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.
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.)
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.