Why I Was Reluctant To Let Go Of My ‘Single Mother’ Title

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Would people think she wasn’t as powerful or strong if she no longer referred to herself as a “single mom”?

Angie and I were playing hide-and-seek at the playground on a Wednesday afternoon when three helicopters starting circling overhead, a sure sign of trouble in our neck of northern Los Angeles.

One of the dads at the playground had the inside scoop: Police were searching for two armed robbers who had fled when a homeowner caught them in her bedroom, stealing jewelry and electronics. They ran out the back door, and she called 911.

The news was worrisome, but not alarming. These things happen in Los Angeles. Just to be safe, though, I scooped up my daughter, who was 5 years old at the time, and carried her to the car. I drove four blocks to our apartment, where I locked the front door and let Angie watch her favorite movie.

The helicopters buzzed in the sky like angry bees, and Angie began to cry. We had lived in Los Angeles about a year at that point, having moved here from rural Maine, and the scene unfolding in our neighborhood seemed to be frightening her.

When I tried to soothe her with a hug, it was obvious she wasn’t afraid at all. Her face was red enough to burst. She was mad—at me.

“I can get those guys, Mama,” she said. “I know I can. Just let me try!”

Angie has always fancied herself a superhero. She hangs Ironman posters in her room, draws pictures of the Avengers, and favors Spiderman and Batman over Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. She even has a name for herself, “Everything Angela,” which is to say that she possesses every power of every superhero, all bundled into one 4-foot-tall package.

Her fantasy has seemed innocent enough. It’s been a stamp she wears on her chest, to scare off the notion that she is vulnerable, that she can be hurt, that there is something in this world that can defeat her. I always thought the concept resided mostly in her imagination, as a child’s exploration into what is real and what is make-believe. But with helicopters overhead, Everything Angela was poised for action.

“I’ve been training for this day my whole life and you won’t even let me go get those guys!” She stomped down the hall to her bedroom and slammed the door.

Angie’s passion and indignation was kind of sweet, but I also felt badly for her, for how it must have felt to have her self-perception questioned, to face the reality that she is, after all, only human.

*****

For the past four years, I have called myself a single mother. I certainly am one, which is to say that I have full custody of my daughter and I’m not married. When Angie was two years old, her father fell in love with another woman and asked me for a divorce. Angie and I moved out of our family home and into an apartment, where we shared a bed, baked cookies in our pajamas, and worked hard to find our way back to normalcy.

On my own, with a toddler to care for, I suddenly found myself doing everything. I got one job, then two, and put Angie in daycare. I put up shelves and paid bills, cleaned the house and kissed the boo-boos. I juggled doctor appointments, birthday parties, work deadlines, and meal planning. I went on food stamps for a while, to make ends meet, and sold my wedding ring to buy Christmas gifts for my daughter. It was exhausting, but it was all part of the persona I had created to protect the two of us: I was superhuman, invincible, bulletproof.

Over the years, I’ve clung to this label of “single mother.” It has been my cape, my shield, the way I defend myself against anything or anyone who might hurt me. I’ve stamped it on my Facebook page, used it on my Twitter account, and declared it in conversations with friends and strangers. I’m a single mom, I said. I can stretch, endure, and breathe fire. You can’t touch me.

The title no longer fits, exactly. I’m still a mother, yes. I’m still unmarried, yes. But I have a partner now, a boyfriend who is dependable and loving. He takes care of Angie as much as I do, just in different ways. He gives her freedom, while I give her protection. He helps her fly. I give her a safe place to land. He takes care of me too. When I quit my jobs and went to graduate school, he took Angie to the movies and the aquarium so I could study. When I felt like dropping out, he suggested I give it another semester. And when I graduated with a masters degree, all three of us celebrated with brunch on the beach.  

With him around, I can do all the things I did before, plus lots of things I couldn’t. Now I can go to yoga class on Saturday mornings. I can meet my friends for a drink or vanish into my bedroom for an hour to read a book. I can share my bad dream, take a nap, ride in the passenger seat. I can ask for help, and when I do, there’s someone there, someone I can lean on without the whole universe toppling over.

This is not to detract from the hard work that single parents do everyday. I know how difficult that job really is. It’s intense and consuming, but also hugely rewarding. If my marital status were to change, some part of me would always be a single mother—fiercely independent and vigilant, watching the horizon for signs of trouble.

As much as I would like to, I can’t save my daughter, or even myself, from danger, pain, or fear. Whatever I decide to call myself, it won’t stop a robber’s bullet or thwart a lover’s betrayal. Angie and I might fancy ourselves bionic, but we are, after all, human. We will hurt and we will fail, but we will always bounce back.

*****

When I was my daughter’s age, I wore the same Wonder Woman suit three years in a row for Halloween. She was my favorite, not just because she was strong and beautiful, but also because she had awesome bracelets and a really cool lasso. I squeezed myself into those blue knickers long after they stopped fitting, until finally my mother donated them to the neighborhood thrift store.

I’ve been with my boyfriend for quite some time now, but I’ve been reluctant to stop referring to myself as a single mother, thinking that shedding the label would diminish my power or downplay what I’ve been through and how hard I’ve worked to get my life back on track. Now I see that nothing, and no one, can take the past away from me. It’s mine. I own it, no matter what I decide to call myself. Wonder Woman was fierce not because she had bracelets or a lasso, but because she believed she was fierce.

Today, Angie is 6 years old. She still considers herself a superhero and dreams about capturing bad guys. Everything Angela isn’t ready to hang up her cape just yet.

And me? I think I’ve finally outgrown that suit.

Wendy Fontaine’s writing has previously appeared on the Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Brain Child magazine, Mamamia, iVillage Australia, and a handful of literary magazines. You can read more of her here at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-fontaine.

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