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I’m a single mother and this shit is hard

September 22, 2014

I became a single mother when my daughter was just a year and a half. It was a choice I made for me and for her. I have never regretted it, but still, this shit is hard.

Just a few months after leaving my daughter’s father, I sent him a message confessing that I was having a hard time adjusting to being a single mom. I was having a hard time with everything, my four hour daily commute, an hour on the bus across the Bronx to upper Manhattan to drop her off to my grandmother, then an hour on the train to get to work. The reverse in the evenings. Every day. Five, sometimes six days a week. Then I had to feed her and bathe her and read to her and coddle her and give her love. By the time I put her down for the night I was utterly exhausted but I still had to bathe and get myself ready for the next day. I had to read and I had to write. I am a writer, after all.

His response went something like, “The day you want to sign over the papers and give me custody, I’ll take her.” As if that was what I was saying.

That was my entry into the shame imposed on us single moms. We can’t say it’s hard. We can’t talk about it. We can’t cry over the pressure. We are supposed to grin and bear it. It’s no wonder so many snap, so many are depressed, so many take this pent up rage and resentment out on their kids. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying I understand, carajo.

***

When my girl was three, I started working for a nonprofit that offered professional development and college advising to high school students in the South Bronx. I worked five days a week and took work home with me. My commute was four hours a day. I remember once talking to my co-workers about how hard it was. One of the women in my office had also raised her now adult children alone. The boss, a man, was raised by a single mother as had the head college advisor. I thought I was in the company of people who understood, who I could commiserate with, who would understand why I felt so overwhelmed. I was carrying so much. I wasn’t looking for pity. I was looking for understanding. I wanted, needed to hear: “Me, too.” I wanted to hear how they survived it. How they adjusted. How they made due.

The older woman later said, “Don’t say that in front of bossman.” She said his mother raised three kids on her own and never complained. She was a strong black woman who held it down by herself, raising her kids in a notoriously violent housing project in the north Bronx, so if she could do it, so could I. I was expected to do it, mother my daughter alone, in silence. To not do so proved that I was weak.

Last night, at a talk at Book Court in Brooklyn, Roxane Gay said that constantly being called strong is “a lot of pressure.”

So many people crack under that pressure. I didn’t want to be one of those people then. I don’t want to be one of those people now.

My mind goes to an essay I read when I was in the throes of a depression that I thought would undo me. It was just months after my brother died.

In these lies [of history] black women are strong. Strong enough to work two jobs while single-handedly raising twice as many children. Black women can cook, they can clean, they can sew, they can type, they can sweep, they can scrub, they can mop, and they can pray…black women are always doing. They are always servicing everyone’s needs, except their own. Their doing is what defines their being. And this is supposed to be wellness? ~ “Writing the Wrongs of Identity” by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, essay published in Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression

I imagine how many times so many of us have stuffed pillows in our mouths and screamed, screamed loud, and cried, cried hard, because we’re so desperate and alone and feel so broken, but we can’t say it, we can’t let anyone hear us crying and screaming, because we’ve been told so many times, in so many ways, that to say it is wrong. To say it means we are weak and incapable and selfish and self-absorbed.

What the fuck?

This shit is so hard!

***

In my recent essay “I understand why some women stay,” published by xojane, a commenter had the audacity to tell me I wasn’t a single parent. I’m a co-parent, she insisted. My daughter needs her dad and I shouldn’t use my daughter as a chess piece in my war with her dad. This person even left a link for me to the child support and custody bureau. (Yes, I know I should stay away from the comments. Obviously, I could not resist.)

Let’s pause for reaction.

are you kidding me

Es que la gente tiene cojones!

How many assumptions were made here about me as a person, a woman, a mother, about my relationship with my baby daddy. All from a 2800 word essay. Like I said, la gente tiene cojones!

Not too long ago I posted a status about what I know about being a single mother and how baby daddies (the part time, every other weekend kind) don’t understand that their four days a month and child support does not cover everything. One of the comments came from a woman who apparently felt she had to defend her dad and her fiancé who has two children. She wrote something about how they do the best they can, they love their kids, I shouldn’t vilify them, etc. My response was somewhere along the lines of: “I’m speaking for me. This is my experience. This is not a negation of what your fiancé and/or dad do or don’t do, or have or have not done.” She deleted her comment.

