Mothering is the ultimate convergence of public and private. From the moment your belly swells, the fact that you are/have been sexually active becomes publicly displayed. The implicit questions: Who has impregnated you? Does he have cultural/institutional permission? Do you, expectant mother, have permission? Where is the piece of paper/(in)expensive ornament on your hand that says so?
Then, assumptions begin—your body changes, and strangers act as witness. Sometimes, they want to touch you. You are full of life; you are sensitive, physically and emotionally. You are urgent in every way, and strangers, smiling, touch you, often without permission, ask you personal questions. You might feel okay about that, or you might be offended. The point is—vision. Outside, inside. How you see yourself in relation to others, how they see themselves in relation to you. We are all of us mirrors. We see what we want, we look for what we want or look for what we fear.
* * *
Is there some kind of human aversion to our own bodies that makes life-growing a shame to so many? That is what I would ask those who treat single mothers differently, consciously or unconsciously, no matter their age or economic status. Something deep is at work in the human psyche. I am hinting at the ugliest and most fundamental of truths, and single motherhood, I promise, is merely tangential.
* * *
Women who give birth out of wedlock or who have somehow separated from their partners have traditionally been shamed—for their aloneness, their state of supposed non-support, as if their vulnerability makes them difficult to look at, or worse, unworthy of being truly seen, because the damage—think of it! a child as damage, a child as shame—has been done. It’s not often talked about in these PC days, but the shadow lingers—an Eliot-esque smoke along the windowpanes as we peer at one another in social situations. Soccer games, bake sales, PTA meetings, clothes shopping, dinner at Outback. The automatic glance at the ring finger. This is worth saying aloud: Our worth, our children’s worth, is not tied to a masculine presence at the dinner table.
* * *
Not that I don’t feel the absence of a partner to help shoulder day-to-day responsibilities, especially the things I least enjoy doing, like bringing groceries in or maintaining the car. Some days I work so much and for so long that by the time the day ends, unsurprisingly, I feel numb from exhaustion. And I still have to make dinner, be patient, be loving, iron clothes, give instructions, wash dishes, host sleepovers, encourage—without germophobia—scientific experiments that take over the bathtub. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I am miraculously successful; sometimes I am resentful, sometimes I feel so lucky. Sometimes all of the above and more happen in the same day and I want to burst. But that’s life. Would it be nice to have some help? Sure. Would I trade it to have a husband, for the sake of having a husband, and the financial and physical labor-easing such a union supposedly implies? Absolutely not. I’m not judging any married person or anyone else’s choices, but I personally value my independence more than any supposed convenience.
* * *
Which brings me to writing. We—mothers who write, solo mothers who write and create—often, if not most of the time or all of the time, write for our lives. Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary. We can get lost in routine and duty, obviously, but getting lost in the love part—love of our children, love of writing—might prevent that. Part of that is self-love. Part of that is creative output. All of it meant to keep us connected to who we are, as creative beings, when external forces might sever or corrupt such connection.
Parenting takes everything you have and more. Parenting solo—just like any kind of human activity—means nothing is perfect: you make mistakes, you run out of energy, you ultimately have only yourself to depend on. Sometimes things get done halfway. None of that fits into the obsessive perfectionism that strongly underlies current parenting norms. Thankfully, though, it fits with our basic human-ness, which means we can forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves (and our children) as we are.
* * *
The stigma attached to single mothers, frankly, baffles me. The most prevalent question I’ve gotten as a single mother: How do you do it? My answer: One thing (or two or seven) at a time, minute by minute, shoelace by shoelace, tantrum by tantrum, laugh by laugh, story by story. I order out; I cook a bunch on weekends; I pass out with my clothes on; I let some things slide, or stay up late to finish. We, as parents, repeat ourselves. And it’s a good thing: we’re teaching our children how to live. Thank goodness each day we get another chance at almost everything.
* * *
This essay is clearly not an explanation of my situation, why I am single, or whether or not I chose to be. None of that matters. It matters that my son is alive with humor, that he is as fragile a human being as all of us, and that he has the strongest heart I know. It matters that he is brilliant and curious and incredibly kind. But, having tired of that kindness thrown back in his face, he will fight if he must. And as much as it hurts, I know he’ll have to. His dark brown skin is the hunted kind; his thick hair and wide shoulders will only grow in perceived threat to some.
* * *
The most important thing I have learned as a parent is to trust my child.
In trusting him, I learned, slowly, to trust myself. It spilled into my work. I wrote the way I wanted to, because it was fun, because it felt good, because it mattered, and it didn’t have to make sense, because it only had to matter to me, at first. I could figure out the rest once the writing part was done.
* * *
Mothering and working means that some things fall down the scale of importance; some fall off. Some return, some do not—they might flicker in the distance or disappear, even from memory. I don’t even miss some of those things, and the others I’ve developed a resigned and optimistic appreciation of later.
When parsing time and energy, the now becomes everything: shelter, hunger, sleep, warmth. I pay attention; the consequence otherwise may cost unbearably more than if I don’t. Because my son and I both have physical challenges, comfort for us becomes the scaffolding upon which the rest of our lives takes shape, even our emotional well-being.
Of hyper-importance: what we eat, where we go, how much rest I get. We’ve become connoisseurs of one another’s moods, and our closeness tied to our health. My writing is tied to my health. I must write. I taught my son to respect and support that. He is older now, and able to understand. He knows I feel better (and that I am a better mother) when and because I nurture my creative work, and he loves that about me. And I support his obsession with incredibly complex strategy-oriented Japanese card games. I take him to tournaments and even play, sometimes, though poorly, when he really wants me to. We allow one another to be who we are. I am lucky. We enjoy our lives. We are a family.
—from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets
Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit, and Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press book award for poetry and was a finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Individual poems have been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and appear in the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq, and Women Write Resistance. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and works as an editor for a finance company. (www.khadijahqueen.com)