When I was pregnant with my second child, I was aware that there were ways in which I was not prepared to take care of a baby on my own, but that awareness didn’t unduly influence or affect me. What I thought to myself was, “The universe will rearrange itself for this baby.”
I often hear people refer to other single mothers I know as “crazy,” and I assume that they refer to me that way, too. I have thought about this word, especially in relation to one single mother in particular who seems to me more sublimely functional and sane than anyone else I know. I began to realize that the quality people are referring to as crazy is actually what I would call “romantic.” They mean that she is not influenced by the practical news on the ground, is listening instead to another story that is in her head. She is drawn to things that are, according to the dictionary definition of romantic, “impractical in conception or plan” and is in thrall to the “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized.”
This is a common thread in the single mothers I know: They go for vividness over contentment, intensity over security. One was embedded with the Army in Afghanistan when she was six months pregnant, another somehow floats with her toddler between Los Angeles, Paris, and wherever her French rail pass will take her. Others with more pedestrian professional lives simply decided to have a baby while their romantic lives remained complicated or turbulent or a work in progress. I can see why this is “crazy” in relation to conventional, settled life, but is it crazy? And, more importantly, is the term crazy one of our few acceptable ways of passing judgment on something different or unusual or uncommon in a culture that is technically not supposed to be passing those judgments?
To be clear, I am writing here about myself and the handful of other single mothers I know, specifically women who conceived children in some sort of relationship that they are no longer in and had the baby: a tiny, arguably privileged subset of single mothers. (It’s worth noting, though, that nearly four in 10 babies in this country are currently born to single mothers, and a rapidly growing percentage of those mothers are adults.)
A few months ago I came across a Pew Poll showing that a large majority of Americans still view single motherhood as unacceptable and, in the colorful words of the poll, "bad for society."* Which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Caitlin Flanagan wrote in Time, “Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father in the home,” which is perhaps a little unsubtle for progressive New Yorkers, and yet many of them think and recycle polite, modified versions of this same idea.
Someone who was trying to persuade me not have the baby said that I should wait and have a “regular baby.” His exact words were, “You should wait and have a regular baby!” What he meant, of course, was that I should wait and have a baby in more regular circumstances. But I had already seen the feet of the baby on a sonogram, and while he was pacing through my living room making his point, I was thinking: This is a regular baby. His comment stayed with me, though. It evoked the word bastard: “something that is spurious, irregular, inferior or of questionable origin.”
Someone said, similarly, to a single friend of mine who was pregnant that she should wait and have a “real baby.” As if her baby were unreal, a figment of her imagination, as if she could wish him away.
Such small word choices, you might say. How could they possibly matter to any halfway healthy person? But it is in these choices, these casual remarks, these throwaway comments, these accidental bursts of honesty and flashes of discomfort that we create a cultural climate; it’s in the offhand that the judgments persist and reproduce themselves. It is here that one feels the resistance, the static, the pent up, irrational, residual, pervasive conservatism that we do not generally own up to. Hawthorne called it “the alchemy of quiet malice by which [we] concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles.”
A novelist I know is sitting on the bench in the park with his wife and two sons. He peers into the stroller at my 5-pound newborn, Leo, and says, “How did that happen?” He smiles radiantly: It’s a joke! But my 6-year-old, Violet, is standing next to me, and I feel her stiffen because she senses something in his tone, something not quite nice. I say, “The usual way,” but I have a feeling that if I were married, he would have said something more along the lines of “congratulations.”
It’s around this time that I begin to see that The Scarlet Letter is in fact a fresh, modern commentary. One might be under the impression that tolerant liberal New York bears no resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s windy Puritan New England town, but one would be wrong. Our judgments are more polite, more subtle, more psychologically nuanced; latter-day critics of the state are thinking, of course, of what is best for the child, what is the healthiest environment; they are not opposed to extramarital philandering per se, but there is still underlying everything the same unimaginative approach to family, the same impulse to judge, the same sexual conservatism, and herd mentality. The single mother traipsing down the subway steps in heels with her Maclaren in New York (as opposed to, say, Paris or Berlin) is not as many worlds away as you’d think from Hester Prynne.
One day one of my colleagues, noticing that I was pregnant with my second child, ducked into my office and said, “You really do whatever you want.” He meant it as some variety of compliment, and I took it as such, but I was beginning to get the sense that other people were looking at me and thinking the same thing; it seemed to some as if I were getting away with something, as if I were not paying the usual price, and if the usual price was take-out Thai food and a video with your husband on a Saturday night, then I was not, in fact, paying that price. James Baldwin once wrote, “He can face in your life only what he can face in his own.” And I imagine if you are feeling restless or thwarted in your marriage, if you have created an orderly warm home for your child at a certain slight cost to your own freedom or momentum, you might look at me or someone else like me and think that I am not making the usual sacrifices. (I may be making other sacrifices, but that is not part of this sort of calculation or judgment.)
Before I have the baby, one of my friends politely suggests that it may be “hubris” to think that I can make up for the fact that the baby’s father would not be in the house, and not even in the city most of the time. He tells me that I am too confident in my own powers. This worries me, sometimes late at night, because I wonder if it’s not true, and there are times during the baby’s first year when I wish the earth would stop spinning so that I can get off for a moment and rest. But maybe this is the good and useful kind of hubris.
The submerged premise here is that there is something greedy, selfish, narcissistic, or anti-social about having a baby on your own. But is there? It seems to me that if anything a baby born in these conditions is extra-wanted. The fact that having that baby is not necessarily the obvious or predictable or easy thing to do at this particular juncture in life makes it all the more of a deep and consuming commitment.
