I am driving west on Highway 51. It’s Tuesday, the day before Indie’s ninth birthday, and as I pass the city limits of Stillwater on my way to Oklahoma City, I switch from the Sinatra station, the one playing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” to the seventies station, the one playing Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It in a Love Song.” I’m gonna be leavin’ at the break of dawn. I rarely listen to the song now, though sometimes when Indie is in the car, I’ll let it play, even sing along, assume the next time she asks me why he left, I can say, “You know that song, the one about the guy who never had a damn thing but what he had, he had to leave it behind?” She’ll know the song. So many times, when she’s singing along to Ambrosia or Bread, Jackson Browne, especially America, in the car, I ask her how she knows all the words to those long-ago songs, and she always has the same answer, “You sing all the time.” He used to tell me that, too. I change the station to NPR.
I recognize a familiar voice:
The American family has changed. The nuclear family in the house across the street is still there, but different kinds of families live on the block, too: unmarried parents, gay parents, people who choose not to have children at all and, of course, single parents.
A new Pew Research poll asked Americans about these trends and found almost 70 percent believe that single women raising children on their own is bad for society.
Of course, there is a wide array of single mothers. Some women choose to raise children by themselves. Others find themselves without a partner through divorce or abandonment. But when seven in ten believe this is bad for society, it makes you wonder.
So we want to hear from single mothers today. How do people treat you? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I grip the steering wheel and glance at my cell phone in the cup holder. I keep my eyes out for a rest stop.
Abandonment: if there’s a box that single mothers check to identify their status, that’s the one I’d check, but Neal Conan’s mention of it is the first time I’ve ever heard it publicly acknowledged. I settle into to my seat, take a sip of my latté, and turn up the volume. I am making the curve near the trees, so I am close to the I-35 junction.
All the single mothers I have known have been single in self only, but not in parenthood; there are weekends, alternating holidays, weeks in the summer. Even I have documents that refer to me, the custodial parent, and him, the noncustodial one, documents with our names, our Social Security numbers. Such distancing rhetoric.
I wonder if the rest stops in this area have cellular service; in north central Oklahoma, phone calls often drop behind the barren, intermittently burned landscape.
When Indie turned two, I went to my third-floor office at school and found a box leaning against my locked door. He had sent her a book and a letter. It was the first, and, so far, the only contact he made with us. I keep the letter and the book in a box for her, along with the dress she was wearing the last time he saw her, a plaid, quilt-patterned sundress, size six months. In that same box, he sent me a check for three hundred and fifty dollars. I tore it in half and dropped the pieces into the trash can beside my desk.
When Indie asks why he left, it feels the way Hemingway described good writing, that the seven-eighths beneath the surface is what truly moves the narrative. I try to be honest, yet fair, recalling the counseling the State of Colorado required—a parent should never speak in negative terms of the other parent. The child bases her identity on who she comes from, so belittling or demeaning the other parent belittles the child.
He and I never married. So while we didn’t have to go to court to get divorced, we did have to establish a custodial agreement. Actually, we didn’t; that day in court—the moment when the elevator doors closed behind him—that was the last time I saw him.
In the past nine years, Indie and I have talked about him only twice. He moves silently through the rooms of our minds, banging against the furniture, knocking on the door, calling in the middle of the night like a phone ringing in a distant room.
Last year, Indie suffered from recurring dreams of a robber coming into the house and leaving. After I asked a few questions, I got up the nerve to ask her, “Indie, do you think the man might be your father?” She said yes. The robber, the unknown man who kept showing up unexpectedly, the one who kept leaving, was him, and what he kept stealing was a part of her life. I told her I too used to dream of him, standing outside the front lawn of our house, a symbol of his continued presence in our lives, but not in our home. She said she dreams of men outside the house, too.
Conan is pointing out the fact that our president was raised by a single mother. His guest, a Pew Center senior researcher, Mr. Moran, responds:
MORAN: Exactly right. It doesn’t mean you can’t grow up to be president. It just means that the chances—the likelihood that bad things will happen is increased if you grow up in a single-parent household.
