“Part-Time Lover” – Stevie Wonder, 1985.
Single mothers have been one of the many banes of existence for the right wing since long before Dan Quayle’s infamous jibe at Murphy Brown. For what reason, exactly, I’ve never entirely been able to fathom. Scratch that, I know why – because of this invented image of an overweight, chain-smoking sponge, the utter antithesis of the “hard-workin'” folks who are the backbone of the economy (that and obscenely rich people, of course). Said image, as with most things such conservatives dream up, is entirely at odds with the truth of single motherhood. I can attest to this, having been raised by a single mother, one who had no choice in the matter and refused to let anyone feel sorry for her or ever expect life to hand her a break. I suspect she was by no means unique.
My mother had been an elementary school teacher, but set her career aside apart from the occasional supply gig once her children were born. My father’s unexpected death in 1987 left her with an 11 and 8-year-old and no means of support. There was never any choice for Mom – she immediately went back to work, securing a full-time position and trying to manage the demands of a home, a job and a family with a tremendous and yet reserved strength of will. I talked before in the “D” entry about how my mom was one to slide into the background and avoid the spotlight, doing the work without seeking the accolades. Honestly, after a year as a parent of only one kid, and with a partner to share the load, I cannot fathom how she managed it. By the end of a week, between the needs of a child still adjusting to life with us, our work commitments and after school duties, a house requiring constant upkeep and two kittens who seem determined to deny us more than two consecutive hours of sleep, my wife and I are completely spent. Maybe they built people tougher back then.
By the time I was in high school, the three of us had settled into a comfortable routine. I’d be up first to use the main floor shower, while my mother and sister would go about their respective ablutions and we’d convene in the kitchen for cereal, juice and toast. There was a ghetto blaster occupying the floor in our sunroom adjacent to the kitchen, which Mom would always flip on. It was tuned to the local soft rock hits station, and for whatever reason – limited song bank, unimaginative programming director – Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” would play during that 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. slot at least once, if not a couple of times a week. I often rolled my eyes upon hearing it start up yet again as the sun cracked over the treeline in our backyard. Somehow though I never asked Mom to change the station. I must have known it was her favorite.
Indeed, my mother allowed herself precious few pleasures of her own. She had almost no outside interests apart from her monthly bridge club. Rather, her energies were directed singularly into ensuring that we had everything we needed, and that we didn’t miss out on what life could offer. The mere thought of something for herself seemed alien. According to her, that just wasn’t what you did when you had kids. It was more important that we had bountiful Christmases and birthdays and that the fridge was always full. That we got the chance to belong to marching bands and dance studios, that we were able to take school trips to New Orleans and family vacations to Disney World. It was more important that we taste culture with plays, musicals, operas and symphonies. It was more important that we experienced the world beyond the front door of our family home; somewhere a teenager especially would have been content to laze about in front of a television screen and a computer monitor (VGA of course).
I was fortunate enough to have these things and these experiences because my mother worked hard for them, with the selflessness and courage that is the hallmark of the greatest of single mothers. When I have those moments where everything overwhelms and seems much too hard, I have to force myself to remember my mother’s attitude: never question, never complain, just do, without thought of return. In the tempest of hormones that is teenagehood I know I didn’t reciprocate her gifts very often. In fact, her refusal to take any credit probably led me to feeling a little more entitled than I should have. Some of the nice-to-haves became expectations. It was only when I was much older and recognized the price of a comfortable life – the costs to both pocketbook and soul – did I begin to appreciate what she put herself through and how fortunate my sister and I were to have her guiding and protecting us as we coped with the loss of our father and the struggle to figure out who we were. Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is most certainly not a job for part-timers, and anyone who refuses to recognize that is, without mincing words or anything, an idiot.