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Domestic Bliss

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I've been thinking about the confusion and mixed feelings linked to the lifestyle moniker "single mother." It has been a much maligned term when linked to studies on poverty, child abuse, the effects of divorce on children and other measures of our society's health. In day-to-day reality, it basically means twice the work when the kids are at home.

But what does it mean to the identity of a middle-aged woman raised to be married?

My notions of single women come from the 1960s, a time when there were very few such role models. Women of my generation were brought up to become part of a couple and to raise children. One could conceivably marry and have no children (usually because of a physical problem, some freak curse of God), but the idea of having children without marrying did not yet exist, at least not in the small, southern Kentucky town where I grew up. The idea that a woman would choose to remain single because the option represented freedom or autonomy was rare and rarely talked about.

I can only recall a handful of single women from all my growing-up years. There was Miss Ramsey, my 4th-grade schoolteacher, a sturdy woman in thick-heeled, lace-up shoes who lived in a big, boxy house with her ancient mother. Miss Ramsey taught us civility and geography, often mentioning the trips she took in the summers when school was out. My best friend, Lynn Fly, and I plotted for weeks, the year Miss Ramsey was our teacher, to knock on her door once we discovered where she lived, directly across the street from the Ben Franklin store where we frequently bought garish fingernail polish, Archie comic books and mountains of candy.

We wanted evidence. We wanted to see what the inside of a house looked like where a woman lived with no man and no children.

Finally, one afternoon we walked over and knocked. Miss Ramsey greeted us with a raised eyebrow and a puzzled expression. She invited us in graciously.

Her living room was a formal parlor with thin rugs, doily-covered tabletops and brown-tinted paintings of landscapes and historic scenes hanging on the walls. She served us cookies. We asked if she had taken any trips lately. She smiled and pulled a stiff-backed photo album off a bookcase. We slowly flipped each page.

There was Miss Ramsey -- dressed in slacks! -- standing among a group of women about her age, all silver-haired, next to the Eiffel Tower; the same group, squinting into the sun, standing in front of a footbridge leading to a formal garden. Lynn Fly and I thought we had uncovered a treasured secret, but we didn't know what to do with the information. Miss Ramsey, poor unmarried Miss Ramsey who didn't have a man and had to spend her life with little children who were not hers and with her sickly old mother, had actually been to Paris, a place as mythical to us as Oz!

Less mysterious but more troublesome were single women with children. It was always assumed that if a woman was single, she wished to be otherwise. Our glamorous next-door neighbor Nancy Johnson, divorced mother of two sons, was rumored to be on the make for men. We felt we had to protect our fathers from Nancy Johnson because she dressed in stockings and high heels on weekdays, went to work and, as the neighborhood buzz had it, was looking for a husband. Other mothers whispered in hushed tones about her boys, Sidney and Scott, wondering if they got the attention they needed, what with Nancy, her job, her social life and all.

By the '70s, my mother, Betty Crocker incarnate, was divorced and single. By the '80s, so was Lynn Fly's mother whose husband John had always treated her like royalty. Last I heard, Lynn Fly was still in Bowling Green, a single mother, never married, raising a little girl. And after 20 years of marriage, six years ago, I became a single mom.

Six years post-divorce, the notion of being a single mother still baffles me, though I'm accustomed to the routine. When my children are at home with me, I settle into a life with fairly rigid patterns; I know what to do -- come home straight after work, check schedules, make sure the clothes are clean and the refrigerator stocked, get up early, make sure everyone is where they're supposed to be, doing what they're supposed to do. But when my sons are with their father, and I am actually single -- separate, solitary, alone -- I am often unstrung. Sometimes it's exhilarating. Sometimes it's not. Beneath the surface, there's an ambivalence that is gradually coming into focus: I stop and tell myself it's all right to like being single, an embarrassing confession in the new millennium.

The truth is, I can't imagine not being single now, can't imagine life without the open door that has become my routine every few weeks, and the tension of family that draws me back. Maybe Nancy Johnson wasn't looking for a man and has become her own Miss Ramsey. Maybe being a single mother won't condemn my children to maladjusted lives with emotional insecurities and deeply held resentments.

Maybe some day I will be some young girl's Miss Ramsey.

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