CONAN: Did the same results obtain if you said: What if they’re raised by a single father?
MORAN: Interesting. We did not ask—we didn’t ask that. Since most single-parent households are by women, it’s—the real issue is single moms.
The real issue is in the survey, the glaring omission that mirrors the very men who leave, who refuse responsibility for their children. Whether the reason is addiction, those men whose relationship with booze or drugs is more important than any they might have with their children; those men who get a whole new family, or choose a new love; or, the one that applies to him, the “grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-that-hill,” Marshall Tucker Band mentality. For so long, I was sure that was it, though years can create dangerous coordinates in emotional geometry, as time and distance meet on a plane of constant unknowns.
I’ve always been good at math; Indie, too. She was multiplying at the age of three, figuring out that if she had twelve sourballs and I allowed her three each day, she could enjoy cherry sours for four days. Perhaps, like me, she is fascinated by solving for the missing factor.
Solve for X.
X + Y = Indie.
If Y = me, how many steps will it take to solve for X.
In this equation, X is an empty set.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 7 percent of ten million custodial mothers do not receive child support. That’s one in fourteen. I am one of them.
Nineteen percent with a bachelor’s degree or more do not receive support. Only 26.9 percent have at least an associate’s. I have a Ph.D.
Thirty-four percent have never been married. Check.
Twenty-five percent are forty and over. I’m thirty-nine.
A man named Alan from Fulton, New York, has called into the show. His voice is sincere.
ALAN: Well, single fathers run into some of the same things that I’ve been hearing on the show, that, you know, just the way that you can actually do that by yourself, you know, without a woman around, in your case with a single mom, without a man around and so forth.
CONAN: But did you feel the stigma?
ALAN: More disbelief, I think, or wonder, you know.
Rosalind, Zelda Fitzgerald’s sister, did not think her brother-in-law, Scott, could raise his daughter, Scottie, on his own after Zelda was institutionalized for a nervous breakdown.
Scottie grew up to claim that had her father not been her father, she could have been an extraordinary woman. More times than not, I am glad the man who left us is not a part-time father, and I understand how much more complete Indie would feel if she knew him, how she “beat[s] on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” because a large part of her past disappeared before she even began, and there’s no green light at the end of a dock for her to gaze upon, there’s just the gaping distance between her and what she might hope to regain, though it never should have been hers to lose.
Shelly from Chapel Hill is the next caller. She is not a single mother, but she works with juvenile kids accused of crimes. Here come the statistics, I think, the ones about children raised without a father, the 80 percent increase in drug use and dropout rate. I think of turning back to the radio, something a bit more soothing for my drive, like Sinatra, or maybe something upbeat, the eighties station. Shelly continues:
When I—you know, when I heard the Pew Institute study that single motherhood is bad for society, I found that statement really problematic as though it’s the mother’s fault.
You know, I think the system, our laws, our schools, our judges, are prejudiced against single mothers.
Even though I knew he would have nothing to do with Indie, my lawyer insisted we go to court, warned that the law had grown exceedingly sympathetic to fathers to ensure their rights and that there was little chance he would simply vanish. Listen to me, I would lean across her desk, he already has. He’s gone. Yet he was the one who insisted we establish custody, another unknown coordinate of our complicated history, and it was I, during the months leading up to the hearing, who lived in fear that he might take Indie. For one, I had a lawyer spouting off case after case of a legal system showing preference to fathers. Two, I was in the process of completing an MFA, no stronghold when it comes to procuring employment. Finally, I had his words in my head from nights I’d sit on the back porch with a glass of chardonnay, listening to his voice on the phone that it was I, not him, who wander, who move from place to place and never settle.
