“You won’t leave me; you can’t take care of two kids on your own. You can’t handle it.”

cartoon-airplane-89967That was what husband number one told me days before I left him, one and three year-olds in tow, in Riga, Latvia. We took flights to Sweden, New Jersey, Chicago, and finally Des Moines. From the time I left to the moment I fell asleep at the kitchen table at my parents’ house, I had been awake for 56 hours.

Since those first long strides away from dual-parenting, I have been a single parent. Sure, some would argue that my second marriage doesn’t count as being a single parent because I gave birth to another child – clearly not a single person undertaking – and, I did, very technically, have a husband for nine years before I moved out. Those who might argue that would need to have a peek inside that marriage to know that one can be married and still be a single parent.

It has not been easy. Making decisions – from where to live to which job to accept; giving advice – from dating to college acceptance; doing daily life – from mowing the lawn to buying a new water heater: all of these things are the things I couldn’t do, according to husband number one.

Now, I will be the first to say that between throwing the bread loaf across the kitchen in aopT56dpiB supper making frustration and dealing with first son’s post-high school rejection to coaching youngest son through the perils of two new schools in two years have not all been my finest moments. I certainly would do some things differently.

However, at the core of how I have and am parenting/guiding my sons is: imperfection.

They have taken turns over the years pointing out the abundance of my imperfections.

I have not done anything perfectly. In the early days of independent momming, I beat myself up for not meeting a set of mythical, invisible, unobtainable standards that seemed to flit around my conscious. Like the carpenter bees that dive bombed our front porch in Georgia, these standards came out of nowhere and served no real purpose other than to exacerbate the effects of the self-flagellation that every parent – single or no – goes through.

For years I fought this imperfection by trying to replicate the happy parts of my childhood. This proved impossible because even at his lowest salary, I’m pretty sure my dad made more money (relatively speaking) that I do now, at my highest salary. This proved impossible because even on the days when she had the least amount of time, I’m pretty sure my mom somehow had more time than I do on my most unfilled days.

The stress of trying to create a version of parenting perfection lead to things like the aforementioned bread loaf toss. This also lead to some resentment and sadness and stress for me and for the boys. But, gradually it occurred to me that I was, in fact, not only handling being a single mom, my imperfection had somehow helped us make a life where my sons were able to become creative and intelligent human beings despite my singleness and (hopefully) because of the environment we created together.

Somehow my sons have had some really great moments like when elder two sons had set up a war scene all over the living room with the little green plastic army men. Not being thrilled with war games, I asked what they were fighting for. Eldest son responded, “These guys are fighting so that girls can go to school in Afghanistan.” Parenting win number one.army_men_header Another time all three boys – trapped inside on a rainy day – got out stuffed animals and created a farm. But not just any farm: they created animal farm from which Farmer Jones was banished and on which all the animals were treated fairly – their own spin on how the novel should have gone. Parenting win number two. But really, there have been so many more: on the soccer field, directing musicals, on the dance stage, in classrooms, around the world, in the community, and on jobs.  We never really get to see the true achievements of our momming because they happen in our absence.

In considering everything, I realize that I wasn’t really single parenting; I had the love and support of three amazing young men. The teachers, friends, coaches, and family members that provided love and support throughout the years made single-parenting a contradiction in terms.

So, yes, husband number one: I can handle it. I did handle it. I am handling it.


The Gold Standard

“It’s your fault we have never had a father. Nothing about this is normal,” he yelled in tears, surrounded by boxes in the galley kitchen of the small apartment. It didn’t matter that roughly a quarter of American homes are mother-only homes. It didn’t matter that I was educated and well-employed with the support of extended family. Middle son was right. It was my fault.

The year was 2009, and events of a Sunday night had led me to contracting an apartment to be moved into on Friday afternoon. When I told my then-husband about the move that did not include him, he said, “That’s fine. I have boxes in the barn you can use.” Not that there wasn’t angst or anger or acrimony; I guess we had both seen this coming.

The thing that middle son really pointed out that evening was that the gold standard of family life still consists of mom, dad, siblings, and pet or two. The same house to grow up in, visit on holidays from college, and eventually hold the estate sale when mom and dad are gone. In his mind, that was what was supposed to happen. That was the vision. That’s what he never had, and it wasn’t easy.

goldTo this day, he can’t fully know why I abandoned the familial gold standard. When middle son was one, I divorced his father. He has no memories of ever living with his dad. When he was in middle school, I divorced his step-dad. Throughout those years, he, his brothers, and I struggled – separately and together – with what it meant to be “less than.” The church we attended had only back pews for families of divorce; the school they attended prized whole families showing up to every event; the friends they had did camping trips with dad and shopping trips with mom. That was not our family.

I sometimes wonder what would have been if I had been able to give up myself for the sake of either marriage; if I could have blended into the carpeting, allowing and even enjoying the tread marks.  Would that have been golden? We will never know because those were the options I had but could not accept. So, I created a life that required a couple of moves; a mom working more than she wanted; and children who shared rooms and clothes. It wasn’t bohemian by any means; there were no drugs or mental illness or other made-for-TV movie drama points; and, after divorce number two, I boarded up the men’s entrance. But I created a life where there wasn’t really a dad. No picket fence. And very few shopping trips. No, we did not match the gold standard of a traditional American family, and I think about the trade-off and I wonder.screws us up

I wonder if in making such choices, perhaps my sons know it’s okay to quit something that doesn’t work for you. I guess eldest son (now somewhere in Peru) embraced living life on his own terms. I wonder if they realize it’s required to not let yourself be walked all over. I want to believe that middle son knows that there is not a one-size-fits-all life jacket you get along with your college diploma. Life isn’t about matching your neighbors; it’s about creating your own bits of happiness and moments of contentment. Youngest son is certainly carving his own path – and in middle school no less – the time when conformity is at a premium. (I know this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his recent huff, “Mom, my generation is filled with asshole narcissists.”)

Yes, it probably would have been easier for the boys if we could have lived in a predictably standard setting. But, I wonder if they would have developed into the opinionated, creative, beautiful souls that they are if they had lived among only gold bars rather than sparklings of silver, palladium, and ruthenium that made up the moments of our lives.

When middle son stood in that kitchen not so many years ago, I think he was scared. I know I was. But choices had to be made. Oh, children, I do hope that you have a plethora of things that come easy to you in life. I also hope that you are faced with hard decisions that chisel who you really are into your heart. And, I hope you define your own standards – gold or osmium –  and live by them.  You see, no gold standard exists – and that is both scary and liberating.

Join me.