I have been out as a lesbian for most of my daughter's life. In fact, I don't believe that she remembers the time before I came out. But for most of the six years since then, I have identified first as a single mom and then as a lesbian. Raising a child alone has shaped every facet of my existence: what jobs I can take, because they have to be during daycare hours; what my social life is like, because good evening childcare is expensive and hard to find; what I eat, because care of a growing body is time-consuming; and most of all, who I date, because it is rare to find a person who genuinely likes children and who doesn't mind dates that will probably consist of a rented movie, and could be interrupted at any time by nightmares, illness, or temper tantrums.
But mostly, I think it's me that's been difficult. Here's the thing: when you're a single parent it's almost impossible to be fun and to get things done. It comes at the expense of my sense of humor—because who has time to laugh when there are Things I Could Be Doing Instead. I found that in the wake of the endless rounds of work, supper, cleaning, laundry, soccer games and girl scout meetings, taking out the trash, changing the oil in the car, disciplinary conversations, all with the inevitable deadline of bedtime looming, my sense of silliness—and sometimes my sense of self—got buried, only to appear at those rare times when the bills were paid and everybody washed and fed.
I have survived single-parent-dom by planning far ahead, anticipating potential problems, and being prepared for anything. I always carried snacks and toys in my pockets in case of a cranky kid (and finding them during my infrequent nights out was a guaranteed way to keep me from feeling attractive, since old apples and hairy gummy snacks tend to be the opposite of sexy). Meals were planned a week in advance. I cleaned furiously, because I figured that if the cleaning got behind, I would never have time to catch up. And I spent any free time trying to figure out how to squeeze more in.
Truly, it was a little scary. I recently found a schedule that I made for myself on graph paper early in my undergraduate years. The days were vertical strips, and the hours were on the horizontal lines. Every single hour of every day was marked with different colors for different activities—red for work from eight to five, yellow for commuting and daycare pickups from five to six, blue for the time from six to eight designated for supper, baths, and reading time, and purple for homework from eight to twelve. I also somehow went to class three nights a week while my parents watched my daughter. I don't even remember that semester.
For the past ten years, it's as if I have been afraid to stop, for fear that I would not be able to start again. I didn't have time to stop. Needless to say, it has not always been good. My goal—that my daughter and I be a happy, functioning family—was not met. We functioned, but nobody could say that we were happy. I was grim and stressed out, and my daughter petulant and clingy because all too often, and ironically, she got lost in the shuffle.
This is not to say that single-parent families can't work. But being a parent is a full time job all by itself—one with no days off or health insurance—and most of us still need to work at other full-time jobs for money. I don't believe that the nuclear family model is the perfect one, but I also don't believe that anyone should ever be wholly responsible for the life of a child all alone.
Anyway, this year, I got very lucky and met someone who saw through my manic planning, someone who is queer and who loves my daughter; who is not afraid of the implications of getting involved in our lives and who is an amazing person whom I love very much. We moved in together earlier this fall, and the experience has been both easier and more difficult than I expected. The relationship happened at the same time as I drastically reduced my work hours, and all of these changes have been nothing less than a revelation.
My daughter loves my partner, and with the attention of two adults, she is blossoming. And I am re-learning how to live. For the first time in ten years, I am able to actually begin to relax. And most beautifully, the shared responsibility happens out of my partner's genuine generosity and caring spirit. This is our family, and it is amazing to me.
However, my single-parent coping mechanisms are hard to let go of, and have caused a few conflicts. Like when I start getting anxious about Wednesday's dinner on Monday morning because Wednesdays are girl scout night and it's such a big rush to get home so we'll have to plan something quick but it should be nutritious because my daughter gets cranky if she gets too much sugar and I don't want her to behave badly in front of those troop leaders. Or when I burst into tears over the unwashed dishes because I'm still thinking that I'll never have time to do them before it's time to start cooking dinner again tomorrow. Someone once told me that people who seem insane are sometimes having a perfectly sane reaction to a crazy situation. Changing that crazy situation to one in which I am supported and loved has made me realize that, while objectively completely freaky, my single mom habits served their purpose and now can be left behind, gone the way of four-coffee mornings and that control-freak schedule. I can finally slow down, and sometimes stop, knowing that I will have the energy to get up again, because I am rested.
I want to be present for my daughter and my partner, enjoying the time when we are together. And if I ever am a single mom again, I will order more pizza and serve more mac and cheese and not sweat so much if the house is messy or if we miss soccer practice. The dishes can wait, the night will roll on, and we'll figure it out, together.