I have a reading tonight at seven, and I still haven't found a sitter for my three-year-old daughter. I'm starting to get a little nervous. The reading starts at seven, and it's noon now. I did get to work on this several days ago ? I've made about ten phone calls. My usual sitters have evening classes, dates, sorority chapter meetings. I've never had this much trouble before, and I'm wondering if this is like dating, or trying to play with a cat: show even a hint of desperation, and they don't want anything to do with you. Half an hour ago, I resorted to begging a friend to ask her thirteen-year-old daughter to play legos with Vivian in the children's room of the library while I give the reading in the next room. The thirteen-year-old is at school, of course. My friend said she would put a call in to her daughter's cell, and I would just have to wait to hear back.
If it isn't already obvious, I am a single parent, as I have been since my daughter was fifteen months old. I had planned the parent part, but not the single part, and when the single part first went down, I was more than a little shocked to suddenly find myself in that category. Long before I was even pregnant, I wrote about a single mother in my first novel, The Center of Everything; in that book, I beset Tina with many of the same troubles I had seen real single mothers deal with when I was social worker. I know two-parent homes, especially ones with both parents working outside the home, also have to scramble for child care sometimes, but I think it's safe to say that in a single-parent home, the scrambling happens twice as often. When I was a social worker, I worked with women who had to quit jobs because they had to stay home with sick children, or because the jobs they were qualified for didn't offer adequate health insurance (whereas welfare did), or because they only broke even working full time because they were spending so much on childcare. Most of the women I worked with, and later, the single mother character I created in Tina, had my sympathy, encouragement, and respect.
But I didn't think I was going to turn into one.
For me, the truth sunk in slowly, and in stages. The initial severance package looked pretty good, but promises soon started to fall through. There would be no visits, no shared custody. There would be no child support. "Oh my God," I told my friend Kara one day. "I'm a single mom."
It was the first time I used that phrase with real distaste. There was something so innately pathetic about it that I hadn't been able to hear before.
Kara refused to let me wallow. "No you're not," she said. I think I remember she rolled her eyes.
"How?" I demanded. "How am I not? I am single. I am a mom. Single. Mom. Single mom." There was that woeful phrase again.
She shook her head. "You're just not," she said. "You've got a really good job."
I have to admit: this was, and still is, true. If you're going to be the sole provider for a little person, working as a published novelist is a pretty good way to do it. I would like to be more comfortable and secure in the future, but I do not have Tina's acute financial worries. The car has never broken down, and if it did, I could get it fixed. I can afford (crappy!) health insurance and doctor visits. Even more importantly, I usually have a very flexible schedule. When I get a call from day care telling me Vivian isn't feeling well, I can simply stop writing and go get her. I do have deadlines ? mostly self-imposed ? but I can make up the work by putting in a long day later.
I am also grateful that I can afford decent daycare. Before I was a single-parent, the idea of daycare made me nervous. I thought 'child warehouse,' and worried that I would be shirking my responsibility as a parent by leaving her care to someone else forty hours a week. So I had Viv at home the first fifteen months, and her father and I juggled caring for her. But after I became a single parent, I pretty much had to give day care a whirl (my friends broke this news to me during an intervention-style confrontation). And I have to say, I think it's worked out pretty well for both of us. She likes her teachers, and they teach her things I probably wouldn't have been able to teach her with just the two of us at home ? how to line up, how to share toys, what a mopped floor looks like... It's also been really good for me to have a reliable schedule of quiet time to work. It's made me a saner person and a saner mother. Once, when I was being interviewed for an article, the reporter really wanted a photo of me typing on my computer while holding my daughter. I wouldn't do it ? it's a cute idea, but it's inaccurate, and I think that kind of image just puts more pressure on parents to think they can do it all. I do not write with my three-year-old sitting on my lap. Sometimes when I go to readings, people say, "You have a three-year-old and you write novels? How do you do it?" I say, "Day care," and they sometimes look a little disenchanted, but really, that's how I do it.
I'm in luck. My friend just called and said yes, her thirteen-year-old would be happy to play legos with Viv in the library during my reading. So Viv and I will happily get through another evening of our fortunate, patched-together life. But the adventure continues. My book tour ? twenty-something cities ? starts in a few weeks. I've got sitters lined up, but you never know. I imagine much scrambling in the future.