99 Problems

Published on May 7th, 2014 | by K. E. Leong

16

K. E. Leong offers INCONSISTENT ADVICE FROM A SINGLE MOM

When my friend tells me she’s thinking about having a baby on her own my mind flashes immediately to that January morning in 2011 when, as I just settled my eighth graders into a rare calm, my son’s father burst into my classroom with a video camera, sloppy drunk, slurring demands about my son’s whereabouts. It was my first year teaching. My son was two. Single parenting, I wanted to tell her, is filled with so many unexpected adventures, so many of them horrible. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

I had no idea. I was a nightclub bartender still trying to figure out what to do with my Sarah Lawrence degree when I found out I was pregnant. I also had no idea about my seemingly benign but dopey bartender boyfriend. Although I had known him for years, I never could have imagined the evil and manipulation that lurked inside of him, rearing its drunken head even before getting through those forty weeks of pregnancy. I knew from the start that I would be a single parent and I thought it would be hard but I had done hard things before. If I had known how hideous and consuming everything would have to become before it got better, maybe I would have made different decisions. Maybe not. I was twenty-six. I thought I could do whatever I wanted.

Not that the disaster that ensued could have been anticipated. The war to the legal protections to keep my son relatively safe from his biological father has been fraught with red tape and loop holes that raised the eyebrows of even the most stoic judges and Family Court officials. After that classroom incident the judge told him, Don’t ever do that again. And then nothing. After my son was returned to me branded all over his body with a nightclub entry stamp that said SEXY in bold black ink, the judge said, That’s totally inappropriate. And then nothing. When my son was left on my doorstep with a grossly swollen and bloody mouth, his arms and legs bloody too, crying, wearing only shorts and no shoes or shirt, at two years old, while his father drove away and then didn’t answer calls for three days, the judge said he couldn’t determine if the injuries were caused by abuse or neglect. I’m sorry, that judge explained, Neglect is not illegal in this state. I cried in front of him, more shocked more than angry, unable to turn around and walk out of the courtroom. Look at the pictures again. Look. He’s just a baby. Please, please, please. But nothing. The stories go on and on.

kristin and baby at park

Those stories are starting to feel like a long time ago. There are now so many things to be grateful. My son just turned six. Despite everything, he is happy and kind and light. There must be so much luck involved. And grit. Finally life doesn’t just feel like survival.

Legally things are turning around, slowly, one clause in the parenting plan at a time. A Family Court evaluator here. An arbitrator there. Slowly the people with power to help my son are starting to see what I’ve known all along—fighting for visitation isn’t always about love for the child. Domestic violence and alcoholism lie with charm and persistence that looks so much like commitment.

Motherhood doesn’t feel like a Sisyphean curse all the time anymore either. I remember lying in bed with my son as a toddler holding on to him like a life raft. What are we going to do. Someone just tell me what to do. I can’t do this anymore. That was back when there was never enough of anything—money, food, work, childcare, compassion. And there was teething and toilet training. I had to find a preschool. He’s outgrown his shoes already. And grad school! And then he’s tantruming in Target over a box of tampons I took away from him and he’s screaming with his entire little self that’s been passed around, neglected, left on doorsteps, stamped, all of it, and he’s screaming with so much pain and desperation that I just let him wail right there in the middle of the aisle while I dared anyone in earshot to say something just so I could scream back, HE GETS TO LET THIS OUT, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’VE BEEN THROUGH.

ryanarnold

I have begun to sweat as I write about that tantrum. My chest feels like it’s closing up. I think about his birthday morning. It’s a Tuesday, a school day for both of us. I woke him up early to give him his presents wrapped shoddily in pages from a magazine. Two presents. A shark tooth fossil and a stuffed dog. The exact stuffed dog that my grandmother gave him when he was barely walking. Pancake. This dog—it’s formally white belly is grey even fresh out of a hot wash, his eyes are scratched off, his fur is matted into gross little spikes—has survived so many moves, so many other fleeting comforts in and out of our lives, and my son loves him with an animal ferocity. I have worried before that he should have outgrown Pancake by now, that this stuffed animal has become some kind psychological crutch that will make him into a weird grown up one day. Finally, I accepted Pancake for what he is: just love and comfort. Totally unconditional, uncomplicated, reliable. And my son deserves that. Everything in our life is moving under us all the time. For the better. But still. So another Pancake. A back-up, not a replacement. In our family we are loyal to the core.

