In Response: On Single Parenthood

The Following Essay was written by Emily Van Duyne in response to the essay published on this site this past Father’s Day titled, On Fatherhood.

From Emily’s Bio:

“Emily Van Duyne writes about Sylvia Plath, feminism, politics, sex, motherhood, and sometimes all of those things in a single essay. She lives near Atlantic City, NJ, with her partner, Vincent, their two children, Hank and Stella, and their four cats, who shall remain nameless. She is at work on two books, Loving Sylvia Plath, a memoir, and The Precariat & The Professor, an anthology about precarious labor in higher education. She is assistant professor of writing at Stockton University, where she also teaches women and gender studies.”


On Single Parenthood

By Emily Van Duyne

“Somewhere… there’s a single mom propping up one of us who probably doesn’t deserve it because she knows how important it is for her boy not to think poorly of his father.” -Sean Hughes, from his essay “On Fatherhood”

The first time I really talked with my live-in boyfriend, Vincent, was on Mother’s Day. At the time, he was the exclusive single father of his daughter, Stella, who was five years old; I was the exclusive single mother of my son, Hank, three at the time. Vincent and Stella were living next door to us. I often watched him walk her to the playground or sit and have coffee in the big yard next to their second-story walk-up, where they lived with Vincent’s dad, while she played in her outdoor playhouse. She wore oversized heart-shaped sunglasses and little plaid shirts. He was covered in tattoos and impeccably groomed at all times, with a hipster haircut and an endless array of band t-shirts.

They were never apart-a state I was familiar with, since, barring my days working, at the time, as an adjunct professor of writing at three different institutions, Hank was my little boy shadow, sitting in the jogging stroller when I went for runs, sitting on my lap while I graded fat stacks of essays, sleeping in my bed.

That Mother’s Day, Hank and I had just come home from a long day at the beach. I was feeling especially happy, and, for the first time in years, like my life was headed in the direction I wanted. I had just been hired full-time at Stockton University for the coming academic year; a long open letter I had written about the adjunct crisis and posted on my blog had been picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and gone viral, resulting in interviews with the Atlantic Monthly and an article in Salon; my poems were being accepted for publication. I was 34-years old.

As I pushed the jogging stroller toward our house, Vincent and Stella walked toward us. We stopped and reintroduced ourselves. Vincent said, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and I said, “You too.” He laughed, and told me he would wish me a happy Father’s Day when the time came. Then, Hank slipped climbing out of the jogging stroller and skinned his knees. I picked him up to comfort him, and Vincent said, “Oh man, poor little dude. Stelly just did that a few days ago, Stell can you show him your battle scars?” Stella nodded and pointed gravely to her healing skinned knees. Hank sniffled and said, “That stinks.” Vincent shook my free hand warmly and they left for the playground.

Since I read Sean’s essay yesterday, I keep going back to that moment-when Vincent made that gesture, when he said, Oh man, poor little dude, and instinctually comforted Hank, and, by extension, me. It wasn’t very much at all-what any parent would do, really.

Except not. Or rather, not really, as I wrote above. In actuality, it’s what any ideal parent would do- and I had given birth to Hank in circumstances that were anything but. His father, who I left dramatically, as in, who I had to escape in the middle of the night when Hank was eight months old, has no contact with him. This isn’t the essay to detail the horrors he subjected Hank and myself to (and other women before me, and probably other women after me, but I stopped looking for those answers a long time ago), but suffice it to say, there was a lot of violence, a lot of drug abuse, a lot of abuse in general, and I genuinely feared for my life.

Sean writes in his Father’s Day essay about when he was “closest to the edge”-the edge, that is, of leaving his family, like the generations of Hughes men who preceded him. I had an edge, too, albeit a very different one. For the first eight months of Hank’s life, when I was living daily between his father’s abuse and my own adjustment to the traumas of new motherhood, I thought a lot about giving up. I thought about calling my mother and begging her to take Hank, even just for a few days, even just for a little while. Hank, living through the same trauma I was living-some doctors would argue that, since I was breastfeeding, he was literally drinking the toxic combination of stress hormones my body was releasing during that terrible time-was equally traumatized, and never slept. Some days-most days-my whole body hurt. I remember a pain between my shoulder blades that felt like a knife some sadist just kept twisting. I remember standing in the shower while Hank took a short, rare nap and letting the water pound that spot, hunched over with my hands on my knees, trying to write a poem in my head, instead getting the prayer we used to pray together as a softball team before games-Bless us oh lord as we play this game/teach us not always to look for fame- ear-wormed into my brain on repeat.

