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On Being a Single Mom & Learning as I Go

Little boy lying on the floor and reading a book. The boy is aged 6. Sunny day.

This morning while we were driving, my son Sammy flipped through pages of the terrible book I recently purchased and I belted along with Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt on the radio.

“This is so cool!” Sammy said, “Want me to read it aloud to you?”

It was a question more beautiful than the Human Oboe himself. And so I turned the volume down.

“Of course I do!” I exclaimed.

Sammy took a long road to reading; he was stressed and anxious. I read before kindergarten, so I couldn’t quite relate.

After years of reading-related stress and anxiety and struggling to string letters into words, a switch flipped inside this little boy’s mind. Seemingly out of nowhere, he was able to form words into sentences, and sentences into stories. He was transforming frustration into language, reading with fluency and clarity.

“I guess I’m just bad at this,” he had remarked a few weeks earlier, and it broke my heart. “I’m never going to be good at this.”

“You’re already a great reader!” I corrected, “You’ve just got to give yourself time.”

But recently, he spied a copy of “Batman’s Guide to Being Cool.”

“Can you buy this for me, please?” he asked. “I’m begging you.”

“That’s the last thing I want to waste $12 on,” I thought.

“Sure,” I said, quieting my inner critic, who disapproved ardently of his literary sensibilities, or lack thereof. “Anything that puts a book in your hands is a good thing.”

Today, on his own terms, he picked up that very book and asked if I wanted him to read it to me. In the car, my back turned to him, he raised the question and he raised his voice. He came to reading independently, when I stopped harping at him. Once he was spared pressure, the conditions were right. An unrelentingly stubborn child, he did what he had always done, and what we should all do. He figured it out on his own time.

*

Sammy had an iron will from the outset. He knew what he wanted, and even before he had language, he asserted it. Physical strength manifested early in Sammy also; he creeped and crawled and pulled himself up to his feet sooner than anyone could have expected. Silently and inexplicably, I wanted him to walk before he turned 1. What precipitated this desire? Why was I in such a hurry for him to lift off before he was ready?

In a deep and real way, I worried he would die, as his sister did. “We’ll all die eventually,” I told myself each morning when I placed one hand upon the soft mortar of his ribcage—and the other an inch above his mouth, feeling his breath and breathing my own sigh of relief.

Still, I needed him to grow quickly. The sooner he got up and on in the world, the less responsibility I would feel for his eventual death. Perhaps, if I was very lucky, I would do with this child what parents are supposed to do the world over, and predecease him, comporting with the natural order of things.

When Sammy was an infant, we lived in a beautiful apartment in a small village at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. I strapped him to my chest and walked around the village as he slept. Silently, I wanted him to walk on his own, to toddle in front of me one minute and move out the door the next, to walk into a future yet unknown. I would have fast-forwarded to his adulthood in a minute if I could. Left to my own devices, I think I might have willed it.

But I couldn’t make him walk any more than I could make him read. He needed to find his own footing, to grow confident in his balance and feel the strength of his own legs, propelling him forward, one improbable step at a time. And it was a great and glorious and stupid privilege, my desire to accelerate his walking.

Sammy learned to walk on his own, of his own accord, in that small apartment in an old and beautiful brick building, his first footfalls on a hardwood floor in the shadows of the Berkshires. We had nothing to speak of, but lots of books, great neighbors, a beautiful coop, a small but wonderful library. I was tired and we were poor; I was alone but only sometimes felt it; it was hard and I was sometimes scared, but almost always happy.

In those early years, I struggled to know when to hold him and when to put him down. He was happy in my arms, and always wanted to be held, an endless ball of energy and need.

When I needed to shower, I’d place Sammy on the floor in his Moses basket, and he would scream, sliding the basket down the hardwood, like Moses down the river. I’d rush through the shower, fling a towel half around my body, and lift the crying bundle against my still wet-shoulder. He’d calm immediately, pressing his face into the curve of my neck as I cradled the crown of his head, sighing in relief as I whisper-sang “Moon River” into his soft baby skin.

Sammy is now a child with a set of ever-changing preferences and needs. In some ways, babyhood was easier because he was happy so long as he had the comfort of my proximity.

For years, I thought that if I read the right books or oriented myself to the right activities, I’d find my way to be a perfect parent, but it turns out there are no perfect parents or perfect children or perfect jobs or houses or lives. So I do my best to be good, or at least good enough, and strive each day to be better.

And I’m learning by doing, the same way my small boy once read his way to reading in the backseat of my car. The same way he once made his way to walking in that small village apartment, his footfalls soft and rapid on the hardwood. I was there to scaffold him, to be a cushion and to lift him when he fell, but he was his own guide.

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