After he opened his presents he didn’t say anything but he moved over to sit on my lap and I held onto him hard, six-something in the morning on a Tuesday, totally awake for this moment even as it passed. He’s becoming so cool these days. He tries out sarcasm when he’s feeling gutsy. He wrestles me hello and doesn’t want to hold my hand across the street anymore. He has clear opinions on sneakers. He’s quick to tell me his Lego guys have lasers when I tell him there’s no guns allowed. He tells me he has a girlfriend. I’ll take all the soft quiet moments that are left.

The other night he woke up and crawled in bed with me and instead of walking him back to his room I let him stay. As he fell back asleep he reached under my pillow to hold my hand and we stayed like that for a long time. I could feel my heart glowing and swelling outside of my body. All of the clichés about parenting are true.

kristin grad school w F

I think about my friend. She is kind and witty and beautiful and quick. She goes on meditation retreats with nuns on the weekend, when she is not scaring away online dates by getting into her sustainability politics too soon. She’s a teacher, too. She will be such an awesome mom. I want to tell her to do it.

I remind myself that she is not a twenty-something nightclub bartender having a baby with a sociopath. I want to tell her what it’s like to learn about unconditional love through the shock of experiencing it for the first time. I want to tell her about the unbridled joy of being a part of your child’s first shit in the toilet. I want to tell her about being vomited on in the early hours of the morning and thinking only, dear god, just put all of this child’s sick into me, please, help him, take away everything that hurts him. I want to tell her about what it feels like to cry, finally, after so long without crying, kneeling in front of the bed in the middle of helping him with his shoes, because I really couldn’t take it anymore and then to have him—four years old—bring me Eleanor, a little stuffed elephant, while he took Pancake and sucked his thumb next to me until I got it all out. I want to tell her about how it empowering it’s been for me to really get my issues together because another human being utterly depends on me and there is no one else, no back up, no breaks, no childcare that doesn’t come with some kind of strings.

Single parenthood is like drowning and being on fire at the same time and everyone will go on and on about how beautiful the spectacle is—how strong you are, what brave work you’re doing, how they could never do something so incredible. And meanwhile you’re on fire, you’re drowning, and you can’t hear them at all, you just keeping thinking I’M DYING I’M DYING I’M DYING. But then you don’t die. And your child gets older, starts making it easier on you. They learn to dress themselves. They can feed the dog. They can tell you if your yoga pants are see-through when you bend over. The threat of tantrums no longer looms over every trip to the store. And then sometime around kindergarten their jokes actually start to get funny. Their help around the house starts to actually be helpful. They start to feel like your sidekick and you start to feel like a superhero. You survived all that drowning and fire after all.

Kristin and son

Yes, I want to tell her to do it and that I’ll help with whatever she needs—she doesn’t know yet how much need there will be, it’s impossible to imagine the village that children require and then to imagine having an actual child and realizing that that village is just rhetorical fantasy. What to do then? Keep raising that baby. Cry it out whenever you need to—in Target, wherever. Tell your story. As the waters rise and the fire rages on, just tell the story while it’s happening, scream it out like a tantrum. It feels good. And then it starts to feel good more and more and one day you wake up and you realize that you’ve survived the babyhood and the toddlerhood and your child is a person and he is good. And you did that. You get all the credit, you do, even with luck and grit in there too. It’s all you and now there is more love in your life than you ever thought you deserved and you are good too because of all of it. Yes, I want to tell her. Do it. Have that baby on your own. It will be horrible and beautiful and the days will be long but the years will fly by and sooner than later you’ll look into the face of the human you raised on your own and think, yes, we did it. And you might not choose to do it all over again but no, definitely not, you wouldn’t change a thing.

 

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About the Author

K. E. Leong

K.E. Leong is a single mom and middle school teacher.She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. Her blog is The Unwed Mother Agenda. You can follow her at facebook.com/unwedmom and @kristinleong.



16 Responses to K. E. Leong offers INCONSISTENT ADVICE FROM A SINGLE MOM

  1. Lindsay says:

    I’m a single mom by choice (just like your friend, I wanted to do it on my own), and apart from the sociopath father and custody nightmares, this spoke to me. I’m in the early stages (15 months, my girl is), and I’m looking forward to when it feels like less drowning and fires, and more “Heck yes, we’re a team!”.