I wanted to give in. Give up. I wanted to collapse. Sometimes I was sure I would collapse. I never did-I learned a lot about myself during that time, about my body, not least of which was its (and therefore, other bodies’) extraordinary resilience. When it was the worst, the absolute worst, I would weep, alone, and then I would laugh at myself, and then I would tell myself, Get it together, Van Duyne. You can do this. People survived the Holocaust.

That actually became my mantra-I can do this. People survived the Holocaust. It was funny, because it was true. People had survived-continue to survive-circumstances much worse than the ones I lived through, despite their gravity.

And so I never called my mother and asked her to take Hank just for a little while, and then disappeared in a pair of big sunglasses and a poof of drama. I didn’t do the thing I am willing to bet a lot of people thought I would do, given that, at the time, my family largely thought I was a flake and a narcissistic mess and incapable of living up to my early intellectual and professional potential. Instead, I dug my heels in and learned how to be a good mother.

I also learned that motherhood, especially the early stages, is a series of edges one has to confront, stare over, and turn away from. The abyss of abandonment and freedom is very tempting, and very real. Once, before I met Vincent, I was walking through the grocery store with Hank in the early evening. Suddenly I heard a sound that can only be described as a keening-a little boy was calling and calling for his mother. For the entirety of the time that I was in the store, this went on, although eventually it was interrupted by store personnel trying to help him find her. They could not find her. The police were called, and arrived, confirming what I knew instinctively when I heard the child’s voice, which was full of not just despair, but a certainty that no child should ever feel-his mother had left him there, deliberately; the terrible thing he feared had occurred. I caught only the faintest glimpse of the child. As I walked Hank to the car, lollipop in hand, little chubby toddler legs swinging from his ride-along at the front of the cart, I scanned the parking lot looking for… what, exactly? Who? Did I think I would recognize her by the look on her face, in the same way I recognized her son’s despair by the tone of his cries? Putting the groceries in the car, I wrote another poem in my head, which was clear enough by that time that I remember it, or at least, I remember its ending-a woman drives madly west on the highway with an empty carseat in the back of her little car; elsewhere, a better angel watches over her weeping son.

And where was I, in that poem? The better angel, or the abandoning mother?

Somewhere in the borderlands. Some combination of the two. I believed then and I believe now that I survived those terrifying early months of motherhood because I was willing to acknowledge the edge, to say it out loud, and move on. I’m sure there are mothers who never feel this, and bless them; but I think most of us go through some form of terror and despair, even if our circumstances are ideal. And I think most of us never say this out loud, for fear of looking imperfect, unloving, less than ideal.

After all, the supports in place for mothers in this country-emotionally, logistically, financially-are scant, at best. Barring moderate to high economic privilege, staying home with one’s children is no longer an option for most American mothers. If you’re a single parent, this reality is much worse. Even I, a middle-class woman with a terminal degree in my field, had no choice but to return to teaching a mere three and a half weeks after Hank was born. The so-called “gig economy” and the adjunct crisis I mentioned at the start of this essay had me teaching “part-time” (which meant nine credits at one school, three at another) for $575/credit and no benefits. So, I stuffed my nursing bra with breast pads and went for it, nodded while my students kept me late to ask questions about their essays, ignoring the milk leaking out of me each time some random trigger would produce an image of my newborn son.

