A fellow single mother gave me feedback about my recent(ish) post titled "On Being a 'Real' Single Mother." She said I presented myself as someone who was morally superior because I was happy to be a low income single mom. She felt it was unfair that I didn't disclose all my resources. (More on this later.) I want to honor my friend's complaints. In part, because I think she matters and I think her feedback matters. But also because now I'm a little paranoid that I've offended other people. This makes me sad. I don't want to offend anyone, or try to set myself up as superior in any way. So this is an apology/explanation/exploration.
I realize, again, how hard it is to communicate. Talking about single motherhood is more difficult than I ever imagined it could be. I had a piece come out online last month about single motherhood. Although I feel I should have been prepared for the backlash, I (naively) was not. It was almost as if when I wrote the words "single mother," people starting responding to issues completely outside of the frame of what I was talking about. It felt suddenly like it was impossible to talk about single motherhood because the phrase itself meant something so distinct to people that we could not even understand each other. Ships passing in the night. I wasn't ready for angry and degrading notes in the comment section. I was prepared for the (admittedly small amount of) hate email. In some ways, it makes me never want to talk about being a single mom every again. In other ways, it makes me feel like I need to buck up and keep trying, accepting the ways I have and will fail and accepting the criticism with a kind of thanks that it can hopefully improve me.
This being said, it is important to me not to offend other single mothers. Or to offend the people who have been kind to me - and the support that I have received. My friend said that she was made to feel bad because she accepts state aid. In light of that concern, I want to say that I am in NO way against single mothers receiving government aid (even if I don't). Moreover, I think stigmas about receiving aid are really deeply hurtful and powerful. Everything I know makes me believe that our society absolutely stinks at caring for its members, and single parents are among the many for whom that is true. A 2012 report from Legal Momentum compared support for single parents in 16 high income countries, concluding that the single parents who were worst off were in America. So, yes, I'm for state aid, but more specifically, I'm for a society where people are supported in general and communities of people care for each other. I don't want anyone to imagine that they should feel bad because they receive support - I was trying (poorly I've gathered) to suggest there is more than monetary support that single parents need. I was trying to say: I struggle to be my honest self when all that people know about me is that paying my bills is hard. There's so much more going on in my life - and so much GOODNESS and sweetness that I've personally experienced in being a single mother. This does not negate my struggles, but both exist. You could say, I want to challenge the idea that there is "bad single motherhood" (in poverty) and "good single motherhood" (super-worker). I've found more good in the bad side and bad in the good side than I would have believed.
My friend suggested to me that this blog didn't reflect who she knows me to be in real life and she wanted to see more of the accessible, compassionate person she knows and believes me to be. I appreciate her support in this effort, because that is exactly what I want to do here, but am struggling to know how to do that. In short, it is more difficult than I thought it would be to be honest (esp. without using my body to communicate). In particular, it is hard to discuss my feelings, experiences, and ideas in a way that is 1) understandable 2) relate-able and 3) non-offensive. I understand (I hope!) in some way why my friend who is a single mom would have a negative reaction to my post. I want to clarify some things that I hope will make my experience more clear and less offensive, if anyone else has been offended. I did try to be totally transparent about my resources. I did not mention that I have a very occasional second job editing for a professor, which I do at night after the girl is asleep. Or that I house/dog sit for extra money a few times a year. Or that I sometimes get money at Christmas and my birthday from my parents (and amazing grandmother), or that a few times my parents have given me a little bit of money, such as last fall when I needed a couple hundred dollars to pay rent that month. (My parents are saints.) I also didn't say that I get a tax refund. Or that the most wonderful people at a Mennonite Church I went to gave me money when my husband left me and my summer teach job fell through at a school that closed. I also didn't mention that my university pays for 30% of my daughter's school tuition. Or that on occasion, I've stood in line for an hour at the Episcopal student relief to get some food. I do want to recognize - with full thanks - that there are amazing people who have made my life possible. I wouldn't make it without these people. I live in a network of support.
Now I feel silly. Talking about money is embarrassing. And inevitably offensive. Sigh. And, I guess, what I like least about it is that it doesn't get to the heart of my real struggles in life. Which, I think, is what I was trying to address in my previous post. I felt embarrassed to talk about my "poverty," not because I think there's any shame in not having things, but because, well, I'm not sure that I live in poverty, even if I do according to our cultural standards. In reality, I feel like I have a lot. I have a place to live and a queen sized bed. I know I live comfortably compared to most of the world. And when I do have money, I don't know what to do with it. That feels like the bigger problem to me. I have constant guilt when I buy a lot of groceries and when I buy a coffee or a tea (which happens multiple times a week). I can't always afford these things, but when I can I buy them. And I felt literally sick this last weekend when I did laundry and again realized how many clothes I had. I was really happy when I lived in China and had 4 shirts and 2 pairs of shorts. My reality is nothing like that now. Yes, I struggle with my situation. But to suggest to people that my personhood is consumed by the struggle to financially survive (and to cope with the stress that that creates) makes me feel invisible because, honestly, I have a much harder time with other things. I'm a more selfish and vain person than I ever wanted to be. I don't know how to not be. I struggle with having too much, with wanting too much. Yes, having a low income is hard. But even though it may not show, I'm also concerned with the fact that I have too much instead of too little.
