This is a post about being a single mother in public or - more accurately - about how being publicly perceived as a single mother limits the honesty and authenticity I experience. It is also about the hopes I have to find a meaningful way to use my experience as a single mom to be helpful in our culture by asking people to think more seriously about caring outside of nuclear-family lines. Loving your neighbor, as it were.
Last night my daughter and I attended a lovely local event called “That’s My Farmer” where farmers and community members mingled, ate, and sang some (slightly silly but great) “Buy Local” type songs. I had been asked to briefly speak at this event about the financial support I received last year that allowed me buy a crop share from a local farm.
The event was - in all honesty - very painful for me. It wasn't because it was uncomfortable to get up on stage and represent the face of "low income." I wanted to express my thanks for the people who decided to slash the price of my CSA so I could afford it and feed beautiful things to my daughter. No, I was pained because I found it impossible to be a true self in this setting. It wasn't about admitting that I have needs - which I do - but about how to represent that I have needs at the same time I acknowledge I ALSO have everything I need. And that that's what being a single mother has taught me.
Let me explain.
I stood up there and self-described myself as a “single mother and full time student” I felt awful. Yes, those titles are true. But that is in no way who I am. And I don't just mean that my life is far more complex than what people might assume. Although that is true, what I mean is that being a single mother is a richness of its own. It's supposed to be entirely an experience of poverty. And, yes, it is that. I make less than $15,000 a year and do not received consistent or full child support, or any government aid. Many times I have gone weeks at a time without a dollar in my bank account and no groceries in my house, save the reliable rice and beans we live off of.
But is that really who I am? Does that say a single real thing about me? It’s easy to want to share these details because I want to be understood and not judged, but in reality, these details say nothing about me. And more importantly, they say nothing about what a gift being a single mother has been to me. They don't reflect that having less has done what nothing else could have - made me thankful for what I do have.
Being a single mother isn’t about what’s happened to me - what has been done unto me - but about how I've been undone. How I've had the privilege of being weaned of many of the bad habits I'd acquired as a standard American. I'm more able to be who I want to be - mainly because I've had to be.
I'm sure it's not everyone else's experience, but being a single mother has been the greatest joy of my life. In fact, last week, I was giving my 5 year old a bath and was getting emotional, feeling afraid that something could happen that would change this beautiful little family. It has taken time - TRUST ME, it has taken time - but I am happy with what I’ve got right now. Could there be anything better than that? (Could there be anything less American?)
Being a token "single mom" in public is difficult because I'm supposed to be someone who is struggling to pick myself up. Someone who is miserable. But I'm not that. I don't know why. And I don't know how - expect that our cultural ideas of success, beauty, and worth are maybe...ridiculous. I'm not supposed to be filled with life. But I am.
Despite not wanting to be a single mom, I’ve become far more of who I want to be. Yes, I have had some rather unfortunate things happen and I have struggled more than I could EVER have imagined. But darkness is much weaker than the light, yes? So often I think single motherhood is limited to being understood as what is wrong - instead of what is right. For me, what's right is that I've been able to slowly find a new way to live that isn't as married to capitalism and everything that goes with it.
If I'm honest, what I think is best about becoming a single mom is that I’ve become someone with the ability to care. Which is not to say that I didn’t care before...but...I sometimes wonder if I cared because it was the right thing to do. That I hadn't lived enough to care with my whole being. Now I think it's part of my core - it is a hunger and not an obligation. That's not to say that I don't have to fight to hold onto it, or that I'm able to do something beautiful with it yet. But it is to say that being a single mom has made something beautiful in me that I didn't do on purpose.
Last night was difficult for me because I had to be the face of poverty. I was not myself in those moments. I couldn't acknowledge how profoundly lucky I feel to have everything I have. Everyone was overwhelmingly kind, but it felt like a kind of pressure rather than something that met my needs. It's complicated, because I do need the practical help to survive. But I need something more too. What I long for is finding a way to be fully alive - to do good with the gift of single motherhood that I've been given.
In the end, I felt isolated and unknown. I felt I had to play the powerless, helpless woman. Which is sort of true. For example, as a Ph.D. student I don't get paid in the summer, but I do have to study (hard) for my exams. Also, yes, my daughter is not in school. I am weak and powerless in that way. But that's not the full story. Let's be honest. I’m thankful for what people have given, but I'm given so much more than economic support. And I've got things I want to give too.