I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed. Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
Single moms are so easily stereotyped in popular imagination. We are terrible with money, weepy, lost. We seem to juggle a million responsibilities. We put ourselves last. We lament having no significant other.
Rarely, in those books where the single mom shows up, are we well-developed. Complex. Whole. Maybe we simply belie reality?
Thus, when I read two books about single mothers back-to-back, I was left to think about these depictions.
Jess is the single mother at the center of JoJo Moyes’ One Plus One. She struggles to take care of her brilliant daughter and stepson on a meager salary. They had an adorably smelly dog. When faced with a decision that could determine her daughter’s fate, Jess is saved by a nerdy millionaire who, despite having his own quirks, loves Jess all the more. And they essentially live happily ever after. Despite the novel being tied up in a happy little bow at the conclusion, I found myself appreciating that at least Jess was funny, had a few layers to her, and hey, I’m a sucker for a great JoJo Moyes book.
This is definitely not my life, but there were moments when I loved and empathized with Jess’ feelings of desperation, of exhaustion, of expansive love for her children. Of her grit to make a way out of no way. I have loved Jo Jo Moyes for her escapism. Her books are the equivalent of rom coms in a book, akin to watching Love Actually, or Sex and the City, or any other good film that I will watch again and again and again. None of them are realistic, but I’m okay with that.
As for Jess’ depiction of the single mom life, some of it was relatable, but most of it was not. I didn’t particularly like that Jess was “saved” by a millionaire man at novel’s end. Meh. Not my reality.
On the heels of One Plus One, though, came Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. I worship at the church of Anne Lamott, for lack of a better way to express my admiration for her over the years. She is one of my patron saints for being a better human being, or at least an awake one. It was only in my mid-30s and beyond that she began resonating with me. I’d probably lived long enough for her to now make sense. Thus, when I found Operating Instructions in my mom’s library while home for a family visit, I squealed and immediately checked it out.
This is what Lamott says to Jess’ falling in love with the millionaire (I’d imagine):
It would be one thing if I could leap into a disastrous romance and it would be just me who would suffer, but I can’t afford to get lost because Sam doesn’t have anyone else to fall back on….I can afford to wait for a good one, not get derailed by some total fixer-upper. Once my agent Abby said that if we’re not careful, we’ll spend our whole lives blowing on sparks and trying to turn them into embers, when all along they were sparks that should never have been ignited.
Essentially, Operating Instructions chronicles Lamott’s first year as a single mom raising her son. She is honest, open, and OMG can she write. I often use the Notes app on my phone to write down favorite lines when I read any book that isn’t mine. Rereading all the ones I took for OI took me back to the early days of attempting to figure out how to mother E while also mothering myself. Lamott remarks how she loves her body and misses how pregnancy and childbirth changed hers irrevocably. She worries about the world her son will inhabit. She fears death.
What brings me to tears time and again is when Lamott talks about raising her son without his father. She assesses–honestly–that there will probably be many times when her son will feel the loss of not knowing his father (who decided not to have any part of his child’s life) and that, while she cannot keep him from that, at least she can attempt to buffer him. She says:
I felt a flush of many feelings all at once–longing, jealousy, sorrow beyond words that Sam doesn’t have a daddy. He will grieve over the years, and there is nothing I can do or say that will change the fact that his father chooses not to be his father. I can’t give him a dad, I can’t give him a nuclear family. All I can do is to give him what I have, some absolutely wonderful men in our lives who loved him before he was born, who over the years will play with him, read and fish and walk with him, make him laugh and throw him up in the air until he is too big, men who will be his uncles and brothers and friends, and I have to believe that this will be a great consolation.
Somehow, Lamott articulates what I’m trying to do for E: create a multi-layered network of wonderful men who hold him close, mentor him, love him as their own. But on some days, that decision is difficult because I don’t know how it’s going to end up. That is what is hardest about reading single moms in literature: there, life tends to end up just fine, wrapped up in some type of off-kilter, often-traditional bow.
That’s just not my life. Lamott’s perspective, though, leans more heavily towards mine: that I’m simply going to believe that by doing what I hope is right for my kid, we will, ultimately, end up okay.
Here, Anne Lamott FTW:
I don’t have any idea what I will tell Sam when he is old enough to ask about his father. I’ll say that everybody doesn’t have SOMEthing and that he doesn’t have this one thing, but that we have each other and that is a lot.
That is a lot.
One year ago: #sol16 Morning Still Life
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.