And yes I sometimes/occasionally/often feel that I cannot make it. But how is that different from so many people? I guess what I'm trying to say is: for me, I think my struggles are not TOO unusual. And despite the impression that my life is hell because I'm a single mother, what I want people to know is that while life can be hell, it can simultaneously be other things. Valuable things.
All I wanted to say in my last post was that I personally didn't know how to be thankful until I became a single mother. I don't think that makes me superior in any way - I think it just suggests I was kind of a big jerk beforehand (i.e. more "Western" and "secular" that I'd like to admit, particularly to myself). I somehow needed this event in my life. I don't know why. I don't know how. I just know that even though I didn't chose it, and even though I'm supposed to hate it, I actually love this little life. I like who it makes me.
I wasn't trying to say that I love having a low income. But I WAS trying to say that I love what being in this position has done to me, how it has changed me. I don't love waking up and feeling unsure how I will make it through the day. But I feel like I can imagine new possibilities because of it. And I feel more hope about finding new ways to live in a consumer society, and feel more potential to address (with some honesty) what extreme dependence I have on material possessions. Most of all, however, I feel infinitely thankful that I have this delightful child to care for. And that makes me love being a single mom. I don't actually know if my life will get easier. I may, in 4 or 5 years, finish my degree get a teaching job and make a lot more money. I may be able to "make it." But to be honest, university jobs are scarce. I may also spend a lot of my adult life hovering at this margin. I've started to believe there are more important things than being comfortable. It's been a hard earned conclusion that I did not want to make.
Before I was a single mother, I used to imagine that there were three possibilities when I faced a difficulty. 1) I could buck up and work harder. 2) I could ask for help. 3) I could wait for it to pass. What I think now about struggle is slightly different. All of these possibilities I used to imagine relied on one fundamental assumption: my goal should be getting rid of my struggle and/or discomfort and/or difficulty. A good life was one that was free of difficulty, ugliness, or struggle. I no longer think that.
I've started to think that a life without struggle is exactly what I don't want. This particular struggle of single motherhood is what makes me aware of the needs of others. It is what makes me strive to find a new way to live outside of the pursuits of success and financial security. I have a richer, strong self because of it. I'm more connected to everything around me. I have real, moving emotions that used to be harder for me to access. In light of this, I'm started to wonder what would happen if I tried to love my struggle, instead of hide it? What if I made peace with it instead of trying to vanquish it? What if I imagined this struggle was my friend? What if, I hesitate to say it, what if God was (is) in it? I have began to wonder if there is something meaningful in my suffering. Something more valuable than the things I'm culturally told are valuable, like hard work and financial independence.
That sounds potentially offensive, I think, to suggest that everything we need to know about being human can't be contained within the system of education and employment that drives our world. But...ummm...I still believe it. I understand if you don't. I've started to wonder if avoiding pain and discomfort is part of this culture - a part of this culture that wasn't helping me learn or live or love anyone. What if I could experience things, accept them, and welcome them? What if I could let myself be a single mother with thanks, instead of in despair? (While at the same time being able to acknowledge that things in my life have been painfully difficult to the point of feeling impossible?)
Suffering. Oh suffering. The truth is, I'm always being told to be quiet when I talk about suffering. I'm always being told no one wants to hear it. (Except, maybe, my dear friend Dostoevsky.) When I was a young buck, I wrote a personal statement to get into a graduate school. My undergraduate adviser was aghast that I discussed my suffering and struggles in my paper. He was very clear: no one wanted to hear about my suffering, why it inspired me, or how it got me where I was going. He told me people would doubt me, that I needed to show a more positive side of myself. But I wanted then - and I want now - to talk more honestly about what it means to struggle. In terms of single motherhood, I want to be able to be an authentic person and talk about why single motherhood is making me more loving, kind, compassionate, and resilient. I am NOT saying that I enjoy suffering. Au contraire. I WOULD like the suffering I still experience to end. (And all my daydreams center on this, sadly. I wish I was cool enough to daydream about ending hunger or helping with international crisis...but...nope...I like to imagine I have a big, beautiful garden sometime in the future. Sigh.) This all being said, I've learned I can live with suffering. And that is a first step for me having a more real life. Which is only to say that, personally I've been trapped in the need to be great or accomplish great things for most of my life. No one else I know seems to be as much of an idiot as I have been about these things. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with doing things that are great. Rather, I'm simply saying, my life has been made less valuable and rich under the self-inflicted pressure to do something "meaningful" according to culture's standards. And so I think about that a lot when I parent.