Those words come back to me when Indie can name all the states she has lived in: Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma. The current one, Oklahoma, has been the longest, four years, and my restlessness and desire to pack up and move on again is balanced only by my accountability to her via income and health insurance. Might the fellows at the Pew Research Center, and their respondents, consider responsibility in their survey? Surely, the Boulder County Court did not take into consideration that he was the one who had walked out only four months after Indie was born, and he was the one already living a new life across town. It was me the judge told to find a job before the June 23 hearing, and that if she chose, she could limit my job search to Colorado, that the best scenario for Indie would be to have her mother and father together in the same town and that she would have to approve any out-of-state job I was offered. Forget the fact that I was completing an MFA and trusting the academic job market to follow a court order. Yet a job I did find, one in southern Utah, and that morning, I had to convince the judge to allow me to accept it. No one would listen to me when I implored that proximity was not the issue, that the whole hearing was a nonissue, that he would play father in court and then walk out and disappear. My lawyer worried he would not agree to the limited visitation: five days during the summer and alternating Thanksgiving and Christmases. That agreement has only ever been kept by me—in a drawer.
The other day, Indie and I were at the university library circulation desk, where I was checking on a missing book. She picked up a stamper; I’d noticed it before, a stamp with a word on it to signify a book’s status in the system. She asked what it was for, and I shrugged. While I wasn’t looking, she stamped the inside of her left hand. She held it up to me, the red ink on her palm: ABANDONED.
Jack Kerouac refused to acknowledge his own daughter, Jan, claiming, “She’s not my daughter,” then going to great lengths to avoid child support by maintaining that he was abroad. The letters he wrote to Jan’s mother in 1956 were mailed to Allen Ginsberg, who could send them to her with a Casablanca postmark so that Kerouac would appear out of the country. When Jan was only four, Kerouac showed a snapshot of a beautiful, dark-haired child on a tricycle to his then girlfriend, writer Joyce Johnson, who described in her epistolary memoir, “anyone could see that little Jan’s resemblance to him was unmistakable, and I told him so.” Johnson notes that Kerouac “refused the role of father” and his greatest fear was “losing the freedom that enabled him to write.”
Jan only met her father twice: once, when she was nine, when Kerouac finally agreed to take a blood test, which proved his obligation to pay child support, and again at fifteen, when she paid him a visit. A biography, Use My Name: Jack Kerouac’s Forgotten Families, refers to Kerouac’s detached comment to Jan during that unfocused meeting, telling her that she could “use his name.” Jan described that last visit in an interview: her father’s refusal to move from the recliner in his mother’s living room, where he was drinking whiskey and watching The Beverly Hillbillies.
Jan lived a troubled life, including some time working as a prostitute in New Mexico. Having published two novels, both autobiographical and both revealing a penchant for the road, just like her father, she died from kidney failure at the age of forty-four.
I pick up my phone when I hear Conan begin to recite the 800 number again. A woman named Paige is calling in and talking about sociology.
I do think that sociologically, it does have a lot to do with our culture and the way that our culture views women. I think that it’s telling that the question didn’t get asked of men raising children by themselves. And I think that part of the negative view of women raising children on their own is because of the view that our culture has of women.
CONAN: Is this about sexism?
MORAN: Well, we don’t want to demonize single mothers.
I put the phone down, traffic has picked up, and I turn my blinker on to merge right and avoid the overbearing pickup behind me, thinking about how people treat me. While there are exceptions, the most common response is “I don’t know how you do it. I know I couldn’t do it.” But how do you know what you can do unless you’re not given a choice? Other common responses: faces full of pity or full of questions. I recall an elderly woman from down the street in Utah who drove up in her white Buick just days after Indie and I had moved into our house and yelled out, “I hear you’re a single mother!” as a greeting. I think of Indie’s teachers, the ones who flash that wincing smile during parent and teacher conferences or blatantly assume I am the deadbeat. “Um, do you work, Miss … um, what would you like for me to call you?” I am the sole caretaker; I am the sole caregiver. My background in literary theory informs me that I am Other.
I take the exit for I-35 south, trying not to get dizzy as I make the full circle ramp to the highway, always sure this will be the time when I will miss the gaps in semitraffic and be forced to the shoulder, both me and the car shuddering. After an e-mail from someone named Shelly in Durham, North Carolina, who claims to have taken the survey and answered “bad for society” based upon economic hardship and our society’s refusal to help, Conan announces another guest:
Mary Pols, a journalist who reviews books and movies for Time magazine, also a single mother. Her memoir is titled Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother, and she joins us today from Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland, Maine. Nice to have you with us today.