But any idea that I was the genteel, educated poor living out some tragedy in doing this is Romantic nonsense and should be immediately abolished. In teaching at a university even part-time, as a woman, I was (am) an historical anomaly. Women’s work has historically been the domestic work of the body; barred from white-collar professions and higher education (with rare exceptions), and from most blue-collar positions, with the exception of factory work, women were nannies; midwives; women nursed; women were sex-workers. Famously, in the late 19th and early 20th century, during the Spiritualism craze, women held séances at their homes, and, as documented by Mary Roach in her book Spook, used their vaginal canals to hide yards and yards of muslin cheesecloth, which they would surreptitiously pull from them during séances, claiming it was “ectoplasm,” a so-called biological “matter” from the “spirit world.” Thus, even when women engaged in the hoax of a séance, they engaged in the domestic work of women’s bodies, in their home parlors, using their mysterious bodies as a disguise.

So, the history of women’s bodies and women’s work is strange. Stranger still is the reality that most people don’t know it, and make false assumptions about women’s work, about the availability of women’s work, about the realities of being a brand-new mother-in short, about the edges we face. We expect, on some level, men to walk away from their families-they have always done that. But we are stunned and horrified whenever women do it. I know this from my own research and from my own life-Vincent, like I said, was the exclusive single father of Stella when we met. Over time I learned the realities that he had faced-Stella’s mother began using drugs when Stella stopped breastfeeding at two months old. After a while, she left her job managing a local retail store and started stripping in Atlantic City. After a while, she left altogether-Stella wasn’t yet four years old. Her mother, faced with the reality that, as a working class woman of color with no formal education, living with a working class man of color with no formal education, her beauty and her body were her best bet for making any kind of living. She wasn’t wrong, and she wasn’t-isn’t-alone. She was engaged, whether she knew it or not, in a long tradition of women’s work. She was also, by genetic design, an addict, and now working in a place with easy access to drugs. It was a perfect storm, and when it passed, Vincent and Stella were on their own. Faced with her edge-the abyss and seeming freedom of drugs and parties and I don’t know what else, since that is not a life I have lived, not an edge, thanks in part to my race, class, and family, that I’ve been faced with- she leapt.

When Vincent and I got together, there were lots of surprises but, for the purpose of this essay, the most important one was the way his single fatherhood was, according to others, his biggest selling point. For me, that was obvious-he was a loving, natural, devoted father who Hank took to immediately, and vice-versa. Beyond that, I had watched, for eight horrific months, Hank’s father vacillate between ignoring him and actively trying to harm him. He had never bonded with him; he had never tried. When other people were around, he sometimes spoke to him, well before Hank had any understanding of language, in a sickeningly saccharine voice, lacking any sincerity-Come onnnn, give Daddy a smiiiiilllleeee! When he wasn’t even a month old, he would toss him in the air like you would with a toddler-once, I screamed at the top of my lungs, sure he was about to drop him on the floor of our apartment. He drugged him; he took him from his crib while I was napping and drove around with him, right after he took an entire bottle of stolen Xanax. Watching Vincent adroitly change diapers and pack lunches and play hide-and-seek was like some kind of surreal heaven, arrived three years late. Everyone was right-he was a godsend. He was (is) a great dad.

But it wasn’t just his abilities as a father that people pitched to me. It was the fact that he “had taken on the raising of that little girl all by himself.” Faced with single motherhood, practically everyone in my life shamed me, humiliated me, had me believe that I had somehow brought this condition on myself. Faced with single fatherhood, Vincent was lionized in our small community as a hero. We live in a tiny beach town with less than 10,000 year-round residents-a handsome, young, single dad covered in tattoos with a beautiful daughter in tow sticks out. When people discovered we were dating, the word was pretty unanimous-I was lucky to have found him, but not necessarily the other way around.

And Stella’s mother? Like myself, she was a local sideshow, a demon. There is a special place in hell for women who abandon their children. Maybe. I am grateful to report that, as of last year, she is sober and working and seeing Stella weekly. I am grateful to report that, in spite of my own demons, I like her very much. I’m proud of her, and proud of the work she is doing, the mother she is trying to become, of the cordial and loving relationship we are building. I’m not proud of my demons, particularly the ones that sometimes had me choking out the same kind of sexist, bitter nonsense that had her landing, Party Of One, in the Abandoning Mothers Corner of Hell. I am grateful that, in my worst moments with that kind of thinking, I remembered my training in the history of women’s bodies, women’s work, women’s nightmares. I remembered my own edges. I extended the kind of forgiveness I gave myself to her.

