This year will mark my second Festive Season as a Single Mom. And I’d kind of rather wade into a teeming cesspool of leaches with cement blocks on my feet than hang out without my three-year-old sidekick on Thanksgiving and Christmas — but it looks like that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.
Viewing category ‘Tentative Steps’
We’re a team of routine, my son and I. We like to know what to expect and during this past year and a half of Just Us Two, we’ve set about implementing comforting repetitive motions to our days.
Saturday mornings we amble through the forest to the rocky beach to throw pebbles, Sunday we stop for pancakes after soccer. Bedtime is at 7:30, and we read two books, not three, and he leaps into my arms for a final hug.
“You’re getting so big!” I tell him each night.
“You can barely lift me!” he replies, grinning, and I kiss his smooth cheek. He reciprocates with a fish-kiss somewhere between my ear and my eyeball.
There’s a suite for rent on a hilly, forested street in a nearby neighborhood. It’s within budget, all utilities included. Slightly belligerent but exquisitely charismatic rescue dogs are not only tolerated, but encouraged. The landlords are dog people, this is good, I can feel it.
I make an appointment for a viewing at 4:30 the next day.
“I have a few people coming,”the landlord warns me.
“That’s OK,” I reply,”I just think this might be perfect, I’d really love to see it.
I walk up the steps to a looming house, all grey-and-glass and jutting West Coast architecture. Nolan grips my finger, tiny and spry in his green monkey t-shirt, and I watch the landlord regard us from the front step, an “O” forming on his mouth.
“I’m not looking for me,”I explain quickly,”And not for my son. It would just be a man living here — 31 years old, a tradesman, an avid mountain biker, pretty quiet. And my dog — well, his dog now. An awesome rescue dog, he’ll capture your heart.”
He doesn’t say anything and I draw a breath,”I’m looking on behalf of my ex,”I say,”For my son’s father.
The crushing pain of the dissolution of a family unit is one of life’s inexplicable mysteries. I don’t think it can be fathomed until experienced first-hand: like labor, like the vice-grip horror of the loss of hope. It’s a death, of sorts: of a family unit, of hope, of the purity of those moments in the hospital with a first born child when you couldn’t imagine anything but the eternity of your overwhelming, deep love. Your little family unit, together forever.
It took me well over a year to be able to get through the day without physically mourning the loss of my son’s father in my daily life. I didn’t let the tears flow in front of my son, or my immediate family who had supported me so unflinchingly during some very heavy days. But at night, when my head hit the pillow in the silence of the night, memories infiltrated and I let tears drop silently, unnoticed, until my pillow was soaked through to the the side. I was pretty sure my heart would never heal.
Last week, for the first time in almost 5 years, I took a full week’s vacation.
My son was scheduled to spend the week on an island with his Dad and paternal grandparents. I, though sorry to hug him goodbye, had a lump in my throat and permanent adrenaline coursing through my body. A holiday!
I had a small suitcase packed with two bathing suits and white terry shorts, my iPod and three books, a bottle of perfume, and, perhaps most importantly, no Internet connection. I did bring my Blackberry (I’m an addict, after all) but I only read my urgent email and didn’t respond to a thing: everything could wait till Monday. I had a vacation to inhale.
The destination shifted a few times but the company did not. My vacation companion would be my new friend: a tall, dark man with curly black hair and a quiet manner. We’d only been hanging out for three months, playing that odd furtive get-to-know-you-game. In this case, it had been complicated for my intense desire to keep my son far from any semblance of a romantic life. My feelings were bundled into a fray of exposed electronic wires: nervousness, doubt, giddiness, hesitancy. I continually felt like something was off but I assured myself: of course it feels wrong, this is brand new, senseless territory. Coy romance games suck even more royally when you’re not a naive twenty-something. Go with it, I told myself, go with it.
The caption in my senior yearbook says that in ten years I will be “a successful businesswoman.”
I burned my high school journals in a fit of indignant rage at my diary-reading parents, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that fifteen years ago, the mystery of career and family balance didn’t hold a lot of space in my cranium. I wanted to be a successful businesswoman because I got decent grades and figured that could translate to decent money one day, so I could buy lots of hot pink Benetton sweaters and salon-grade curling irons. If I was successful and respected, I could command the things I wanted in life, rather than sheepishly request them, rather than be judged for what I did not possess.
Ten years ago, I still put business skills at the top of my life priority list: I wanted to climb the ladder, reap the fat paycheck, command respect of lots of employees. I wanted to be a Vice President of Something, but probably not of a household.
It’s not that I didn’t understand that marriage and family are a cornerstone of our society; I just didn’t know if I fit the mould. I wasn’t sure I was the marrying kind, and I was almost certain I wasn’t the Mommy kind.
Fastforward a decade, a failed engagement and a surprise pregnancy, and I am President and Sole Executive Officer of my house, my almost-three-year old, my career and my house’s ant problem. Not only do I not have an army of minions who make photocopies for me, I don’t even have a partner who is tall enough to take the garbage out.
Several months ago, when I was settling into the still-uncomfortable role of Sole Head of Household, my brother told me to stop being such an antisocial old lady and get the hell out of the house, meet someone of the opposite sex who didn’t enjoy peeing in his own bath water.
I remember the moment clearly: my 29-year-old sibling and my two-year-old son were sitting on bar stools in the kitchen of my half-decorated new home, eating toasted sandwiches, one of them with breadcrumbs surrounding his lips and trailing up into his cowlicked blond locks.
“I know,”I sighed,”I miss people my age. I miss flirting. But what? I’m not going to meet a hot prospect in the canned fruit aisle. I’m too haggard for the club scene, and I am totally not asking anyone to set me up.”
