In those days, those dark, dark days, when everything was wrong and pain lurked around every corner, I was unprepared for each new crisis. Caught unaware, frequently cut off at the knees and left wondering how to react. What was supposed to be a partnership had turned into a war zone, and I had to change my perspective and think differently.
A new plan was necessary. The short-term goal was simple: make it through each day – sometimes each hour. I didn’t know who Maslow was, but I had an acute sense of our own hierarchy of needs. Survival. Food and shelter. Heat. Not being shot at.
I decided to escape – get away from the verbal abuse, so that my sons didn’t think that I approved of this kind of behavior. Toward the end, the abuse turned violent, and I immediately went into survival mode. I had to be cautious, be more strategic, because I had children to raise. That meant keeping an emergency bag packed, squirreling a way a few dollars, and eventually dodging bullets.
Before the world turned upside down, I truly believed that the problem with society was divorce. The root of the problem. I knew without question that troubled kids came from broken homes. Children needed stability, a solid foundation. I blamed single mothers. Until I became one.
Suddenly the world looked different. I became what I despised. Single with two young sons to raise. I felt terribly old, though I was just 32.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, 24% of the 75 million children in the United States live with a single mother. Seven out of ten of those children live in poor or low-income families. Sure, the number of women choosing to have babies without getting married has risen and affects that number. They decided that there was no reason to bother getting married, since half of all marriages end in divorce. Save time and money, skip the wedding and inevitable lawyer’s fees. Simpler that way.
The divorce rate continues to rise. It is now likely that one out of every two marriages will end in divorce. The laws make it easier, with no-fault divorces in most states. That makes it less expensive, since people don’t have to prove the other person did something to cause the split. In many marriages, both people earn an income, removing that barrier of financial dependence. Divorce is an option because in many cases, both parties can support themselves if they choose to go their separate ways. And the stigma that used to be attached to divorce has fallen away as it has become more common. But it is still true that the household of the single mother is usually the one in dire financial circumstances.
Divorce still has a social component, though, despite its increased numbers. In my case, couples that used to visit no longer called or came over. People chose sides or chose to avoid me. Little League games were no longer friendly social events. I sat alone. Was I ostracized because the men thought I would tempt their wives into the wild life of a single mother? Or did the women think I was out to lure their husbands away? Maybe both. Doesn’t matter. Either way, it added a new layer of discomfort to everyday events.
Shortly after our devastating crash, my older son asked me, “Mom, are we the poor kids now?” I wanted to say “Yes, we certainly are!” but I didn’t. I reassured him that we had temporarily relocated but he was the same person he had always been. The comfortable, spacious house with the big lawn in the good neighborhood was gone, and now a sad little tenant house with curtains that blew in the winter wind was home. At eight years old, he knew that our status had changed. My job was to teach him that it didn’t matter, even though it clearly did.
We developed new traditions. Every night at dinner, each of us had to say one good thing about the day. Usually the boys could easily come up with something that happened at school or with friends or playing sports. When it was my turn, sometimes my answer was that the best thing about the day was that it was almost over. But I tried to stay positive.
If I let it, the rage would have consumed me. Early on, it provided fuel and courage. But after a year, it wore me down. There was no energy for anger. There was too much to do, too many other things that needed my attention. I had to start over, claw my way up out of a deep black pit of despair. My goal was to get moving, make some progress, get us out of that dreadful situation. I couldn’t let what he did ruin my sons’ future. Living well was the best revenge, and it was time to let go of the things that took away from what was most important. I purposely chose to focus on the children and made a conscious effort to keep out or ignore negative influences. Some days it was harder than others. Pretending that the person who had harmed us was dead helped a lot.
Psychology Today (PT) says that there isn’t much of a difference in school performance of children from two-parent homes vs. those in homes with single mothers. Important factors were stability and support. In fact, PT found that rarely do single mothers actually raise children alone. Typically there is a network of friends, relatives and neighbors who assist with child care, and the child actually benefits from having a number of caring adults around them. As Dr. Phil says, “It’s better to be FROM a broken home than live IN one.” Having grown up in a home where I prayed every day that my mother would leave my father, I agree. My childhood was miserable and I was determined not to repeat that scenario for my sons.
Many women helped me along my journey. I agree with Hilary Clinton’s statement that it takes a village to raise children. Women who had sons on the same baseball teams drove my kids to and from games when I couldn’t be in two places at once. Neighbors watched as my children played, others invited them to visit their sons. A good friend allowed me to vent when I needed it, but without enabling. After a few minutes of my complaining about the injustices I suffered, she regularly came back with, “So, what are you going to do about it?” She didn’t allow me to wallow in self-pity or get stuck in the “if onlys.” Action is the antidote to depression, so I kept busy, working, making lists, making progress, moving forward. One miniscule step at a time. And the children grew.
If there is one thing that single mothers have plenty of, it’s guilt. No shortage there. I bore the responsibility for the distressing changes that the boys had to withstand. I opted out of a marriage when I finally decided what I would not tolerate. That left me on my own, with no money, no job and no place to live. But the cost of staying married was even higher, so there really was no other choice. I couldn’t let them grow up thinking that their father’s behavior was acceptable, didn’t want them to see him as a role model. If I didn’t survive, my children might be left with him, and I would do just about anything to prevent that. So I had to make the break. But that didn’t lessen the guilt.
And just when I thought I couldn’t go on, couldn’t fix another crisis or solve another problem, the childcare arrangement fell through, the car broke down, the heat was shut off, threatening phone calls kept me awake, a new subpoena appeared, the coach said that my son was in the Emergency Room, and there was no one but me to deal with it. So I did, with a strength I never knew I had.
Wounded and wary, no one was permitted to enter our little circle, or triangle, as it were. Though there may have been the occasional dinner date with a male companion, nobody was invited to meet the children. Raising those boys was too important. The risk was too great.
Years later, my best friend (who is married) asked, “Didn’t you ever consider that it might have been better to have a partner? Someone to help with the kids, the bills, the house?”
“No. It never crossed my mind.” From my damaged perspective, I couldn’t see any positive possibilities. There only seemed the likelihood of having to deal with someone else’s problems. And I definitely didn’t need any more of those. At 67%, the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than first marriages, so there was no reason to go down that road again. Ever.
However, I did develop a new-found respect for women who raise children alone. I now belonged to a club I hadn’t planned to join, and I admired many of the members. It was a lesson in tolerance that was long overdue.
Recently my friend called to say that her 21-year-old son was moving in because he had failed out of yet another college, his girlfriend was pregnant, and he didn’t have a job. A true friend, she said, “Just so you know, even with two parents at home, you can really screw them up.”
Being a single mother means exhaustion beyond measure. Loneliness. Doing without. Hard choices. Guilt. But it also means discovering what’s important. Identifying priorities and stripping away meaningless stuff that distracts from the truth. Tough lessons. Doing and becoming more than I ever thought possible. And just when I thought I had the hang of it, the children grew up, and the job was done. Finally, time to rest. I celebrated the accomplishment, honored the milestone. Then I started the next journey.