To be clear, my baby daddy never put his hands on our daughter. He was violent with me but he was very tender with our daughter. No one is all of one thing. I’ve never felt like my daughter is in danger with him. When we broke up, I never denied him visitation and he’s always paid child support. We came to an arrangement together. We did not have to go through the courts.

So, yes, he is present, but, no, we do not co-parent. Co-parent is a verb. By definition, to co-parent is to share the duties of parenting a child.

Let me say this in no uncertain terms:

I am a single mother. I am the one who takes her to her doctor’s appointments. I’m the one there on the first day of school. I go to the Parent-Teacher conferences and Back to School nights. I take her to dance class and get her ready for recitals. Last year, when my baby girl cut herself deep while cutting a bagel, I’m the one who held her and cried with her, wrapped up her finger, and took her to the ER. I’m the one who knows how she likes her frozen yogurt (with tons of sour gummy worms and a few chunks of mango). I know that her favorite meal is my spinach linguini with sun-ripened tomato Alfredo sauce and chicken. I taught her to ride a bike. I take her to the park to howl at the full moon and have woken her up in the middle of the night to witness a lunar eclipse. “Mommy, it looks like a ball of red clay,” she said. She was five years old. I’ve done all these things alone. I am a single parent. I live this life. It is mine.

When I go away every year to the VONA/Voices workshops (I’ve been there for six consecutive years), I cannot rely on her father to stay with her while I am gone. I rely on family and friends. On my village.

A few years ago, my little girl got really sick while I was gone. She was with one of my dearest friends who had to go to work. She called baby daddy. I’d given her his number in the event of an emergency. He said, “Her mother is the one who handles these kind of things.” She said, “She’s 3000 miles away in California.” He repeated, “She’s the one who handles this.” It was four o’clock in the morning in Berkeley. I slept with my phone in case of emergencies like this. I called my aunt who called out sick to take care of my little girl.

This is not fuckin’ co-parenting. This is the life of a single mom. It is fuckin hard.

***

My baby girl turned ten not a month ago. She’s already begun puberty. We are early bloomers. On Friday, while I was sitting on the Low Library steps of my alma mater, Columbia University, after a meeting where I finalized plans to perform there in late October as part of Latino History Month, I was marveling at the deliciousness and fuck-yeah of coming full circle. I was thinking about that college professor who told me “this isn’t writing” when I was a young, impressionable writer. He didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. I was smiling wide at the gran “fuck you, look at me now” I was giving that professor in my head when the phone rang. It was my daughter’s school. I heard my little girl’s voice, in almost a whisper, say, “Mommy, I got my period.” (Note: I read this portion to my daughter and asked if I could include it in my essay. She gave me permission. Bless her heart.)

“Wait. What?”

She knew what to do. We’d talked about it so much. I’d drawn a diagram of ovaries and the uterus on unlined paper. Showed her diagrams on the net of her reproductive system. Told her what menstruation is, why we get it, how it’s part of every woman’s life. She was mortified at the idea of getting it at her dad’s house. Her big brown eyes are even bigger when the thought hits her, “Oh my God, mom, what if I get it at papi’s?” “You call me and I pick you up.” I wince at the idea of her sharing this moment with her father’s wife. “And if I get it at school?” “You go to the nurse then you call me.”

I thought I had more time.

***

I think back to when I got my period when I was ten. I woke up to blood on my mint green shorts. I was the first one up. I knew what it was though no one had really talked to me at length about it. I put the pad on wrong. The adhesive side facing me and not the panty, like it’s supposed to. I didn’t discover this until I went to the bathroom and pulled down my underwear. I think they heard my scream on the other side of Brooklyn.

I told my mom when she woke up. She said, “Ahora vas a ver el sufrimiento de la mujer.” She pointed to the supplies of pads in the bathroom. She told my brother when he walked into the kitchen. My brother said, “Already?” He laughed and shoved me then half hugged and half-head locked me. “Don’t grow up so fast.”