“Online dating,”my brother replied, and I looked at him suspiciously. “I did it,”he continued,”I had no time for the bars and I met some cool chicks that way.”
My brother is a good looking man; he’s athletic, fun, and well-employed and he’s never had a problem with the ladies. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, he’s mostly had to fend them off.
“You dated Internet girls?”I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,”he said nonchalantly,”It’s not weird anymore. Seriously. There are a lot of single Moms on there. You have nothing to lose.”
In the early days of my separation from my son’s father, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself.
Couplehood takes a lot of time: there’s dinner making and cleaning up, occasional movie nights and crowd-battling Sunday Ikea trips to replace that shattered lamp, to acquire another bookcase to hold the various household shrapnel that accumulates over the years. There’s also, perhaps, cleaning up after the other person: razor hairs in the sink, jeans on the floor, an extra few coffee cups to be loaded in the morning. Eating my son’s leftover tomato sandwiches and re-using the same coffee cups, swapping weekend retail ventures for crab hunting on the beach with a mini-person, I suddenly found myself with too much time to think.
Many days I dreamed of cold beer on the beach in Greece to relieve some of the stress associated with a major life change, other days I just wanted to don my running shoes and sprint for the mountains, pouring out my worry and loneliness in a reckless, indelible waft over the soil. But there can be no Mediterranean or long solo exercises when there is also a small blond boy who needs the near-constant attention of his single parent. And so, I poured my vibrating energy into my work.
Ten years ago, when I first entered the professional workforce, I had a manager who gave me one of my greatest career compliments to date: “Kristin, you have a really excellent work life balance.”
I worked my butt off at the office, staying late when I needed, pulling overnighters if there was a very large Tuesday proposal due. But on the weekends, I’d pack up my snowboard to head to the slopes. And I’d use everyday of my three weeks of vacation, often jetting to a tropical country, never thinking to bring my laptop, turning off my cell and leaving it behind on my bedside table.
After becoming a single Mom, that balance all but disappeared. Rather than take up gambling or drinking, impossible with a small kid, I took up work addiction. When I wasn’t looking after my son, I was at my computer, prospecting, furiously hunting, writing and seeking more freelance work when I already worked 50 plus hours a week.
“You’re a workaholic,”my friends started to tell me,”Slow down, you’ll have a heart attack before you turn 40.”
It wasn’t a compliment, but I smiled weakly and continued my obsessive urge to work. It filled up my mind, distracted me, fulfilled me in many ways. After all, in America, there’s no such thing as someone who works too hard, right? If you drink too much, you’re an alcoholic, if you gamble money relentlessly, you might have a gambling addiction. If you can’t stop working even when prodded gently, you’re a workaholic. But somehow, the latter has managed to escape the stigma of the other “holics.” But I’m beginning to think it’s just as dangerous.
Having a child has taught me, among so many other things, that time passes in a blink. A baby is a boy overnight, crying becomes talking, and age lines become prominent, etched stories on an increasingly experienced face. And I don’t think there’s room for “aholic” anything in these precious, pivotal, alarmingly fast years. And so I’m going to start making an effort to turn off the computer a little earlier, get up at dawn with my son and not flip through emails, to fling out “aholism” from my repertoire of characteristics. I have the feeling there’s a little blond boy who can show me how to do it.
The other night I was in the grocery store, attempting to bribe my son into cooperation with the promise of a new Hot Wheels car if he could make it through the produce aisle without flailing himself out of the cart or eating any unpaid-for bananas.
My Blackberry was vibrating frantically in my pocket, as it always does and I consulted it for emergencies and mentally made a checklist of all the things I needed to do once we were done grocery shopping and my son had his bath at home — write column, email that editor again, revamp that proposal, make sure my car rental is lined up for LA on Friday. I walked past the yogurt section and caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the refrigerator and almost ran myself over with my cart. Man. I look old.
I didn’t know much about business etiquette in the face of major personal trauma.
During my previous tenures with blue chip, Fortune 500 companies, I’d maintained a friendly but distant relationship with my various management teams. They knew I liked to snowboard on weekends, but didn’t know whether I had a boyfriend. They knew I could construct a killer presentation, but I didn’t ever share personal details of my home situation or my personal fears that I didn’t actually know what the hell I was doing in front of that projector. I cultivated friendships almost exclusively outside the office, or let just one or two trusted confidantes know the insides of my non-professional persona. I really believed that my insistence on maintaining a firm line between personal and business at the office was a hallmark of my career success to date, and I didn’t think I’d ever stir that pot.
But a year and a half ago, things changed. My partner walked out of my life and I felt perilously close to disintegration. A year before, I’d resigned from my job in radio ad sales to scope out a work-from-home sales career. Amazingly, it had panned out and, I was able to find a job with the same salary that allowed me to work exclusively from home, with the occasional foray to New York or San Francisco for business trips. I felt endlessly grateful to my new employer, who took a gamble and trusted my potential and capability to perform for them from an unseen, faraway office.
At the time my relationship atom-bombed my heart, I was a fairly new employee. My bosses — three kick-ass, amazingly entrepreneurial and razor-sharp women — knew I could sell ad space, but had no idea what was going on in my personal life. It didn’t help much that I worked almost exclusively out of my home office, thousands of kilometers away from them. I didn’t want to tell them about my personal woes, of course — but I knew I wasn’t performing at my usual tip-top level, I knew my voice wavered suddenly in otherwise normal conversations, and there were times I had to go to my lawyer’s office for two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. I needed to explain.