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 2. Single parenting, I wanted to tell my friend, 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 College 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 40 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 26. I thought I could do whatever I wanted.
Not that the disaster that ensued could have been anticipated. The legal war 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 2 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,” the judge said, “Neglect is not illegal in this state.”
(I have since learned that is not exactly true. That doesn’t change the ruling. But it matters.)
I cried in front of him, more shocked 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.”
My son is 6 now, and those stories feel like a long time ago. He is happy and kind and light. There must be so much luck involved. And grit.
Legally, things are turning around, one clause in the parenting plan at a time. And slowly, 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. 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, child care, compassion. But there was teething, toilet training and the tantrum in Target over a box of tampons I took away from him.
He screamed with his entire little self that had been passed around, neglected, left on doorsteps, stamped, all of it, with so much pain and desperation that I just let him wail right there in the middle of the aisle, daring 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.
I have begun to sweat as I write about that tantrum. My chest feels like it’s closing up. I think about the morning of his recent sixth birthday. It’s Tuesday, a school day for both of us.
I wake 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. A replica of the stuffed dog my grandmother gave him when he was barely walking. Pancake.
This dog – his formerly white belly is gray, 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 had worried that he should have outgrown Pancake, that this stuffed animal had become some kind psychological crutch that would make him a weird grown-up. But I accepted Pancake for what he was: just love and comfort. Totally unconditional, uncomplicated, reliable. And my son deserved that. Everything in our life was 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, 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 to cross 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 are 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.
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 revealing 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 20-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, 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 – 4 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 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 child care 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 feed the dog. They 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 are actually funny. Their help around the house is helpful. They feel like your sidekick, and you feel like a superhero.
You survived all that drowning and fire, after all.
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.
This essay was originally published at Mutha Magazine. K.E. Leong is a teacher and writer. Last spring she gave an Ignite Talk at Town Hall Seattle titled Nightcub Bartending & Middle School Teaching: A Venn Diagram. She lives outside of Seattle with her son. Friend her at facebook.com/unwedmom or follow her on Twitter @kristinleong.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org through December. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-616-2035.