I’m sixteen years old. I’m boy crazy. I’m at a friend’s house and she’s gone on a walk with her boyfriend. I don’t have one so I’ve stayed behind. We were watching Lizzie McGuire. I laughed because I thought I was the only one who secretly and serially watched Disney shows far below my own age bracket. Now I’m alone on the couch.
My friend’s mom comes out to sit beside me and talk about boys. I open up a little; I share that I have a crush on someone. I think she’s about to reassure me that even though I’m a late bloomer I’ll get all those experiences the other girls with boyfriends are having, it will be OK. But she turns on a dime and her eyes get dark as she imparts intently, almost hisses the following words: Go to college. Get a degree in something that you can always have a job in, that you can always support yourself doing. Doesn’t matter what it is. Just make sure you do that before you fall in love and get married and have children. You can do all those things, just make sure you can always support yourself and your kids first.
I blink. I look anywhere. Lizzie McGuire’s yellow-blonde framed baby face peers wide-eyed out from the television screen, Lipsmacker mouth and Wet’n’Wild smeared cheeks that I believe are so much younger than my own.
I put myself through six years’ worth of college in four and graduate with a master’s degree in special education. I get a job working with children ages 0-3 and their families. Great birth control, says everyone. Yeah totally, I respond.
At the end of my first year, I get knocked up.
I work three jobs and I get money from all of the jobs to live, but I don’t feel like the proverbial person who works three jobs. I still feel like a normal person. I’m doing what I have to do to survive. While I’m pregnant, my child can come with me to all of the jobs, acting as a barrier between me and everything else I encounter on the outside. I measure carefully the amount of stress in each external stimulus, an upset coworker or a child in my class having a challenging behavior or an irritated family or a hospital bill that has arrived in the mail, and then I watch it resolve itself as it approaches my belly.
I have someone to talk to, who is always there, a miniature son. I tell him everything. I tell him he can stay in there as long as he wants.
I live in a 20×20 studio apartment, and the baby’s father moves in with me. Sardine apartment. It can’t fit a real crib. I use a co-sleeper as a stand alone bassinet between the bed and the couch. A small dresser with a changing pad on top between the kitchenette and dining table. People are encouraging. They say, you can put a baby anywhere.
After he is born, sometimes I can pretend it’s just like it was, by bringing him to work and swaddling him to my chest all day. I sweat buckets but he stays calm. He’s so good, my boss says.
I keep a Craigslist tab up while I work, refreshing the page for apartments and houses for rent. I just want a slightly larger apartment, it will be convenient, easier to make friends, cheaper utilities, but each one I find is unpalatable to the baby’s father. He can’t stand prefabricated things. My mom and I finally find a falling-down house for rent, yellow with brown trim, almost a hundred years old. The landlord and the baby’s father are of the same personality type. I can write a good check that will not bounce for the first and last month’s rent. We make a deal.
Soon the baby turns three months old, and at this point it becomes harder to bring him to work. He wants to do more than eat and sleep. He wants to be entertained. He wants the attention I am giving to work.
One morning, I am telling my boss how I had to bring him today because when I came downstairs from our room in the attic with the baby nursed and changed and dressed and pumped milk in the fridge, the father was in hangover sleep on the couch and slurred as he said just bring him with you, and in fact he may have still been drunk, so I obviously couldn’t leave the baby with him. Well, my boss said. You’re just going to have to.
I work marathon days half the week and work from home for the other half of the week, which is all of the time. I answer emails and nurse and write treatment goals and rock the baby and meet over the phone and jiggle a pacifier and enter data and bounce a vibrating chair with my feet and all the time I am buzzing, buzzing, buzzing inside.
I sleep alone.
I start co-sleeping with the baby more and more. I read some Facebook articles to make sure this is safe, viable, presumably good for the baby. Night nursing, celibate, spilling with milk. I wake up often enough to know there are times I don’t really wake up. I am getting the hang of this.
