It was the first night of our reunion. My 3-year-old son, Ian, ran into my
arms. I kissed and tousled his hair, happy to reclaim him from The Other
Side, where he had spent a month with his daddy and grandmother.
That night, we started rebuilding our routines: bath, book, bed.
Finally, I tucked him in and turned off the light.
Hours later, he woke in tears. As he snuggled in my lap, I asked him what
"I don't want to be here," he said. "I want to be with Mamaw and Daddy."
I did the right thing. I told him that it was OK to miss his father and
grandmother. That I loved him, and they loved him and gee, everything was
right in the world. He sniffled a few times, threw his arms around my neck,
kissed me and then toddled back to bed. But this is what I was thinking as
I babbled about all that togetherness: You little traitor.
It was the first time such a thought had crossed my mind, although mothers
both single and married say it's inevitable. My best friend, in a feeble
effort to console me, pointed out that her youngest child, the one she
left satisfying, full-time employment for, turned to her once while the
family was leaving for the playground to say, "No, Mommy, you stay. I just
want Daddy to go."
At some point, we end up being the fun police: terminators of good times,
enforcers of rules and regulations. And even though we share wonderful
moments with our children, we suddenly find ourselves transformed into
good-for-you commodities, sort of like oatmeal.
For single parents, that burden is especially hard. I always get a full
accounting of Ian's visit with my ex-husband, who lives with his mom. The
month-long party begins with an armload of new toys. It continues through
the days with a diet of Trix, dinosaur pasta and yogurt. Ian knows every
cartoon channel on cable (favorites: "Scooby Doo" and "Speed Racer"). Bedtime
is optional, with Daddy preferring to keep Son up late so he can see him
In short, Ian is well-loved, but reared differently than at my house.
I was raised with the focus and structure of a reading teacher and a
reporter, and I'm constantly hounded by internalized mother-guilt to
provide a similar format for Ian. My mother created sand trays for me to
practice my alphabet. She hand-made costumes for play. She enrolled me in
floral arranging AND karate one summer.
So Ian and I trek to the library, visit the museum and search for bugs in
the backyard. We have cleaning, reading, dinner and bed times.
But I wonder whether my child's getting quite the kick out of all of this
that I intend. After all, there's the wailing and rending of clothes when
he discovers (again) we don't have cable.
Bedtime becomes a battle, as I try to work him back down to a 9 p.m. sleepy
time after his month with his dad. Often, all the good of the day
evaporates as I, weary from work, snarl threats to my beloved son about
the consequences of peeking out of his room AGAIN.
And those are just the irritations. One morning I burst into tears because
I thought Ian had just told my mom that I wasn't any fun because I made him
follow rules. As it turned out, it wasn't me he was complaining about, but
his preschool teacher, Miss Angelique.
My tearful reaction, followed by my wave of relief, just caused more angst.
Typically, I see myself as a competent person, a steady woman who handles
most of life's curveballs with a modicum of sanity. Before I had
children, I sneered at couples who seemed to be more concerned about being
buddies with their kids than parents. Hard choices and discipline were part
of the bargain.
But what I didn't bargain for was feeling competitive about his affection.
Married moms, after all, might not be preferred at times, but children tend
to see them as part of the larger Parent, a melding of the good and bad of
a couple. Single moms, who have either been abandoned by their children's
fathers or consciously decided to go it alone, also have it easier when it
comes to their children's loyalty.
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My realtor has been a single mom for nine years since her husband left her
and their 2-year-old daughter, never to be seen again. Although she
admits the daily pressures can be overwhelming, she is glad the abusive
daddy is out of the picture. "There's no debate how my daughter will be
raised, there's no undercutting of what I'm trying to do," she said.
That's particularly important as her daughter approaches the cusp of the
teenage years. "Whether she likes me or not, she knows in her bones I'm the
only one she's really got."
In contrast, single moms who share custody say they are unprepared for the
sadism and snottiness that their children can display, homing in on their
mothers' anxieties with the intensity and precision of a laser.
A former co-worker, whose two daughters travel bi-weekly between her
home and the house of her ex-husband, said it took years not to lose it
when they outlined in explicit detail all the things they got to do with
Dad (and now, the girlfriend) that she didn't think was appropriate. "They
would come home and say, 'Hey, Mom, we saw "Jurassic Park" with Dad. Isn't
that cool?' All I could do is try to balance out their experiences."
Another friend who lives in South Carolina, a single mom for years, said
she knew intellectually that her only son would someday announce that he
wanted to go off with good-time Dad in Miami. Yet she was still struck by
her anger over the betrayal. In the end, she didn't even try to plead the
case in terms of her son's love for her. She just packed up his stuff and
mentioned that he might miss his buddies, his school, his car. Her son
decided to stay.
After all, he told her, his home is here. Her son's response, lacking any
overt bow to his mother, wasn't exactly the ideal, but neither is
motherhood much of the time.
And as some moms point out, we must remember the drudgery of life is
what creates lasting relationships. Although fathers and grandparents might
know pizza is a sure winner, they don't know exactly how to fix the hair or
produce the right well-loved shirt. (My ex keeps buying tasteful Gap
clothing for Ian and I take secret pleasure from the fact my child only
likes to wear T-shirts with big, toothy dinosaurs.)
As for me, I find solace in the fact that a kind word from a 3-year-old is
said with the same blinding truthfulness as the hurtful ones. And the
reality is that when I took on the task of raising this child, I did indeed
make a pact with Ian -- I was going to try to raise him into a good man.
That mission does not change, with or without a father. And I take
courage from the belief that we can be good mothers, and even friends with
our children, without winning daily popularity contests.
Not that I don't occasionally throw all that theory out the window.
My ex-husband called me the other day to discuss Ian's impending birthday.
As we tossed up ideas for gifts (swing sets, motorized cars and assorted
evil action figures), he stopped briefly.
"You know, it really bugs me that Ian hates my music," my ex said. "Every
time I put on a jazz CD, he puts his hands over his ears and says, 'No,
daddy, play mommy's music. Mommy's music isn't yucky.'"
A brief silence followed as I, lover of bad pop music, tried to
muster up some sort of sympathetic clucking.
But here's what I was thinking: Ice cream tonight, you lucky little mama's boy.