A journalist for Time, I think, probably not a single mother who suffers economic hardship, as I slow to seventy-eight when I notice a Oklahoma State Patrol car in my rear view mirror. The officer passes, and I resume at eighty, sure that one speeding fine would not upend the monthly budget of Ms. Pols, who has just commented that her economic status improved once she became a single mother because she was motivated to provide for her son, an incentive that caused her to work harder professionally than she ever had before.
Now on the main highway, there’s little chance for me to call in just at the moment I want to the most so that I can respond to Shelly and counter Ms. Pols. For a brief time, Indie and I lived in Idaho, when I took an adjunct at Boise State after leaving Utah in an insistence that I provide a more diverse and bohemian experience for Indie as she was nearing the age of five, entering kindergarten, and developing a personality that I can only describe as her inner-hippie. Boise State offered me no health insurance and $1,220 a month in my bank account.
After standing in line at the state assistance office for two hours, filling all the required paperwork, and waiting for the assistance I was sure would come, I received a letter from Idaho regretting to inform me that I made too much money to qualify. With the letter still in hand, I called their offices to learn that they judged on gross, not net, and that my salary, as it were, the one that paid me for teaching three classes, the one that was supposed to cover over $400 in daycare and food and $350 in rent (we lived in a one bedroom apartment), was $30 beyond the state limit. This after both Utah and Idaho child support agencies had assured me that they had contacted Colorado and were working on my file. Boulder County told Indie’s father that morning to pay $634 per month, and before we adjourned, he stood and asked to make one final statement: “I don’t think I should have to pay because I’m not going to see her.” Rework the equation; it’s not equivalent.
Ashley from Anchorage is on the air now.
I wish I had time to myself. I wish I were able to count on someone else to make dinner, brush the kids’ teeth, put them to bed, et cetera. However, I know I can manage it just fine myself, and it’s very empowering to know that I don’t need to count on anyone else.
I’m not sure I know how to miss something I never had. I pass the sign telling me I have seventeen miles to go.
The Pew editor notes, in an unsympathetic tone, that it’s the children who pay the price. I nod, sip the last of the now cold latté, taste the nutmeg particles that have settled at the bottom. He’s right. The second time that Indie and I discussed her father, she told me that she is asked repeatedly by other children, “Where’s your Dad?”
“What do you tell them?”
“That he left.”
The Pew researcher, apparently, has left the show, but not before citing some study that the level of a parents’ education makes no difference. I suppose this means that my four degrees offer no brace against the statistics.
Mary Pols is telling a story.
One of my son’s friends at Montessori preschool, you know, he’s just always asking, Can we have a play date with him? Can we have a play date with him? And I kept asking the parents, and I knew that they were, you know, they were very religious people, and I felt that when I had explained my situation to them, they had looked somewhat askance on me.
And I just had to conclude, after all these attempts at getting play dates and failing, that we just weren’t really welcome at their house. And it made me really sad because my son loved this boy.
Adel from Birmingham has called in, tells Conan she is fascinated by the subject. I’m hoping Adel will ruin the curve of divorce, death, and one-night stands and bring abandonment home.
I find it true in Cub Scouts, as well. And I’ll give a for-instance. We went to a Campboree this past weekend, and when I registered my son, the man who was registering said, And are you registering his father? I said, No, he doesn’t have a father. So his father’s not attending? No, he doesn’t have a father. Well, then who’s going to be with this child? I’m going to be with him. So you’re going to register?
Every form I fill out, I skip the section for Father, Spouse. When told once, by a woman at the bank where I was applying for a savings account for Indie, that I forgot to fill out her father’s information, I answered, “She doesn’t have a father.” She laughed, “Well, of course she does!” I decided not to affirm the woman’s glee in her knowledge of biological fact.
