I grew up with one parent. My mother raised me with help from her mother. It was not her choice to be alone, but she did make a conscious decision not to remarry while I was still a kid. I am grateful for that and glad that she and my father were not together while I grew up. I believe it was because she made the decision not to commit to anyone else that I had such a well-supported and peaceful childhood.
We lived in a medium-size town in northern Wisconsin, in a small lime-green house with a yard. My grandma, a college professor (herself twice divorced), lived no more than a few miles away throughout my childhood and for a while even lived on the same block as we did. My mom worked as a public-school teacher. During summer vacation I played outside while she tended to a vegetable garden. In winter we baked cookies and made snow sculptures we’d paint with food coloring. We always ate well. We took vacations. It was hardly a conventional childhood in the traditional sense, but in its own way it was quite idyllic.
I’ve realized recently that when I picture myself with my own child, there’s no father in the frame. I imagine it being just the two of us—a team, like my mom and me. Perhaps because of how I was raised and how happy my childhood was, I often wonder whether I wouldn't rather just have a kid alone.
An article in last Saturday’s New York Times talks about the struggles faced by single mothers under the age of 30. With limited education and largely unplanned pregnancies, their situation now represents the majority rather than the exception in the United States. As a 30-year-old college-educated woman, I fall into the opposite demographic, the one statistically more likely to have children while married.
Despite this, I feel apprehensive at the idea of sharing parenthood with another person. Having never experienced the traditional family unit, raising a kid in tandem with someone is as difficult for me to imagine as having another set of limbs. I can’t help but think that having a partner there with an equal stake in the matter would complicate the process.
Rather than being a force of stability, the times my own father did show up served only to temporarily disrupt the pleasant routines my mother and I had established. He arrived unannounced at our back door one day when I was 8, and I thought he was an escaped convict who’d come to bludgeon us to death. I’d screamed, and my mom came running, pausing for a moment to laugh, “No, honey, that’s just your dad.” My father came to see us several times over the course of my growing up. I remember these visits as short and uncomfortable. (His large beard embarrassed me to no end.)
Despite all indications otherwise, I was actually planned, and my parents were married when I was born. Having initially left my mother while she lay pregnant in the hospital (he came back and left again several more times before I was 2), and having since paid child support only one time, I think my father kept his distance in part to avoid his guilt. But there was really no need, as my mom never said anything negative about him to me and for most of my childhood I never really thought about him either way. Once his second wife had a baby, he stopped coming to visit or calling us altogether.
My mother was born in 1956, at the tail end of a generation that grew into adulthood during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is the first generation in which divorce was a prominent, even accepted state of being. Children born of that generation, like me, are the first to have grown up without the stigma of divorce or having one parent. Now that we’re having our own children, we have an entirely different perception of what a family unit consists of. There is a large cohort of people now in their 20s and 30s for whom a healthy family can mean one parent along with a supportive base of friends and relatives.