No Visible Means of Support

February 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Holly Vanderhaar, Single Parents

By: Holly Vanderhaar

I was recently approached about submitting an essay on single motherhood to a magazine. I sent the editor a précis of my motherhood to date: began trying to conceive when I was 36, unexpectedly conceived identical twins, babies contracted twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome in utero. Had experimental surgery. Babies survived. Had tons of help from friends, sister, and Mom. Moved half a country away when my daughters were four. They’re now almost nine.

The editor asked some follow-up questions. Could I talk more about my support network? In what ways is it harder to build one versus having a built-in one, i.e., a partner? What do I do when I want to brag to someone about something “awesome” my kids have done? And whom do I talk to when I want to tear my hair out?

I thought about this for a while before I responded. The editor seemed genuinely perplexed. “But how do you cope?” seemed to be the subtext of most of the questions.

Having never been married or otherwise in a long-term, committed relationship, I don’t know any different. How could I possibly articulate how parenting is harder or easier as a single woman? Sure, it would be nice to have another adult in the house when I’m facing a deadline and I need a couple of hours of uninterrupted work time. If I need to run to the drug store at 9:00 after the girls are in bed, it would be terrific to just be able to go. There are lots of logistical things that would be made much easier by having a man around the house.

On the other hand, it’s a relief sometimes to not have to put the work into keeping a marriage healthy. One of my friends was undergoing fertility treatments at the same time I was, only with a husband. Their daughter is just a couple of months younger than my girls. And my married friend is just as likely to feel that I have it easier, because I’m doing it alone.

In this Internet age, it isn’t hard to share my pride and frustration. I can snap pictures with my phone and send them instantly to family and friends. The girls are old enough to chat on the phone, to text, and to email. My mom and my sister are still a big source of moral—and occasionally financial—support. We miss their physical presence. The emotional support is there even at a distance.

But the one thing I’ve learned about myself on this road is that I’m much stronger and more capable than I ever would have believed. It’s not easy, not by a long shot, but most of the time it’s hard in a way that parenting itself is hard, or at least hard for everyone who wants to do it well.

So I told the editor all of these things. I’m still waiting to hear back. It’s possible that they don’t need my contribution for the issue after all, or that they’re still deciding. But sometimes I wonder if it’s easier to sell the story of single parenthood as martyrdom.

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What We Leave Behind

January 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Holly Vanderhaar, Single Parents

By: Holly Vanderhaar

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago. I always aimed too high and set myself up for failure. What’s more, I’m making resolutions all year ‘round, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in forcing myself to come up with new ones just because I’m hanging up a new calendar. (Oops, there’s a resolution: upload the 2012 photo calendar to the Costco website before February!)

So, how did I spend New Year’s Eve? We were newly home from having spent Christmas in Phoenix with family, the girls were in bed, and I was enjoying a quiet, cozy evening with a book and a glass of wine. What once would have been considered a New Year’s Eve FAIL —sitting home alone— now felt like bliss.

And I remembered that, several years before I had my kids, I had improvised my own New Year’s Eve ritual. I had been going through a rough time, and I had gone up to my parents’ mountain cabin to spend a quiet, reflective, and restorative holiday alone. I wrote down everything I wanted to leave behind me in the old year, bundled up, and sat out on the deck with an ashtray and a box of matches. Under the dome of the stars, with the moon as my witness, I burned every one. Then I sat for a while, watching for stray meteors left over from the December Geminid shower, and sending up prayers for the people and animals who were no longer with me.

The ritual worked, insofar as I walked away from it feeling stronger, feeling less overwhelmed, feeling braver. You could say “placebo effect” and maybe you’d be right, but then again, who cares if it’s the placebo effect if it works?

And so this year, as 2011 rolled into 2012, I reprised that ritual. I burned little scraps of paper that held the names of six things I’d like to leave behind. Things like procrastination and disorganization. Things like fatigue and envy. Anger. I can’t remember the last one now, but I can feel whatever it is being worked loose and slipping away nonetheless.

May you all have a safe, beautiful, and blessed 2012.

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The Santa Report: 2011

December 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Holly Vanderhaar, Single Parents

By: Holly Vanderhaar

For the last several years, we’ve had a Christmas Eve tradition. My daughters get to open one present—which is always new Christmas- or winter-themed pajamas—and we cuddle up on the couch and watch The Polar Express. This year, The Polar Express’s theme of belief was especially relevant, and the wheels were turning in their heads as well as on the tracks. Twice during the movie, Gracie asked me if I believed in Santa. I said, “Yes, well, I believe he represents the spirit of giving.” I don’t think that answer was satisfactory to her, but she didn’t seem willing to press the issue.