That was it. That was how that rite of passage was marked.

***

My girl’s tenth birthday hit me hard. She had a huge growth spurt this summer. She’s wearing women’s sizes now. She fits into my shoes. When I look at her, I don’t have to look down anymore. We see eye to eye. (Yes, I’m a shorty myself at 5’2” but still…she’s ten!) She’s curvy like her mama. I’ve seen men’s eyes linger on her.

The other day, a man who lives in my building threw kisses at her and said, “Tú si estas linda, nena.” I pulled her to me and demanded, “A quien tú le dices eso.” His face fell when he saw me. He insisted it wasn’t to her. I was going crazy, he said.

I saw him. I am not stupid. I wanted to claw him. I didn’t. I crossed the street with my girl.

I cannot protect her from this and from so much and that shit is hard to come to grips with. I have no partner present to help me navigate this. Yes, I have a village that helps out, but in the day to day, it is me and my girl.

Single motherhood is hard, coño!

***

I am an unmothered woman. I was an unmothered child. My mother is not in my life right now and, as a result, isn’t present to my daughter either. Ours has always been an antagonistic relationship. She was abusive when I was a child. She still is. I get why. She’s been through so much. That doesn’t give her a pass for how she treated me. It doesn’t erase the pain of not having a mother.

I watch my girl and I think about this. I think about how lost I was as a girl, having to become a woman alone, through trial and error. I did it. I don’t know how. I’m still adding up the repercussions of that. I’m still picking up the pieces.

“You can be bold and still be broken.” Roxane Gay

I am terrified of failing my daughter. This terror is like white-knuckled hands gripping tight on my neck. Some days I am more terrified than others.

Just yesterday, my friend hugged me tight after my daughter told her she’d gotten her period. I fell into her arms. I’m scared. I don’t want to be but I am. It’s fear that’s fueling this essay.

***

After my girl told me the news, I hung up and cried a little. I fretted over how I’m going to raise this girl in this world that sometimes feels like it’s so hell-bent on breaking us. I imagine a horse being broken in. The violence of it.

I know I will raise her. I know I will put my all into it. I know because in so many ways, I raised myself. I know because this is who I am. I know because I’ve been doing it for ten years already. I know because I am relentless and I refuse to let my fear paralyze me.

I walked to Broadway and compiled a care package for my nena, complete with supplies, painkillers, a little bag to carry in her bookbag so she doesn’t have to put her business on display when she goes to the bathroom. I bought her chocolate and a card with a note from her mama, reminded her how much I love her, how proud I am of her. I said, “Don’t grow up to fast” and put a smiley face.

I’m planning a red dinner for her. Women in our village will wear red, we will eat red velvet cake and red beans and share stories of our first times. We will commemorate this rite of passage with my girl. We will celebrate womanhood and evolution and love. We will celebrate her because such things need to be celebrated.

I will remember how hard it is to be a single mom and though it’s so very isolating sometimes, when it’s most needed, the village gets together and reminds us that we have support, we have love, we are not alone.

From → Essays, Memoir

58 Comments
  1. Lydia Nayo permalink

    Such gorgeousness.

    Ah, sweetie, I wish I could tell you that you won’t ‘fail’ her, but you know I cannot lie to you. But there is this: it won’t kill either of you. And it won’t be a fatal failure. It won’t even be a failure so much as human moment, or two or three. Or more. Love takes up room. You won’t be alone. Neither will she. Love and honesty, as you know, will help you both get up from whatever falls are coming.

    That, and your glorious village.

  2. Love this post, Vanessa. You’re a great mom, a talented writer, and an inspiring human.

  3. Being a single mom is fucking hard. But we do what needs to be done. I’m here you loud and clear.

  4. *hear- i hate this spell check on this tablet.

