(404 pp., Houghton Mifflin)
My two sons are both in their twenties now, living far from home, on their own. I miss them a lot. I’ve been a single parent since they were an infant and preschooler. Now I don’t see them for months at a time, but years ago there were long stretches of time when I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself. I would have been grateful then for Shoshana Alexander’s wonderful book, In Praise of Single Parents. If I could have found time to read it.
Alexander is herself a single parent of a six-year-old son, and her point of departure is her own personal experience. The book begins with a poignant account of how Alexander unexpectedly became a single parent when her partner left her, only three months pregnant. Together with her own experience, Alexander weaves the experiences of the many single parents she interviewed in the course of doing the book. The parents represented here include fathers as well as mothers, gay as well as straight, from a variety of racial backgrounds. I particularly appreciate the fact that we hear the voices of the children of single parents as well as the parents.
Alexander writes with compassion and psychological insight. The voices here share not only their joys but their darkest times, the suicidal moments, the rage erupting at a helpless child, the desperate loneliness; and the reader knows he or she is not alone. I felt supported. It was comforting, even in retrospect, to see the extent to which my struggles were/are shared by other single parents.
For example: Alexander points out that it’s often harder for single parents to set limits for their children, because they have nobody to back them up. But for this reason they also seem to have more collaborative relationships with their children, a more equal kind of partnership. The children of single parents learn to be imaginative and self-reliant, to take responsibility. Alexander also shows us that we can be creative about forming different kinds of family structures that work, that provide safety and love for our children.
I cried and laughed, remembering things I hadn’t thought about for years. I remembered when an interested housemate and I kept a running list of Sandy’s first words, exclaiming together at the daily additions, and then the housemate moved out, and Sandy kept learning to talk, and I had to rejoice alone. I remembered how furious and yet self-doubting I was when a man who was courting me told me I was spoiling my children. I remembered going to “open house” in my children’s elementary school classrooms alone, year after year. I remembered car camping with my kids and feeling like the three of us made a stable triangle of love.
Other people also screamed at their children in the car. Other people also felt they had to choose between a new partner and their children. Other people also struggled to be both mother and father, both friend and authority, to be strong and yet not be afraid to ask for help from friends and family.
Most of all, I was reminded of the urgency of this relationship. The kids were the first priority, the organizing principle, moment by moment, peanut butter and jelly sandwich after peanut butter and jelly sandwich, year after year. Alexander says, “None of us can wholly anticipate what it is like to face the double impact of being a parent and doing it alone. No parent can imagine, before the fact, the all-encompassing intensity of the bond we can form with our children. Who could foresee the wild swings of emotion when we raise them alone, with no partner to dilute the love or mitigate the stress? How could we anticipate the weight of knowing that, day after day, every move we make is intrinsically woven into the needs and desires of the children who depend on us for their lives?”
The book never specifically mentions Buddhism, or spiritual practice, but it has a deep spiritual foundation. Single parenting calls forth constancy of commitment, mindfulness, attentiveness, flexibility, pattern, fabric, ritual. Like Buddhist practice, it’s a way to stretch oneself to the limit through love, to become who you are. Alexander speaks of her own turning point when, in the midst of the exhausting struggle of the first year of her son’s life, she was able to accept the mantra that was given to her by a friend, that “this is the way it is.”