Did I miss a good opportunity to tell them that I don’t believe in Santa Claus? I exist very comfortably in the language of metaphor, and so in that sense I wasn’t lying when I said I believed in him as a symbol for the spirit of giving. But at their age, they don’t function that way yet. They think in much more concrete terms. When they finally figure out that he isn’t a literal truth, my answer will probably sound like a lie to them, and maybe I should have said that most grown-ups don’t believe in Santa anymore, and that’s why they can’t hear the sleigh bell in the movie.

To tell the truth, I was surprised by the way things went down this Christmas. After my daughters really seemed uninterested in Santa Claus this year, to the point where I was convinced that they’d stopped believing, they spent the weekend completely immersing themselves in the myth, taking great interest in helping me prepare the plate of cookies and worrying that the reindeer had enough carrots. They both asked me to keep checking the NORAD Santa tracker site to monitor his progress. They seemed determined to believe.

And speaking of NORAD, it occurs to me that—rather than rendering Santa quaint and outdated—21st century technology has provided kids with a lot more “proof” that Santa is real. Back in my day, you mailed a letter and had no idea if it got there or not. If you were lucky, your parents took you to sit on the lap of a guy at the mall (although that kind of close contact with a stranger freaked me out, so I usually opted not to go). A lot more was taken on faith, and the proof depended on whether you got what you asked for in your letter. Now, Santa e-mails you back, using details provided by your parents to render his answer all the more plausible. Then there’s the NORAD site to monitor Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve, using Google Maps and Google Earth technology as well as phony news updates from around the globe. If my daughters are half as credulous as I was when I was a kid, they’re going to keep believing for a long time, now that the Internet is in the mix. But, paradoxically, I think their stubborn insistence on believing this year is probably a sign that our Santa days are numbered.

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Ma, Humbug!

December 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Holly Vanderhaar, Single Parents

By: Holly Vanderhaar

I was a huge fan of The X-Files in the 1990s, and one of the show’s catch phrases was “I want to believe.” I had no idea how that phrase would eventually come home to roost.

I really didn’t expect that my daughters would still believe in Santa Claus by the time they were in 3rd grade. I’d be surprised if all of their Christmas-observing friends still believe, and I find it unlikely that none of the non-believing, worldly-wise 3rd graders has spilled the beans. The right jolly old elf hasn’t come up much in conversation this year, and my hunch was that they had their doubts, but maybe weren’t ready to ask the question outright, for fear of having their suspicions confirmed.

When I imagined having kids I also imagined that bidding the Santa days good-bye would be accompanied by a feeling of loss. I’m all for fostering magical thinking among the young, and I’ve never been the type of person to worry about the backlash, the sense of betrayal that they might feel at figuring out that Mom’s been lying to them all this time. I had no problem promoting the Red Suit Agenda. But the thing is, I’m kind of ready to be done. I feel like Mama Buzzkill for saying so. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers will probably recoil in horror, and may even consider calling Child Protective Services. But I’m tired. Playing Santa for twins, finding just the right equivalent-but-not-exactly-the-same presents that aren’t obviously from Target, and then handling the logistics of Christmas morning when we celebrate half a continent away from home is wearing me out. Also, I’m not too proud to admit it: I’m ready to start getting the credit for picking the jaw-dropping gift.

The truth is, the golden years of Santa are behind us. Gone are the wonder years, the years where excitement built to a fever pitch for weeks, the awe when the presents appeared overnight and the cookies and carrots were eaten. The last few Christmases, they’ve taken it for granted. The novelty and magic have worn off for them. They’ve also gotten savvy, and they’ve figured out how to work the system. This has coincided with a couple of particularly lean years —I was finishing grad school, and then I was unemployed for the better part of eight months— when I had to tell them “I can’t afford it” a lot, not just at Christmas, but all year. “That’s okay,” they announced, pleased with themselves. “We can just ask Santa for it!” It’s hard sledding to reinforce the non-material side of the holiday when, to them, Christmas is now one big gift grab, and I find it kind of distasteful, actually.

So, as I said, I really thought we were done this year. There was no discussion of whether Santa was watching them on his big wall of TVs, no “I’m gonna ask Santa to bring me ‘x’!” I adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, figuring that maybe we would just segue gracefully into a St. Nick-less holiday. And then Isabelle, on the way home from school the other day, said, “Oh, I still need to write my letter to Santa.”

Well, maybe next year.

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Outnumbered

November 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Holly Vanderhaar, Single Parents

By: Holly Vanderhaar

My daughters are monozygotic—i.e., “identical”—twins, and they spend a lot of time putting up with people who can’t tell them apart. We do what we can, the three of us. They almost never dress alike, and in fact have different tastes in clothes. Gracie favors dresses, ballet flats, and pink, pink, pink. Isabelle likes jeans, boots, and anything with a peace sign on it. Gracie has long hair; Isabelle wears hers in a chin-length bob. I have them in separate 3rd grade classrooms, so that they have some time to be individuals, and to cultivate their own friendships. I’m trying to minimize the time that they spend being viewed as a single unit. In the wider world, this is enough for most people to figure out who’s who, and it seems to be working out well enough.