  5. When I read your pieces, I find myself holding my breath — they’re that good, that powerful.
    Yeah, it’s hard shit. I was a single parent – even when my husband was alive – supporting him and, unknowingly, his addiction too. That shit was very hard.
    It somehow felt easier when he was gone – just the two of us. Afterwards, my girl and I (and yes, she was early too – a shock) became – and remain solid, a love like no other. And it got mostly easier as she got older – we became more like a team – and remain so. Just keep writing. You’re so smart and right on.

    • Your words made my heart swell. Thank you for sharing. For saying, “me too.” And for praising my work. Thank you!!!

  6. I must admit that I hate the term “single” in front of mother. It’s right up there alongside “nigger/nigga” in my list of abhorrent words. I consider myself a mother period. That said, I am not involved with my son’s father and my village is very small; tiny, in fact and it is the reality behind that fact that has me wanting to extend my arms through this wireless computer and hug you. Thank you for this. It is heartfelt and felt in my heart.

    • Thank you for reading. That’s a harsh simile but I respect your opinion & appreciate you reading & commenting. Be well.

      • Yes it is but it’s mainly my response to the negativity that mothers who aren’t married (or in a partnership) experience. However, please don’t get it twisted. Just because I led with that in no means takes away from the power (and painful honesty/beauty) of what you have written.

      • I didn’t take it that way, love. Yes, single motherhood is stigmatized in so many ways. Personally, I own the role. I am raising my daughter the best that I can with all the tools I can muster. I’m doing it differently. Some days, I worry I am not doing enough. Today is not one of those days. 🙂 Thanks for the love.

  7. I have no experience whatsoever in this way, but: I salute you from the very bottom of my heart. Know that it will be okay, and more than that – wellness is a process, and you WILL get there!

  8. Yes! Fist up in the air!

  9. I don’t have a child, but I can imagine how hard it is to raise one let alone raise one by yourself. Good job in doing all that you do. Agree that way too much pressure is put on women and especially on single mothers, so I’m sending good vibes your way. One day at a time, one step along the way. Your daughter will know what you’ve given her in time. She’ll understand one day.

    • Thanks for reading & commenting, Pixie. My girl’s already starting to understand. She told me recently that she overheard her dad saying something about me she didn’t like (didn’t say what & I didn’t ask) so she told him, “my mom does everything for me, I don’t like it when you talk bad about her.” Go Minnie!

  10. Thank you for writing this… it is everything I feel and more put into words. My son will be 7 in January, and I’ve been doing this alone since I was pregnant. Being a single mom makes you strong, but only because you have to be.. not always because you want to be. Your words give encouragement that I’m not alone… thank you…

    • Thank you for reading, Jessica. I’m glad this resonated with you. I hope it helped you feel a little less alone in your struggle. Certainly helped me.

    • Thanks for reading, Jessica. So happy it resonated with yiou. Yes, this role is hard and we take it on fiercely. Good luck to you and many blessings.

    • No we’re not alone, even if that’s how it feels so much of the time. ❤

  11. Vanessa, I cannot begin to tell you how much this post resonated with me. While my son is now 24, I was a single parent from when he was 3. He was also diagnosed with ADHD at age 7, so that just added to what was already an extremely stressful situation. Fortunately for me, I had a loving family and I connected with a man who loved me and loved my son as his own. We became a family when my son turned 10. Being a single mother is a badge of honor and courage. We love, we fight, we juggle work – all for our children’s benefit, all alone and with only our children as witnesses. You are an amazing woman and parent. Thank you for offering insight and shedding light on what is still considered a stigma in some circles. Thank you.

  12. Miriam E. Thompson permalink

    I am married but there were periods of time where I had to take of my kids on my own. It is difficult and extremely taxing. Saying that, I applaud you for the strength you are demonstrating for your child. The future is brighter for dedicated women like you.