Ergo, now I'm not trying to shortcut my way out of this suffering, the way I would before. I'm not trying to get somewhere else, I hope (I think.) ( I pray). I think this is beautiful. This life I have. I'm trying to stop running away from it. Yes, over the last years I have been in a fair amount of pain much of the time. But I feel I can't acknowledge that both are true. That this is the greatest sorrow and the greatest joy I've ever know, different sides of the same coin. I feel like I can't recognize to people that I feel somewhat liberated through my "failure."
I know that other people my be offended, indifferent, judgmental, disinterested, and the likes as regards to my life, whatever they know or do not know about my circumstances. Which is why I was trying to just gesture to it in the earlier post and not go fully into it. But I love this little life. And I want to be allowed to love it. Which is, I suppose, what gives me the desire to speak. Not to be all metaphysical about it, but something in me STRONGLY believes that although I did not choose this life, it chose me. And I'm learning every day how to be happy with that. It makes me wish people were less hard on single mothers, or less assumptive about their experiences, whatever they may be.
When I think of what I want to do to help other single mothers, part of what I imagine is finding a world where we don't immediately assume that single motherhood is just about the economics. I hope more broadly for a world where we can talk about meaning, happiness, success, love, and life outside of economic terms. Yes, finances are often a struggle, but frankly, they are often a red herring for what my real struggles are as a single mother and the way that I am culturally at odds with others. What I mean to say is that one of my challenges as a single mother is feeling reduced to either a villain or a hero. I'm not either. (But especially not a hero.)
I don't assume other single mothers are like me. Or that anything about what I'm saying is universal (or even special). I don't assume I'm doing something right. It's just that this is my experience. And this is me working with it, responding to it, welcoming it. This is me approaching it like a painter with a still life. I'm sketching and re-sketching. Seeing and re-seeing.
I understand that my ideas are not always easy to access. Or, more honestly, I know that people will tell me they don't understand me. The words "bizarre," "unusual," "charlatan," "not a genius," "prophetic," "Deluezian," and many others have often been thrown my way. I don't know what to do with that. I don't know what to do about the fact that not everything I say or think doesn't make sense to other people. It is a big impediment. I recognize that. I apologize for that. I'm working with what I've got. Still, I don't really know how to not think the way I think. I have been trying (and I will continue to try) to find a meaningful way to communicate. The people who have been gracious and generous to me (many of them have been Canadian) are a profound gift. I'm still trying to speak because of them. Many of the people who have been kind are academic people. So, despite the fact that I am trying to pull off a non-academic blog, in many ways, I do find myself gravitating toward the kind of thing they would like. Alas.
Let me try to, again, articulate what I'm trying to try to do here. It is, in truth, not separable from my experience as a single mother and my need to find new ways to mother in this culture. I find a lot of resources that help me understand what my child is "wired" (biologically, cognitively, emotionally, you name it). What I find less of is people who can help me understand what my society is wired like and how I can respond accordingly. What I imagine I am doing as a parent is not just "making" a child, but interfacing between that child and the society we live in. I'm not teaching them to be a human being, but how to be a human being in our society. At the same time I'm wanting to be honest about the fact that I am highly skeptical of how our society is organized.
Ergo, here I'm not thinking about how to be a superior parent, although most of my engagement starts with a parenting difficulty I'm having. However, rather than just trying to understand what is happening in myself and/or my child, I'm trying now to think about what's happening in my culture that sets up those struggles. In other words, plenty of people can tell me HOW to parent "right." But few have helped me understand WHY to parent "right." And, for overthinkers like me, this is a problem. For example, I see a culture that values emotional intelligence for where it can get people. I see a culture that prizes the ability to get ahead. I see a culture that lauds individual achievement over collaborative problem solving. I'm not sure it's the world I want to be trying to succeed in, or the world I want my daughter to fully submit herself to, just because I tell her to.
Because I have less time and money to create an "alternative" lifestyle - my bike trailer was yet again stolen again this morning and no, I don't buy all my vegetables at the farmers market - I am trying to work with what I have to create a new way. It's not something I can do alone. I simply can't live out a vision of parenting that I feel comfortable with without anyone who has a shared vision. So, maybe that makes me a disadvantaged single mother. Or maybe that makes me someone who has something unique to offer. Who knows.
What I'm doing here may not be useful in terms of quick tips for parenting. This is a meditation, not a guide. Maybe it's silly. Maybe it will get me nowhere, or perhaps it will make people angry, suspicious, or unkind. But I can't seem to help myself. I don't want to raise my child this way. I don't want this system. I believe there are other possibilities.
And, call it optimism if you want, I have found the best resources for finding a new way are in my struggles of being a single mother. The mother of invention, if you will. It is out of the necessity to survive that I have found myself being able to better stop playing the "get ahead" game. It's not the world I want to live in, the one where I'm trying to make myself better constantly, or imagining my parenting to be constantly making my child better.