And baby daddy makes three

Memoirist Mary Pols talks about coparenting with her one-night stand.

Published June 9, 2008 1:40PM (EDT)

When Mary Pols was a 39-year-old film critic for the Contra Costa Times, she wanted to have a child. But she was still holding out for the whole traditional love, then marriage, then baby package. Then, one boozy night, she met Matt, 29 years old and unemployed, at a bar in San Francisco.

"Accidentally on Purpose: A One-Night Stand, My Unplanned Parenthood and Loving the Best Mistake I Ever Made" is Pols' memoir of becoming a single mother and learning to coparent with her baby's father, Matt. Imagine a real-life "Knocked Up" with this significant twist: The mom and dad don't end up together.

Broadsheet e-mailed with Pols, now 44, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her son, Dolan, 4, about single motherhood and coparenting.

What do you mean by the title "Accidentally on Purpose"?

Well, it truly was an accident. I was clueless about the fact that I was ovulating. But my body knew that, clearly, and something -- maybe biology -- drove me there that night. Or maybe it was a touch of destiny. Either way, it feels now as though it was all on purpose.

And that's the expression my father used early in my pregnancy, when he was quizzing me about how I'd gotten into this mess. He thought maybe I'd done it on purpose, presumably subconsciously.

Was it hard for you to give up the fantasy future of the marriage to a great husband and kids to follow?

It was hard until Dolan was born. Then I had this spectacular evidence that whatever the fantasy held, it would not have been this child, with this smile, this personality, this essence. I haven't looked back since. Life is better in all ways with him in it. That may sound cheesy, but it's true.

Have you experienced any social stigma as a single mother?

Professionally, I did encounter some. I was heavily courted for a job when Dolan was quite young, and it would have required a move away from the Bay Area. When I explained that I'd need a few months' transition to get day care set up and the Matt visitation angle settled before I could move -- meanwhile working for them from here, which is a piece of cake for a film critic to do -- they basically backed off.

There was some sexism in the language I heard then. "Do you really want to move your 'little family'?" It was clear to me that I would have been much more attractive to them if I were still free and easy and ready to hand over 80 hours a week to a newspaper. The twist is that I've actually been productive professionally since I became a single mother, so go figure.

Do you feel like there would be more (or less) stigma about your being a single mother if you had just gone to a sperm bank?

It's hard to say.

I think when you go to a sperm bank you're making a strong, proud statement, and in a sense, you then have a built-in defense that comes with making a bold choice: This is who I am, take it or leave it. That is bound to scare some people -- weenies, mostly -- off.

In contrast I feel as though I slipped sideways into single motherhood, limping a little, as if it were something I'd always have to be apologizing for. So in a sense, maybe I get sort of a "sympathy vote" because of that. But now that I'm here, I feel no need to apologize.

Do you think a generation ago you and Matt would have gotten married? If so, do you think if you had, it would have been a disaster?

A generation ago, Matt and I probably would have gotten married. He's such a sweetheart, and so patient and kind, that I don't think it would have been a disaster exactly. But I don't think we'd get along as well as we do today.

My hunch is that my perspective, had we gotten married, would have been to think: "OK, we're done; you said 'yes,' I said 'yes,' shouldn't everything be grand?" And it wouldn't have been, because what is?

Then I expect I'd have had disillusionment to contend with and that might have broken us for good. Instead we're such good friends, who share a common goal.

How do you think negotiating coparenting has been different for you and Matt than for parents who are divorced?

I started with the expectation that I'd get nothing from him. Maybe some babysitting. Certainly not money for day care (he's been kicking in half all along). So for those first couple of years, every time he helped me, every time he demonstrated his complete commitment to his child, I was pleasantly surprised. I felt almost as though he were doing me a favor. Now I believe in his commitment to our child as much as I believe in my own, so my expectations are higher. But because Matt won my trust by example, I also have no fear that they won't be met.

We're lucky in that we don't have that animosity of having failed each other, or failed a relationship. I'm not mad at him about anything. I just think he's a truly good person. We're both proud of what we've created together.

What's it like for you to imagine your son reading your memoir?

Matt and I are honest with him, so I don't think there will be any huge surprises for him when he does get to it in 10 or 15 years. (I'm hoping it takes at least that long.) I have no doubt I'll be somewhat mortified by the whole aspect of Mummy prattling on about Daddy's penis. But I hope he'll get beyond the sex and see the love on the page.

What did you think of the movie "Knocked Up"?

I am a big fan of the Judd Apatow genre, which sends a clear message that in fact, in real life, people tend to be better to each other than pop culture in general leads us to believe. That combination of utter filth and raunch with decency appeals to me. I got a huge, joyful kick out of that movie, even as I was doubting that Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen's characters should actually walk into the romantic sunset together. Frankly, I don't think they'd have lasted.

Update: Debate is raging about Pols' choices in Salon letters. Pols herself weighs in here.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

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