  13. No, you’re not alone. I left my husband when our daughter was 18 months old. I can relate to everything you wrote. Co-parenting my ass. He sees her every other weekend and a few hours one day a week. My family is in California and I’m in Arizona but between them and my village, I have one A-Ok kid. It’s been tough. The anger you wrote about, I had to get counseling for it. The kid that I tried to do everything for, she had some rough years. I was afraid to leave her alone in the house for fear she would hurt herself. Then one day I confronted her and told her I had to trust her and it would start with my going out and pursuing things I had let go to be home with her. She started high school last year. It was far from stellar. Then she told me she wanted to go to a smaller school. We found one and this year, she’s thriving. She’s 16. I know I’ve screwed up a lot but I’ve also created a wonderful young lady.

  14. Idole! Where have you been all my life?! Gurl, even when we “co-parent” the shit is REAL hard. And I remember the frightening moments of my daughter’s first periods (she didn’t tell me, apparently I prepped her too well). I’ve only read two of your posts: I cannot fathom anyone calling this work less than “real writing,” truly cannot understand that mindset at all; I am desperate for much, much more; and I wish I had some lyrical and beautiful words to encourage you with.

    You have written your way into my heart. You have become one of my loved ones. You have answered the Universal call to live, love, and let yourself be seen.

    Thank you.

    • Lord, senseandsagacity, that comment just gave me life. I needed to hear that this morning as I deal with some anxiety over my memoir. Thank you for reminding me. Thank you for these lovely, heartfelt words. Seriously, THANK YOU! ❤

  15. daini permalink

    You are inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story because you provided the “me too” I needed to hear.

  16. Krista permalink

    Hi Vanessa,
    Caught only the first few paragraphs of this article posted on Facebook by The Huff because I was, I assume, like you juggling a million things trying to cook, feed, bathe, do homework, and clean at once.

    I didn’t get the full article (but trust me when the ten minutes of quiet time ends, and twenty of cuddles is done and my 7 year old is tucked in) I will. As usual I clicked to the comments to get reader an community feed back. People were vicious and horrible.

    I wanted to reach out to you (tick tock I have exactly three minutes left of quiet time before cuddling) and tell you- don’t read them and I wanted to thank you for dedicating your life to make your daughter a strong, capable young lady. You inspire me knowing it can be done (well I have a boy so a strong capible young man) no matter how difficult and exhausting it can be.

    Ok the buzzer went off, time to cuddle. Look forward to reading the rest.

    Warmest,
    Krista

    • Oh Krista, this message was so perfect. Thank you for searching me out to send me this. Enjoy your cuddle time. My minnie is sleeping next to me. Her friends passed out this terrible chain text that has her scared of sleeping along in her room so she’s tucked under me on my bed and I can’t say I dislike it. She’s getting to that age where her hugs are shorter and not as tight, and her kisses are so quick, I barely feel them.

      Hugs forever,
      V

  17. You are doing a fantastic job. I did this. For ten years or so I was a single mom of three. It was so fucking hard. My family didn’t help. If I was lucky my Dad would help with some cash to buy diapers or whatever. My mother was/is an abuser for her own reasons and also not in my life. My girls and I somehow made it through all that. My youngest is 15 now; my oldest is 21. I was 16 when I had my first daughter. I made it through and you will too. ❤

  18. Marla permalink

    Thank you for sharing your story, Vanessa. It really resonated with me. I became a single mother when I chose to leave an abusive marriage when my little boys were 3 and 7. Though we struggled and often did without, I hoped that they would grow to see that despite those struggles, we were free to be ourselves, and make mistakes and grow without fear, something that was simply not possible in our lives with their father. My boys are adults now, and they are wonderful men. To the extent that it was because or in spite of my actions, I am truly grateful.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. Sometimes we just want to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. Big hugs to you and thank you for being such a great mom. ❤

  19. Monica permalink

    Thank you for this! I am also a single mother. Without my ‘village’ I don’t know where we would be.

  20. Vanessa, you are the bomb! I was the childless teacher who helped a lot of single moms raise their children. I know how hard it is – from a different perspective. You are an excellent writer and I’m thrilled to find your voice.

    • Aw, fantastic! You do know that no one says “you’re the bomb” anymore, right? Ha! How do I know? Because we used to say that back in the day. Hahaha! So, yes, we just aged one another. Thanks for making me chuckle and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I am thrilled you are thrilled. Yay!