At home though, twinhood poses a different set of challenges, and they’re not as easily overcome. It’s not because I can’t tell them apart, although (ahem) I may or may not have messed that up too, on occasion. It’s because they outnumber me. It’s always posed something of a logistical challenge, but in the early days, that challenge was easily met with any willing pair of extra hands to hold, feed, burp, or change. For the last several years, the real problem has been competition for a scarce resource: my attention. They’re starved for one-on-one time with me, and it causes no end of fighting, bitching, backstabbing, and whining. Meanwhile, I’m busy bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan, throwing a load of laundry in now and then when I can no longer step over the pile in the hallway. I think most parents—most people, even—have expressed a wish to clone themselves. There aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week, or cups of coffee in the pot to accomplish everything we need to do. Sometimes we need to be in two places at once. And, sometimes, two or more people really need our full, unharried, unhurried attention at the same time. I think to myself, “Hey, I pulled off human cloning once. In 2003 I produced two genetically identical individuals without even trying. What’s so hard?” But, try as I might, I have been unable to replicate the process on myself.

We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be, though. So I’m working on ways to solve this problem. Babysitter? Well, how do I decide who has to be the first one to stay with the sitter while Sister gets some quality time with Mom? Flip a coin, and put up with the tears, I suppose. I thought I had come up with a brilliant solution when we were spending Christmas with our family in Phoenix last winter: one of the girls could stay with their beloved Aunt S. while one spent a day with me. Win-win! The trouble was that they both wanted to spend the day with their auntie, and I had to pry one of them away from her with a crowbar, and drag the poor child away to “have fun” “enjoying” “quality time” with me. I kept reminding her how nice it was to be together, just the two of us; she kept asking when we could go home. Back to the drawing board, I guess.

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The New Normal

By: Holly Vanderhaar

“Why are we here, again?”

This is the question I found myself answering —over and over again— when my daughters and I attended the 30th Anniversary Celebration of Single Mothers by Choice. I had of course told them that the celebration was the main reason for our trip to New York —their first trip— but they were more caught up in the excitement of the cabs and subways, the Empire State Building, and the cheesecake…ohhhh, the cheesecake.

“This is a big meeting with other families like ours, other families without a dad. Some of the other moms used a donor, like I did, and some adopted their kids.”

(crickets)

Then: “I thought you said there would be donuts.” And, “Can we go back up to the room and watch TV?”

When I started my journey to single motherhood in 2001, I was going to do this right. I joined SMC. I made friends with other local SMCs. I rehearsed the “why we don’t have a daddy” speech until I was comfortable. I was going to spare my child as much existential angst about our unconventional family structure as I could.

I should have known that road maps are useless on this particular journey, at least in our case. I should have known this when the ultrasound revealed I’d conceived identical twins on an unmedicated, poorly timed, “Hail Mary” insemination. The Daddy Question was posed not while cuddling up at bedtime as I’d always pictured it, but in the hosiery department at Target on a Sunday morning with other shoppers around (who were, no doubt, listening avidly). There went my composure, and I panicked: I didn’t think it was any of the nosy shoppers’ business, but I also didn’t want to give my daughters any sense of shame, any impression that it was something we Didn’t Talk About. So I stammered my way through a truncated version of my carefully crafted speech.

We lost our local SMC support system when we moved from Phoenix to St. Paul, Minnesota so I could go to grad school. The girls were four at that time, and I had every intention of connecting with the large community of Minnesota SMCs. But our weeks were hectic; the girls had started full-time pre-K, I was busy with my coursework and coping with teaching undergrads at the same time, and by the time the weekend came around, we just wanted to nest at home. My personal support system ended up being rebuilt out of my fellow grad students, one of whom was a single mom by divorce. And my daughters had each other. And time passed.

So now here we are, four years later. I still want to provide them with a community of families that look like ours. But I’m realizing that it’s not necessarily something they want —or, more accurately, it’s not something they see the point of. It may be a twin thing, first because they’re used to being different from their peers just by virtue of having a twin; and second, because they have a built-in support system that no singleton will ever understand. This is clearly my baggage. It doesn’t stop me worrying, though. Should I push them more, encourage them to build relationships with other SMC families? Or, by pushing, am I putting at risk their perception that our family structure is, if not normative, at least unremarkable? They don’t feel a need to have their lives normed by association with others “like us” and that’s a good thing, right?

Holly Vanderhaar is a freelance writer and a single mother by choice. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her twin daughters, two cats, and too many books.

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