorite movies and television shows as often as we like, summoning them up to remind ourselves of something poignant or funny or meaningful, and we can put them back on the shelf once we’ve had our fix and move on to another story about another family living in yet another parallel universe.
But film footage of our personal lives is much harder to cram back into the canister. It has a way of climbing up onto the projector all by itself and replaying whatever scenes it chooses, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, sometimes reminding us of wonderful memories tinged with goofy bits of humor, but often reminding us of things we’d rather forget.
My storage bank of single mother imagery was well stocked at an early age, such that I vowed never to trade in work for marriage and motherhood as my mother had done. As the years went by I met more and more women whose postponement of marriage and motherhood had left them with a severely culled field of suitable mates and barely ticking biological clocks, who then contemplated having children on their own or adopting.
Invariably images of the hardships on my single mother would start to play on my mind’s projector. Don’t they know what they are getting into, how hard it’s going to be? Don’t they know that children need two parents, that life isn’t going to be a vaudeville show? But how could I tell one of these women not to want to be a mother, not to want a child?
How ironic – or comic, if you prefer comedy – that I would eventually marry a divorced man with (almost) three adult children. And that he would tell me about his costly and time-consuming trips to fetch them from their mother’s on the other side of the country before he got custody of them (at various ages, one at a time, just to make life really interesting, spicy and complicated). He described how he juggled their individual activities and tried to set rules for doing the laundry (something about lights and darks, and hot and cold), playtime, getting homework done, and having dinner (but not necessarily in that order).
To a certain degree his career as a surgeon suffered because he had to get home early to fix them dinner before his head was in his soup from exhaustion. And from all accounts (though his son would argue with this) he made admirable attempts to whip up something Oriental and wokish for dinner, which most of the time was met with dismissive sneers and upturned noses, after which everyone would happily troop off to Blake’s Lotaburger for dinner.
As my husband describes it, the most distressing part of being a single father was the tacit assumption that men cannot parent, should not get custody of their kids and, worse, that they will ultimately fail their children if the courts grant it. He reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s famous speech in Kramer vs. Kramer when he makes the case, as the character Ted Kramer, for custody of his kid, Billy, by asking,
“I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is it that makes somebody a good parent. You know, it has to do with constancy, it has to do with patience, it has to do with listening to him. It has to do with pretending to listen to him when you can’t even listen anymore. It has to do with love, like, like, like she was saying. And I don’t know where it’s written that it says that a woman has a corner on that market, that a man has any less of those emotions than a woman does.”
Now, to counterbalance the movie of my childhood, which featured a single mother and three fatherless kids who were trying to figure it all out, I have the movie from my husband’s adulthood, which featured a single divorced father with three kids who were also trying to figure it all out. My childhood is far behind me and the plight that my single mother faced is one that now resonates with so many families…and with so many single fathers.
My husband’s years as a single Dad (which, in spite of the challenges, he unabashedly describes as the best and most joyous years of his life), along with the knowledge that there are now so many other divorced Dads out there who feel the way Ted Kramer felt, inspired me to investigate the emotional side of divorced fatherhood in a series of interviews with family therapist Chuck Semich, a father, stepfather and stepson, who writes The Counseling Corner for reMarriageworks.com. Stay tuned for those interviews, which I will begin posting on my NY Step Parenting column on Examiner.com on Monday, September 12th.
Clearly there is destiny at work here that is unfolding as I go. How comic – or karmic, if you prefer karma – that having grown up without a father, life has delivered to my door three adult stepchildren whose diverse relationships with their father I can now watch as though they are three entirely different movies.