  2. Drum Lady says:

    wow…yes…tears…beautiful…thank you…

  3. Dawn says:

    As a single mother to a now-adult son, I can tell you it just keeps getting better. I, too, had to deal with an alcoholic, abusive “sperm donor” and spent my DS’s young years protecting him from his birth father, which was actually the most challenging thing about his youth. The lack of money, the time investment, none of that mattered to me, because of the overwhelming love I had of my boy. I still feel that way. Tell your friend to go for it; it’s well worth the effort.

  4. KE Leong KE Leong says:

    Thank you so much.

    Lindsay–keep hanging in there. They’re so cute at 15 months because it helps us keep doing the hard work. Keep seeking people out who are on the other side of it. It helps remind you you’re not dying.

    Dawn–this is so powerful for me to read. Right on to single moms raising good young men. You’re like a beacon.

  5. Dawn says:

    If it helps, my DS’s girlfriend is the one who sent me the link to this blog, thanking me for raising such a wonderful man for her! She saw the parallels between your story and ours, and has a new appreciation for how hard it must have been raising him the way I did. So, yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel; your hard work WILL pay off, and you have some of the most fun years ahead of you – the years when your DS is YOUR champion. Mine would stand up to anyone of any size who dared to criticize me. He was soooooo much fun to raise, and I tell him often that I wish he was eight years old again so we could have more fun.

  6. W.T. Stead says:

    I wept from the front to the final graf reading this the other day, and I’m only today brave enough to return. Until this, here, I haven’t imagined – I haven’t had time – another person with such a similar story. I’m so glad – and I’m so sorry – we share so much. I’m a single dad, that’s different I suppose. But nothing else is, least in this story’s truth, capital T. Our saga began with my son’s biological mother claiming to seek help for women who are “physical,” and, as you might guess, it continues. People tell me my son needs one good parent. Just one good parent. I keep telling myself that, too. I read your piece and read it again and have you. Thank you.

  7. L says:

    Thank you so much for this. Nobody has written anything that remotely compares to my mothering experience in the way that you have.

  8. Wendy says:

    This is absolutely stunning. Such a true depiction of what it feels like to be on your own with a two-year-old. While it actually makes me feel a teeny bit nostalgic for those really difficult days, it also makes me feel a lot proud that my daughter and I survived them.
    Thank you for writing this.

  9. Saraswati Noel says:

    This is everything that I needed right now. Thank you for the courageous gift of sharing your story.

  10. alaina says:

    i’m not a single mom but i’m a mom. and i cried reading this. it was so heartfelt and so beautiful. you’re doing a great job, mama.

  11. laura laura says:

    Yes. You’re drowning and you’re on fire. And then somehow you neither drown nor burn, not quite. <3

  12. Lorelei S says:

    Wow. This is an amazing and validating piece of writing. Thank you so much. I am a solo parent to two kids. I went through the whole legal process of protecting my child from his father with the older kid, and am a single mother by choice to my younger kid. For me, having a kid completely on my own has been light years easier than having a kid with a psychopath–and even so, I’m drowning and on fire! So I try to take that into account when advising prospective single-mom-by-choice friends. It’s hard, it’s hella super duper hard to be a solo parent. But it’s much, much harder when you do it with the wrong person. Much love to you.

  13. Terra says:

    Thank you. I’m seventeen, 5 months pregnant, and scared as hell. So far it’s been scarier than I ever thought it could be. I was homeless without a penny and a boyfriend who was mentally out of it. Things are finally getting better. He’s finally coherent, and even is employed! I have a interview tomorrow. This is just the start, but I wanted to thank you for reminding me why I chose to becomr a mama. For giving me hope that everything will be hard, but worth it.

    • Dawn says:

      Terra – hang in there! If you weren’t terrified, I’d be more worried. The worry is part of what shows you’re prepped for motherhood. Just take each day and each decision one at a time, and you’ll see how wonderful being a mom can be. It’s the best!

    • K.E. Leong K.E. Leong says:

      Go out there and nail that interview today, Terra. It is going to be hard. But you can do this. Sending you support and solidarity through cyberspace–

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