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Treading Water and Holding Your Head Up: Second-Generation Single Mothering

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Mother’s Day, friend of Emdashes Caledonia Kearns writes:

For years I thought my father was the story, though I knew nothing of his day to day. I just knew that his life was more cinematic than mine and my mother’s—for one thing, he was dealing his way through the grit and graffiti of 1970s and ’80s Manhattan. A surviving beatnik, he went from burning his draft card and feeding the poor on the Bowery at the Catholic Worker, to selling marijuana in a loft with special built-in bins for the various varieties he sold.

When I was three, he left our limestone apartment in Crown Heights and moved to a SoHo that still smelled like industry and garbage. It was bohemian existence. The loft wasn’t fancy, but the bathtub was made out of a whisky barrel, the antiquated elevator had a steel gate like an accordion, and Joey Ramone occasionally appeared in the elevator. My father met John Lennon at the Corner Bistro, knew that Kerouac’s preferred drink was Jack Daniels on the rocks because he’d sat with him at the bar. Once, when he was selling the Catholic Worker newspaper on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, he said that Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend tried to pick him up.

So many stories we tell are about men known by their last names: Kerouac, Ramone, Lennon, Ginsberg. This is what tripped me up for so long. My father had a New York life that intersected with those of New York men and I thought I must be interesting by association. But my childhood story is that of a single woman raising her child alone in an unglamorous Northern city—my mother and I left New York City for Boston when I was four. My father looks like the Monopoly man, and growing up he was like the game’s top hat to me, a metal piece I moved from east to west, uptown and downtown across the map of Manhattan in my mind. My mother was my home.

When they were first separated, the year I turned three, I saw my father every weekend. Once we moved, he visited three times: my 8th birthday, a ballet recital when I was 12 and my high school graduation. He was getting arrested, on and off probation, visiting Mexico and Puerto Rico on business and to lie low, while my mother was a Montessori teacher, a waitress, a worker in the mailroom of Boston’s public television station, a graduate student, a Head Start teacher, a graduate student again, a waitress/adjunct professor, then finally a professor of adult students going back to college to get their undergraduate degrees. She did not get that job until I was a senior in high school. If we hadn’t had family friends with three daughters who fed me dinner at least twice a week, and opened their home to me whenever necessary, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

I was always clear, however, that my mother and I were better off alone. My father was not just a dealer, he is an addict, and there was never any way to divorce the two. He called occasionally and except for annual reunions, initiated by my mother at his mother’s house in New Jersey, he knew nothing of harsh New England winters or how the salt air wafts into Dorchester off of the Atlantic. My father once told me he got me a good mother as if he were some kind of god with the power to grant maternal favor, but there is some truth to this. He had a child with a woman whom he knew was more than capable of raising that child alone. He knew he could trust my mother to work like a dog and support me in a way he never could. And, he did, indeed, know that she had that indefinable something extra—she was a good mother.

But my mother is not unique. She is a member of a tribe of single women who work hard to support their children and do it well. Common as bread. Throughout my childhood, I thought I could avoid her fate. I told my grandfather not to worry, that I wouldn’t end up like her. When I was ten and my mother was raging yet again about how little money there was and how my absent father never contributed to my support, I vowed I would do better. Not in terms of career, I knew my mother was doing her best while fulfilling her intellectual gifts, and I never begrudged her making the choice to get her doctorate, but I promised myself I would find a partner I could depend on, a partner who would take care of me. And I did, but I didn’t marry him. My first love is one of the most steadfast men I have known, but we were too young. Years later I married an artist obsessed with painting. We separated when our daughter was four.

I didn’t escape the sins of my father. I thought my ex-husband would change after the baby was born. Instead I found myself in an enormous building alone. When he left he said his leaving would be okay, our daughter would be fine, as I had been, but he never connected my fatherlessness to what it was about me he had to leave—the fatherless child pretends not to need. He knew no matter what he did I would take care of our daughter as my mother had done for me.

For so many years, I worried I’d become my mother. To escape her fate, I trolled for love on OkCupid, dated all the unavailable fortysomething men in Brooklyn, then blamed my own unavailability on them. I understand as the years go by that I have inherited my father’s restlessness. And while our circumstances echo: single woman, urban apartment, cat, daughter, I now say I’m a single mother who was raised by a single mother without flinching. You’d be surprised how freely people comment on my situation. A lover who thoughtlessly asks, “Do you ever worry you’re just like your mother?” Worse is the unspoken judgment. The unsaid, “Poor you.”

My mother worked hard every day of my childhood. She wrote in the morning, ran hundreds of miles, served hundreds of people at one restaurant or another, went to school either as a student or a teacher. No one ever told her it was going to be okay. And we were lucky, my grandfather was a liquor salesman who paid for my sneakers and braces and bought me a cornflower blue Marimekko comforter and matching sheets for my 12th birthday. He left enough money when he died so that my mother’s cashing in her pension each time she switched jobs did not screw her financially in retirement. She lives carefully, but has a car, a small house, a horse and a cat.

Ultimately, there is no “leaning in” when you are raising kids alone, nor is there any leaning on. Being a single mother means constantly treading water to stay afloat, while holding your head up in the process. Maybe this is why there are so few single mothers who write about work. I have wanted to contribute article after article to the ongoing debate about working mothers, but finding time to write when you have a full-time job and are running a household, while possible and achieved by many, has been challenging for me. This is, in part, why I write poetry. A poem is jewel-like in its compression. It can be entered into and revised intermittently and on the fly.

It has always been ironic to me that that while society offers no real support for the single mama, there is, in concert with the pity, loads of condescending admiration. Friends and colleagues wonder how I do it alone. I never answer, “I don’t know how you do it and stay married.” I say that sharing my daughter with her father offers me time to myself, that while I miss her when she is with him, we have been doing this for nearly a decade. It has taken nearly that long to shed my skin, not to be afraid that I am living my mother’s life. We may not be models of partnership and interdependence, but no one can have it all. I am a second-generation single mother proud of my mother’s legacy of hard work and creativity. This is not such a bad inheritance.

Elsewhere, Caledonia Kearns in the Awl: “Louie” in Divorceland, Where a Fun Schlub is a Super-Stud.


This is a wonderful essay—thanks! jf

Jay FeatherstoneMay 12, 2013

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree