I had my son during Christmas break in my second year of graduate school. I decided to go back to school on the heels of a very painful divorce, which involved years of infertility, two failed In Vitro fertilizations and just as many miscarriages. Starting graduate school represented a new direction in my life, one that did not involve any remnants of my old life. I was a bit of a hot mess during that first year of school, while at the same time enjoying my newfound freedom from a crumbling marriage that was unable to survive the rigors of daily hormone injections, weekly trips to the fertility specialist and heartache; so much heartache. When I realized I was pregnant from a brief rebound relationship, I was stunned by the news, as well as the irony. I quickly cleaned up my act though and powered through the rest of my graduate studies, because I was certain that in no time at all, I'd be back on track. A traditional family life was once again on the horizon (albeit with a different husband).
While I waited for Mr. Right to come into our lives, I worked full-time and attended school at night, which almost killed me. I spent most of that time racing from task to task in a where-are-my-keys-my-car-my-baby sort of haze. Every morning, seemingly without fail, I pulled out of the driveway (late, of course) baby-in-tow, with my head leaning out the car window (for the blow drying effect) and my coffee cup precariously perched on the roof of my car. So while I remained optimistic about finding Mr. Right, dating was honestly the furthest thing from my mind.
I finished my graduate program when my son was 18 months old and quickly settled into my post-grad reality. My son had an infectious excitement for life that left me in awe, and unimaginably exhausted. In fact, I used to say that I was going to write a book called "101 Things I Should Never Have to Say to My Child," with entries such as, "Honey, please stop putting live worms in your pockets... Why are you in the washing machine again? Drop that rat, now!.. Seriously, stop wearing the dog as a hat..." The truth was that I was so tired by the end of the day that the only date I wanted to have was with my bed.
The desire to be a real family tugged hard though, and I soon found myself scanning my environment in search of Mr. Right. When I thought I found him, I quickly made the leap. Except he wasn't my Mr. Right guy; he was Mr.-I'm-Only-Pretending-So-that-I-Can-Take-All-Your-Money guy. So I got out, almost as quickly as I'd gotten in. I later complained to a good friend about my gut-wrenching disillusionment in the aftermath of this terrible experience. I believed my son and I deserved a happy ending after all my hard work and patience, but I was afraid of making another mistake that would only add to my son's growing legacy of loss. "I'm tired. I'm lonely. And I just wanted us to be a part of a real family. What's so wrong with that?"
My friend looked at me with equal parts of unconditional love and eye-rolling shame. "You made two mistakes: First, you got into a relationship because you were moving away from something negative, rather than moving toward something positive. And second, you don't see you and your son as a real family." She was right on both counts.
I still refused to let go of my dream of finding my real Mr. Right though, and as my son approached school-age, my desire for a partner peaked. But with an increasingly busy workload and my decision begin a PhD program, I could never quite figure out how to factor another person into our lives, without compromising everyone involved, particularly my son. And I worried about balancing protecting our private spaces, with investing the necessary time and energy in a new relationship. My situation was made even more challenging because I had sole custody of my son, thus I had him on a full time basis.
So I made a difficult decision, and let go of my dream of finding a partner and becoming a real family, and chose instead to raise my son on my own, partner-free.
And what happened next was beautiful. Rather than investing time in finding a partner, I invested time in my son, and together, we created a real family; sometimes out of surrogacy -- by adding other people to our lives for a season, but mostly by letting go of an old dream, and embracing a new one. What I hadn't realized was that by spending so much energy searching for someone to make me feel complete, I hadn't anticipated all of the blessings of investing time in my son, and myself. For instance, when I started traveling for my work and research, I was often able to take my son with me.
When I attended my doctoral courses in England, my son often came along as my sidekick. He was an expert at navigating the Tube by the age of 10. And when I presented my research at a conference in Bangladesh, my son was watching from the audience. We then traveled together throughout Dhaka and India, visiting temples and schools in the isolated countryside. When my research took me to Rwanda, my son was often at my side as we visited genocide memorials and climbed a volcano to commune with endangered mountain gorillas. When I met a Kikuyu nun in the middle of Kenya's Masai Mara to talk about female genital mutilation in the Masai tribe, my son sat next to me, sipping an orange Fanta, and asking age-appropriate questions.
Our international travels were only a part of what we shared together. There were also numerous camping trips, which involved days of fish-catching bloodbath massacres and nights chatting while watching the stars (amidst swatting away bats and other low-flying threats). We took long walks together and I listened as he talked about his dreams of one day traveling the world on his own. The meaningful life I was able to create with my son was one I couldn't have imagined in those early years, filled with so much urgency about dating and finding a partner.
I would be lying though if I said that our lives were filled with never-ending meaning-making and international travels. There were many lonely nights when I yearned for a partner to share my heart, my son, and my life with. And there were many tear-filled nights when my son talked about what it was like to be the only kid on his baseball team who didn't have a dad to teach him how to bat, or help coach the team.
But my willingness to let go of my dream of having a traditional "intact" family, and trusting that I had what it took to raise my son alone allowed me to move toward something positive as I created a real life and a real family with just the two of us. I was able to spend far more time bonding with my son than I would have if I'd invested the time necessary to bond with a new partner. My career (and thus my self-sufficiency) advanced more rapidly as well, since the time I would have spent tending to a relationship, I spent instead earning a doctorate, and traveling the world with my son.
I would never advise other single parents to pursue the path I chose just because I believe it worked for my son and me. Everyone's situation is different -- some single parents have involved co-parents, or other supportive family members in the picture, thus they have more free time to date. Dating as a single parent, and even getting married can contribute positively to the lives of single parent children by allowing them to have a healthy romantic relationship modeled for them, as well as having increased stability. But when I ponder my own unique circumstances and my choice to live partner-free while raising my son, I know it was the right one for us, because I just don't believe all of our meaning-making would have been possible any other way.
As I consider dating once again now that my son is away at college, I'm as nervous as I was as a teenager, standing on quicksand and trying to figure it all out; but I'm moving ahead anyway, with the confidence that I'm no longer moving away from something negative, but am finally ready to move toward something (and someone) positive.