I first entered parenthood at 19 years old. Like any good scared Catholic couple, we dutifully married before I gave birth to our son. But, like most teens who marry solely because of a positive pregnancy test, I didn't marry the man of my dreams. I wasn't in love with him and I doubt that he was in love with me. We played at marriage, and even adulthood, and we separated relatively amicably when I was 21.
I left my first husband with three kids under three, $147, and a few boxes of clothes. I had never worked a real job. I had dropped out of college. I had no skills, no degree, and no money.
But my parents helped me rent a small place, I found a crappy job, and we survived. My kids' daycare fed them extra lunch for dinner, I ate snacks from the kitchen at work, our power was always on the verge of being shut off, and I drove a 1979 VW Dasher with mold in the carpets, but we survived.
I was a single mother. I had been a teenage mother. Redemption, I thought, could only be found in the dubious stability of slapping a Mrs. before my name. Even if maybe, just maybe, it didn't feel right at all.
My second marriage ended the day that a strange email popped up in my inbox. The subject line read "The Story," and in it a stranger chronicled the sex ads that my husband had placed on Craigslist. He wanted to fuck her in his wife's bed, he'd said.
I didn't leave my husband that day. I left him briefly, but then I went back. I tried to "make it work." I tried to salvage my marriage, my family, and even the home that we owned together. I became obsessed with whether he had ever "actually" cheated on me. I looked for evidence of betrayal, and he made sure to leave it everywhere. By the time that we divorced, he was living with the very young girlfriend he had begun dating while we were still living together, when our twin daughters were only a couple of months old.
As a woman who lived primarily with my parents until I lived with my romantic partner, freedom has been in short supply in my life. I spent most of my formative years alternately acquiescing to and rebelling against my parents' demands, and then I simply traded them in for romantic relationships that played out much the same way. Here and there, I tasted freedom, though, whether by taking a solo trip to Paris or that year that I spent working in the middle of nowhere as the news editor of a very small-town newspaper. Yet, even as those glimpses of autonomy called to me, I invariably went back to that same old broken relationship, or perhaps another one just like it, for one simple reason: it is what I was supposed to do.
After the incredibly ugly demise of my second marriage, a relationship that spanned my entire adult life up until that point, I met a much older man at work. At this point I had 5 children. He told me what a great father he was, and he told me how he would rescue me from my hard life as a single mother. He reminded me that I needed someone to take care of me, too. And, with red flags waving and warning signs flashing, I gave in to the beautiful dream that man presented. Even though I knew, somewhere deep inside, that it simply wasn't true. Or, at least, that it wasn't true enough.
In the years between leaving my first husband and marrying my third husband, I worked my way into a lucrative career. I graduated from college and entered grad school. I grew up, I grew into my identity as a mother, and I learned how to juggle my responsibilities. Not perfectly, of course, but I didn't expect perfection from myself.
By the time that I married my last husband, I had a system in place that worked. I didn't need rescuing or saving, and I really didn't want it, either. While my ex forced himself into a parental role immediately, I feared that no stepfather could be the father I wanted for my kids. No one could walk into a life that already ran pretty smoothly and simply take over the reigns.
Rather than allowing me to take the leadership role with my children, he insisted on creating a partnership to raise children he barely knew, and life became far more complex and difficult than it had ever been juggling three or five children's needs alone. And so we divorced, but not before having two children of our own.
I know that some relationships, and some marriages, last forever. I know that they aren't perfect, but that they are held together through grit, hard work, and dedication. I also know that without an unbreakable and unshakeable love, there is not enough grit, hard work, and dedication in the world to keep two people together.
In a perfect world, I suppose that none of us would've had children with Mr. or Mrs. Dear God No. But, reality isn't perfect, and I, at least, have walked away from less than right relationships with children. Common wisdom might label that as baggage or a mistake, but that's bullshit. Kids are neither, and perhaps the best thing we can take from any relationship is a child.
Single parenting isn't generally considered a cakewalk. In the media, it's largely portrayed as torturous, painful, and solitary. Just last week, HuffPo was kind enough to remind me that single parenting sure is hard.
As a 21-year-old single mother of three, those descriptions were pretty accurate. But, now, at age 36, they couldn't be further from the truth.
After three years now of single parenting, without so much as a single romantic relationship, I am almost shocked to say that I am happier than I have ever been.
My life is still not perfect. We have tantrums and arguments and dirty clothes on the floor, and sometimes I'm the one who needs a timeout. But, my kids and I are free to be comfortably ourselves, and to grow and change without limitation. There is no partner to swoop in and help raise them, but ultimately we haven't needed one.
There are many studies and statistics out there to scare women with children into remaining married. Unfortunately, most studies that predict doom and gloom for the children of single mothers don't adjust for socioeconomic status. Undeniably, two-parent households tend to suffer from less poverty. But, generally, if a woman has an education and at least some marketable skills, she will find her way to a sustainable financial situation for her family, even if that doesn't include a big house or fancy cars.
There are far worse things in life than learning to live on an income smaller than you imagined possible. One of those is living with a man who is abusive, neglectful, manipulative, or disrespectful.
In the past, I suspect that women found themselves trapped by single mothering. They didn't necessarily go into child-rearing with the skills or education that translated into success in the job market. However, as a woman in my mid-30s, the single mothers I know aren't helpless. They aren't trapped. They are creating lives for themselves that preserve time with their families while still providing for their financial needs. Perhaps they are Leaning Out, but it's largely by choice, recognizing that time at home, flexibility, and sanity matter far more to them than a hefty paycheck.
I'm sure it's alarming to some people that Millennials by and large are rejecting marriage. Single parent households are skyrocketing. It's clear that, when push comes to shove, the majority of Americans won't remain in a miserable marriage simply for the perceived benefit for the children. Yet, even now, many domestic violence victims say that they are afraid to leave abusive relationships because of the premium that we as a society place on the sheer existence of a partner.
We might be willing to leave an unhappy marriage, but perhaps we still believe that happiness will come from another, better relationship down the line. Someday, of course, our prince will come. Or, at least that is still supposed to be the goal. Somehow, the notion that we might be better off on our own is never considered -- perhaps not even by us.
Ultimately, the decision to end a partnership is difficult, circumstantial, and entirely personal. But, if you choose to go, and to take on the terrifying role of "single mother," there will be many of us waiting with a hug, a smile, and maybe even a cocktail to remind you that while you have lost that comfortable Mrs., you have gained the freedom to write your own story, to shape your own destiny, and to create the family and the life that you may never have even had the courage to envision. Just you. Just your kids. No partner required.