The first time I write, I hide it. The paper and pen were burning in my hand. I shove them into my nightstand. In the drawer, the words I wrote are still so bright I can’t walk by without looking. I carry the knowledge of what I wrote around me like a special secret. It’s always there in the back of my mind when I am doing other things. I know that I can’t tell anyone. I finally told myself the truth about my unhappy and unhealthy relationship, but it was only a little tiny piece, a few words, half of a word. I don’t understand very much yet; I think that I can stay the same and free myself someday. That I won’t always be a secret. I understand that I will get out someday, but I can’t yet accept that I will get out to be alone.
The first wedding I go to as a single mom is downtown, in a fancy theatre. A childhood friend’s wedding. I go alone, leaving the four month old baby with my mom. I wear black or dusky pink, some non-colored garment. I still have the baby weight. I drive through the dark October one-way streets in my beater Volvo with the red leather seats and empty car seat in the back, and there is no music. I don’t know how to talk to people getting married, so I don’t. I watch them from a distance. I talk to some of my parents’ old acquaintances. The reception goes on and on, and I am the first to leave.
The second wedding I go to as a single mom is in California, at an outdoor park. My cousin and best friend’s wedding, so everyone is there, my whole family included. There are many events leading up to the wedding and after it. I am the Maid of Honor. I drink a lot of whiskey so that I can give a toast in front of all of the guests. My son is now two years old. Nobody told me that you can’t put a two year old anywhere. They will kill themselves. At one point during the reception my two year old, abandoned by his babysitters, is found playing with lit candles floating inside glass jars. Another time he’s found elbows deep in a candy bowl. He survives, but people are not encouraging. They look uncomfortable and don’t say anything.
The next day, I am swaying back and forth on the patio where some other people are talking. I try to follow their conversation, but I can’t. The swaying is a move that’s normal to do when one is holding a child. I’m not holding a child right now. I’m so used to having another person attached to my breast or hip that I do it without thinking. Someone in the patio conversation looks at me askance several times and finally says What Are You Doing? Swaying, I say. But There’s No Music, she says.
Later I find out she’s been asking others What is wrong with her? She looks manic. She’s acting manic. She seems like she’s on drugs.
Later when there is actual music playing I am still.
I have a string of roommates. One of them, Gretchen, comes with her seven year old daughter. The father is not in the picture at all. On the first night, Gretchen and I stay up late in the kitchen drinking Rex Goliath wine and talking. About our histories: how we came to be single mothers. About religion: how we wrestled to separate faith and spirituality from a life growing up in the church. About literature: the books that changed us. Months later, I have to rescue one of the books I lent her from her disastrous room, the mess that has spilled from there into all the rest of the first floor of my house. I don’t know my own mind when she is around. We get into a couple of fights about the clutter, and I am bitter about it because I don’t want to fight with her, I just want all of her stuff to be gone. She’s sort of falling apart, but I have to ask her to move out. It’s ok though because she found a new church and people she can live with for free who come to my house and pack up all of her masses of things and sweep and spray and vacuum until at the end of the day it’s like she and her daughter were never there at all, just a story.
My mom used to have a strategy that she would do called life mapping. She would get a large piece of paper or a notebook spread open and start making a diagram of words and lines, things she wanted to do, dreams for the future, upcoming events, all of the different areas of life to be sure to incorporate into the one big life. The idea was to get everything essential onto one page. Work could be an area, or art, yoga, meditation. Marriage and exercise were always two of her central areas. I know that travel goals she set in motion on her life maps were later realized in actuality, bringing those jotted notes, underlined, to life in New York and Paris.
Around the same time Gretchen lives with me, I also have a boyfriend who is not interested in any of the same things as me, but he’s my first boyfriend after the now three-year-old’s father, and I don’t know how to break up with people, so I don’t. He has no money and no initiative to plan things at this stage in the relationship so it’s my turn to plan. One night I suggest we have a life mapping session. We will each make our individual life maps and then talk about them. I sprawl on the floor with my pens and paper, diagramming all of the essential parts, all of what I want to keep about my life and what I want to build. He doesn’t take it seriously though and writes some dirty words and dark jokes on his paper. This would be endearing except for the total apathy in his eyes as he looks at me and my life map. But heartbreak at the hands of another is no longer one of my central areas. The drawer is open.
Courtney Gutierrez, Rabble Nonfiction/ Hybrid Forms Co-Editor, is a writer, teacher, and mother from the Pacific Northwest.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.