  21. Michaela permalink

    We have so much in common, I’m crying. Single mother of twin boys (5) and a girl (7). I left their father in London when he hit me (they were 1 and 4 then) and lived in a hotel in the US for 3 months transitioning and going to domestic violence group. We were happy, but for his temper, which was rare but existent. I have now built a life. I commute 3 hours a day, juggling soccer, ballet, Girl Scouts, swim lessons and school work. I crack. My 1/2 Latino, 1/2 American family reminds me, on the rare occasion that they acknowledge my existence, how much more difficult my mother who single parented three of us as a waitress working two shifts a day had it… Or just how lucky I am that my father helps with daycare costs because so many women have nothing. I joke that I got all the empathy for the entire family. I too am a writer, a professional beggar who uses my talents to encourage others to give, with the written word. Facebook seems to be my marketing tool. Strangers who haven’t seen me in 20 years encourage me to keep going. They tell me how amazing I am. They don’t know me apart from the marketing I do for myself. Online dating offers a slightly skewed version of the same with a twist of sexual frustration. I crack more often that I would like to do. I overcommit. I outsource. I am often not a direct service provider for my children for many things. I am outnumbered. I am fortunate. I live in a cookie cutter neighborhood, surrounded by women who appear to be stepford wives, but I have no time to meet them if their kids aren’t in my sport practices. I rely on other parents to help me when those I pay can’t do it. I feel guilt and then cook for everyone to make up for my time limitations. The dream I had seems gone. I don’t have a new one yet. I’ve been doing this for nearly 4 years. He is in London and claims he can’t pay full child support. He is there because they can’t dock his pay, like they can here. He learned that the hard way. I’d love to be pen pals if you are up to it. My crazy knows no bounds. I am taking them all to Disney alone for a week in a few days. We are a beautiful family. All of our cracks and dents show us for how unique we are. There will be many more, but for now at least I have kept us all alive. Courage is having the strength to try again tomorrow.

    • Your bravery is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story. I understand and am sending you a million hugs. And, yes, I would love to be penpals. 🙂 vanessa_martir@yahoo.com. Just remind me you are the one who wrote me in on the blog, ok? Hugs forever, Vanessa

  22. Vanessa, I can relate. I’m a single Dad that has custody of my 18 year old son and 8 year old daughter. No, it’s not easy.

    The hardest thing for me so far is answering the questions she has about her mother, a prescription drug addict. I try to be as honest as possible, without hurting the love my daughter will always have for her mother.

    Then there’s the fact that my daughter wants me to start dating again, she thinks it’ll make me happier (though I’m very happy as I am, I have her safe). The reality of only having every other weekend where I could go out with a woman is lost on her. 🙂 She also doesn’t see how unfair it would be of me to expect a woman to want to date someone in my position. My world consists of getting her off to school, going to work, getting home by 3:30 when the bus drops her off, girl scouts, gymnastics, swimming, doctors, cooking dinner, shopping for toilet paper (who knew an 8 yr old girl uses so much TP?), laundry, cleaning, plus I also volunteer for a charity that takes a lot of my time, but is completely worth it (bacaworld.org/mission). I have yet to meet a woman that would be okay with taking a “backseat” to my daughter in my life, and until my daughter’s ready to “drive”, then that’s where a GF would have to be.

    So, yes. Absolutely. This shit is hard. But it’s so fuckin’ worth it!

    • Thanks so much for this note. It’s so much we do and while it’s rewarding, it’s still so very hard. It’s comforting to hear “me too” from both single moms and dads.

      You know, some say what we do isn’t heroic. I say those people have no idea what heroic mean!

      I’m so grateful for you and this note and to know, if only for a little while, that I’m not alone in this.

      Big hugs,
      Vanessa

  23. I’m no single mother but I understand your sentiment from a lot of friends & women my age who go through the same situation. I also grew up unmothered and went through girl decisions on trial & error. It is hard to be strong, but we can always be more resilient! May God bless you w/ an amazing partner soon & your child be guided by His Grace in times that you’re not on guard. 🙂 hold on to a happy hope

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