At lunch I mention to an editor that I am thinking of writing about single mothers and the subtle and not so subtle forms our moralism toward them takes. He says: “That’s a good idea. And I say that as a guy who looks at single women and thinks, ‘What’s wrong with her? How did she screw up?’ ”
In spite of our exquisite tolerance for and fascination with all kinds of alternative lifestyles, we have a wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome, our enlightened modern version of shame. It malingers, this idea; it affects us still.
The power of this view is that it very easily gets inside your head, it resonates with every children’s book you have ever read about little bear families, with all the archaic visions of family that cohere in the furthest reaches of your imagination: It’s hard to free yourself.
I notice the tendency in myself is toward jokes, toward a kind of protective mockery. I find that I am very deliberately not apologizing for the baby by embracing the most ridiculous, tabloidy words for him like love child. I hear myself spinning a caricature of my semi-bohemian household when I run into someone at a party I haven’t seen in a while: “Yeah, two babies, two different dads. I somehow ended up with the family structure Pat Moynihan was complaining about.”
In fact, by now I have spent so long outside of conventional family life that sometimes when I spend an afternoon with married friends and their children, their way of life seems exotic. The best way I can describe this is the feeling of being in a foreign country where you notice the bread is good and the coffee excellent but you are not exactly thinking of giving it all up and living there.
The baby refers to his sister’s father, Harry, as “My Harry” as in, “My Harry is coming!” It seems to me the exuberant, unorthodox use of preposition kind of gets at the conjuring, the act of creation, the interesting magic trick at the center of the whole venture: His family will be what he makes it. He is 2, but he chooses his own people. He picks fatherish figures, including his own father. I notice people often find little ways of telling me that it’s not the same thing. And of course it’s not, but it seems a bit narrow minded or old fashioned or overly literal to think that love has to come from two parents, like water from hot and cold faucets.
But is it more stable or secure to grow up in a house with two parents? There is arguably an absence of what people like to call borders in my house. For instance the baby seems to have caught my insomnia. Before going to bed he howls like a wolf, then says, “I am a wolf,” then says: “Where is my bottle? Where is my mango? Where is my ketchup?” then very deliberately climbs out of his bed and walks through the halls saying, “I am lost, Mama, I am lost.” It occurs to me that in this unfiltered, unmediated environment I am passing everything along to him. In any event, that’s exactly how I feel at 2 in the morning—somewhere in the middle of “I am lost” and “Where is my mango? Where is my ketchup?”
I am prepared to believe that in a household with two adults, there is often a little more balance, a healthy dilution of affection, a diffused focus that makes everyone feel comfortable. One morning I overhear Violet saying to the baby: “You can’t marry anyone. You are going to live with me.” When I first separated from her father five years ago, she said, “Mommy, it’s like you and I are married.” And this would pretty accurately reflect the atmospherics of our house: a little too much love, you might tactfully say.
Quentin Bell once wrote about growing up with his single-ish mother, the painter Vanessa Bell: “We had to balance the comforts of being so well loved against the pain of being so fearfully adored.” And that seems like a fair assessment of what goes on in my house. (The grown son of one of the single mothers I know refers to this same thing as “the unparalleled intimacy.”) But if I am being honest I like the fearful adoration, the too-muchness of it, the intensity, the fierceness. I don’t actually believe “healthy” is better.
I also can’t help noticing that the people talking about a “healthy” environment are often the same people talking about “working” on their relationships. They are often the denizens of couples therapy and date nights in restaurants with hand-cured pancetta and organic local fennel. I have no doubt that they do create a healthy, balanced environment, but I like to think there are some rogue advantages to the unbalanced and unhealthy environment: to the other way of doing things.
Here someone is bound to say, “Studies have shown …” But as far as I am concerned the studies can continue to show whatever they feel like showing. There are things that can’t be measured and quantified in studies, and I imagine the multitudinous varieties of family peace are among them. Not to mention what these stern studies fail to measure: which is what happens when there is anger or conflict in the home, or unhappy or airless marriages, relationships wilting or faltering, subterranean tensions, what happens when everyone is bored.
One day at dinner, Violet is playing a game where she is listing impossible things. Like it’s impossible to talk when you are dead, when she suddenly comes out with, “It’s impossible to be normal.” The family member in attendance shoots me a look that eloquently points out that Violet might not think it was so impossible to be normal if instead of piles of books on the floor I had a little financial security, if I had a man around the house. If I stopped running around like I do, in other words.
It’s near dawn when I finish the Scarlet Letter and I had forgotten the ending. Hawthorne is careful to tell us that Pearl, wild, radiant, spritelike Pearl, grows up and leaves for Europe, where she flourishes; the suggestion is that she is perhaps a bit happier than the children of the drab Puritan town she has left behind.
It’s getting dark and I am stepping into a taxi, the parlor window is lit, the children at home in their pajamas, smelling of Johnson & Johnson, domestic peace descending, and I go off in the taxi to meet a man at a hotel bar. This will seem to many people like the wrong structure; they will tell me how unhealthy it is, how unsustainable, how unstable, and they may be right, but there I am speeding nonetheless over the bridge. There are other possible ways I could conduct my life, other forms and structures. But I remember hearing somewhere: “You have one life, if that.” And one sometimes feels like mentioning that to some of the more blinkered, respectable couples, to those purveyors of wholesome and healthy environments, to those who truly believe the child of a single mother is not whole or happy in his room playing with his dinosaurs: You have one life, if that.
Correction, Oct. 7, 2010: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of Americans who viewed single motherhood as unacceptable. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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