Hank’s biological father didn’t love him. He didn’t love me. I don’t know that he was, or is, capable of loving anyone but himself. Every word from his mouth, every action he made, was a calculated, deliberate attempt to harm others and prop himself up. He was not, like Stella’s mother, faced with a crisis-he was a middle-class man with a bachelors degree from a first-rate research institution. At any given point, he could have dug his heels in and gone to work and been a father. But he didn’t. Instead, he lied. He stole. He cheated. He threatened. He used. We were lucky to make it out alive.

So, on Father’s Day, I feel no need, as a one-time single mother, who is living in an unconventional, but perfectly imperfect family with her one-time single father and his daughter, to prop up my son’s biological father. When Hank was four years old, he asked me sincerely where his father was. And, for the first time, I told him the truth. I said, He lives in Texas, and we don’t talk to him, because he tried to hurt you and me, and so I had to take you away to keep you safe. And I will always keep you away from him to keep you safe. He had a lot of questions. He still asks them sometimes. The answers evolve, but they don’t really change. Faced with the edge of staying with a man who could harm my son, who threatened to take him from me daily, I didn’t jump or collapse. I used my brain, with all its knowledge of women’s lives and women’s silences and women’s history, to outwit him; I used my body to shield our son. And I ran away for good. And I will never go back. And that means much more, to me, than just returning to his vicinity.

And in any case, Hank’s father is Vincent. Vincent makes him scrambled eggs. Vincent plays video games with him. Vincent lifts him gently from his booster seat when he has fallen asleep after a long car ride, and puts him in his loft bed without waking him. Vincent knows he’s full of shit when he says he doesn’t know the answer to 11-3, and helps him to write it down without a scene. Vincent yells, in a pitch-perfect imitation of three-year old Hank, FINAL BATTLE! every time we watch an action movie, because that is what three-year old Hank yelled when we went to see the Ninja Turtles movie that first summer we were together, and we all laughed and laughed with the adorable charm of the moment. Vincent doesn’t need any propping up.

And maybe statistics indicate that, because we choose not to marry, because we are not the biological parent of our other child, their outcomes will somehow be worse, economically. That may be; but our lives only improved in every possible capacity when we came together. And they continue to do so. And economics are not the only measure of love and success.

The idea that the family unit is a man, and a woman, and their shared biological children has always been a myth, and a myth used to prop up the idea that hetero-normative relationships were the only possible way to live. I was educated in, and embody, a tradition that says families have always largely looked differently than that; I try to deliberately queer that hetero-normative idea. I am the primary breadwinner in our family; I am almost five years older than Vincent. I am formally educated; he dropped out of high school. I am white; he and Stella are mixed-race. And none of that matters at all-and all of that matters-because we work together to love each other. And so, we have a family. We are a family.

Sean writes in his essay that, “Nothing drives gaps in outcomes between men and women like fathers who don’t stay… There’s a bitter unfairness that falls on the women and children of men who can’t meet their commitments.” I’m not arguing this. What I am arguing is, rather than wish for a fantastical, unlikely outcome, i.e., that we force men to stay, when they have always exercised their freedom to go, in the hope that this somehow mends “gaps in outcomes,” how about we continue to work to improve the opportunities for single mothers? Or, for that matter, for any single parent? How about we make daycare in any way affordable? Or health-insurance? How about we work toward a living wage for working class people, or to better end the wage gap?

More than anything, I’d like to see the stigma of single-motherhood, if not abolished, then decreased. Never have I felt the shame that I did when I was first alone with Hank. And my heart breaks to think of it, to think that I could ever feel anything but absolute pride and joy about him-he was so small and he was so perfect. And you know what? So was I. I was small and fierce and terrified but I was not going to give up. I was going to survive and then thrive, and, god help me, so was my son. Feminism had taught me that I had worth, that I deserved to be in the world. Feminism made me a proud single mother. Feminism saved my life.


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