I pass the sign that tells me I have ten more miles before I get to Oklahoma City, when Neal Conan asks Mary Pols to make some final comments. It seems I have missed my chance to speak as an abandoned single mother, but Pols is offering a unique story of her own, The True Happy Life of a Single Mother. Apparently, in Pols’s case, a girl walks into a bar, meets a guy, gets pregnant, and chooses to raise the child on her own. An “accidentally, on purposeful” adventure of going it alone. I admire that. The Roz Doyle approach to single mothers. But wait, she’s saying something else.
You know, my son’s father is, you know, he’s in California. We’re in Maine now. But he has been an active part in my son’s life.
And, you know, every school that my child has been at has had both of our phone numbers.
If you have the address and phone number of the father of your child and he’s an “active part of your son’s life,” you are not the kind of single mother that I am. Single as in only. Single as in one. Not one at this house plus one at that house, which equals two. I’m saying that in my life, the father is not an option on the school’s who-can-pick-up list, though I’m right there with Pols on those askance glances.
I wonder if I can make it to the exit and pull into a gas station before she hangs up. If I can, I’ll tell her this story: One askance look I got recently was in the wood aisle of Lowe’s a few weeks before last Christmas. After roaming around the aisle looking at various widths and lengths of wood, I decided to forgo my I-can-figure-this-out façade and went over to the large woodcutting machine where I saw a guy with one of those aprons and a Lowe’s name tag. I told him what I needed, different sizes of boards, of wood, because my eight-year-old daughter had asked Santa for wood so that she could build things.
The man looked at me as if I had asked to put my hand in the woodcutting machine. Then he sifted his fingers through the boards already in my basket while I felt tiny and ridiculous in the oversized store, the sheer height of the aisles enough to intimidate those like me who have no idea what most of the stuff in the store is for; though for people like Indie’s father, the kind of guy who took a tool belt to work, it’s a playground, which is why I look around at floor-covering samples and storm doors and think, If only you were here. The heavyset man erupts with a “What a unique child!” then wants to know what Indie wants to build and if she might want a subscription to Woodworking Magazine, disappearing behind one of the large aisles and coming back, flipping through an issue. He seems lost in his own love of woodwork, as if he is imagining the possibilities of what she might build, the way I’m sure her father would, the way I saw him do so many times, measuring, configuring, planning. Since Indie was able, she has taken things apart to see how they are put together, clocks, cell phones, lamps. She tells me she likes to see how things work, and she likes to disassemble pieces and put them together again. Words I heard her father say as he went through the same take apart, put back together. When he left, he disassembled me. It’s still too early to tell how much he took Indie apart.
Years after Frank Sinatra left his wife and three young children for Ava Gardner, he would tell his youngest, Tina, “I was selfish—my choices would affect you forever.”
Since I started listening to this program, I have intermittently shouted across the interior of my car and through the windshield to the highway before me, to the leafless trees, their branches craggy and sharp, to the overcast sky: “Why isn’t anyone talking about the absent fathers?” And then Mary Pols says this:
It’s funny—if the survey had said, for instance, instead of, you know, do you think that single mothers raising children without fathers or without male figures are bad for society? What if it had said, you know, are absentee fathers good for society or bad for society?
Finally. But the question is never answered, and Mr. Conan tosses to break. I take the exit fifty-four miles from where I began, where I come every other Tuesday or Thursday. Sometimes, I drive here and turn around, sometimes I eat lunch at On the Border, sometimes I wander one of the malls for an hour or so, and on occasion, I bring my running shoes and explore unfamiliar streets before I have to get back to pick up Indie from school. Perhaps it’s a need for some time alone, like Ashley mentioned during the show, the one that has now ended, the one that never mentioned mothers like me.
At the intersection, I press the first button preset, the seventies station. America. “Sister Golden Hair.” Indie really likes this one. I sing along.
Jill Talbot is the author of a memoir, Loaded, as well as the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together and editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction . Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Rumpus, and Under the Sun. She is the 2013–2015 Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.