After her husband died, Edie Weinstein raised her son alone. Now she reflects on whether one parent can or should even try to fulfill the roles of both.
I was widowed at age 40, back in 1998. My husband Michael died of Hepatitis C following a six year bout with the condition that had both of us on a physical and emotional roller coaster ride. Revolving door hospital visits, racking up what I called ‘frequent flyer miles’ was an unpredictable and paradoxically familiar aspect of our lives. The same year he was diagnosed with the disease, which was 1992, we adopted our then nearly five-year-old son. He was an inquisitive, high energy kid.
Watching his father experience mood swings related to medication that was intended to cure the disease, as well as sometimes unbearable physical pain, added to the soup pot of sometimes unsavory ingredients. It took internal fortitude, deepening spiritual faith, and the loving support of family and friends to enable me to remain relatively sane and vertical.
When Michael took his final breath in the ICU of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, on December 21, 1998, he had been on a ventilator for five and half weeks. He had been awaiting a potentially life-saving liver transplant that never occurred, despite desperate prayers that it would. I had done my share of ‘God wrestling,’ during which I said often “He’s mine and you can’t have him,” to which Spirit replied kindly, but surely, “No, he’s mine and he’s on loan to you, like everyone else in your life.” At that point, it felt like my only choice was to surrender.
Eleven-year-old Adam was by my side, surrounded by other loved ones. He had requested time alone with his father as he asked everyone else in the room to leave us. He brushed back his father’s hair and washed his face; wearing gloves of course, due to the blood born contagion of Hepatitis C. We said our goodbyes and then he turned to me and told me “OK, Mommy, it’s time.” We invited our family and friends, as well as the medical staff who had become family of choice, back into the small room as life support was disconnected.
You know how on television and movies, you see the flat line and hear the “beeeeeep” sound that tells you the person has expired? That’s not how it was that day. The doc who had been taking care of Michael, who my mom referred to as “the baby doctor,” since she was likely in her 20s at the time, turned off the sound portion of the equipment that kept his heart pumping and lungs expanding since he entered into a coma. Tears flowed as we all hugged each other. I had simultaneous feelings related to grief and relief. I had let go of the need to control his care, as I had done all of those years. I had relinquished responsibility for keeping him alive, since in my co-dependent delusions, I thought I needed to fix, save. and heal my husband.
I was plunged into a state that was frightening, since I now was left to raise my son solo. In some ways, that was a blessing, since my husband and I had conflicting ideas of how that was best done. Our family histories fed our parenting styles. Mine was more laissez faire and fluid, while his was more authoritarian and rigid.
One thing you hear when you become a single parent is that you need to be both mother and father. I pondered that quandary and rejected it outright, since I have no idea of what it means to be a man and won’t pretend that I do. Although I had once believed it was sexist to think that men and women were all that different, I had come to see that sometimes they feel like a whole ‘nother species and a tribe that was foreign. I had become an anthropologist, attempting to figure out all of the required rituals of masculinity so that my son could see his way clear to becoming a man of integrity.
I also told him that there was no expectation for him to be the ‘man of the family,’ since as the adult, I was still in charge. He would need to step up, to the best of his ability and willingness to take responsibility for his choices.
After Michael died, I had a conversation with Adam and told him that I would be there for him no matter what and that he could talk to me about anything, including sex. It occurred to me that in that realm, I was comfortable, since I have counseled people as a therapist. I knew I could handle the topic with my son but wasn’t sure if he would be at ease speaking with his mother about his developing body and libido. I also knew, that owning different ‘plumbing,’ I could only offer my perspective in its care. A man would need to teach him that.
One conversation that I didn’t want to leave to anyone else, was what I called ‘The Three Part Sex Talk.” It included ‘respect yourself and your partners, practice safe sex and I’m too young to be a grandmother.’ This occurred when he was 14. When he was 20, he had a 19 year old girlfriend who had a child from a previous relationship and I sat them both down and repeated the first two and added, “I’m still too young to be a grandmother.”
A few years later, as he entered another relationship, I began the conversation and he held up his hand and laughingly reminded me, that I need not go any further. “You ARE old enough to be a grandmother now, mom.” In his current relationship, he did a pre-emptive strike and told me that I didn’t need to even initiate the dialog.
I welcomed a village to help me raise my child and recruited close male friends who values I trusted and whose views about women were in alignment with my own. One in particular, who blessedly has become a father figure to my son, is Phil Garber. When Adam was 14, I took much needed mini vacay and he and his wife Janet stayed over to be with him. When I returned, Phil told me how much fun he had with him and asked how I would feel if he became Adam’s unofficial Big Brother. We had been on a waiting list with the agency for three years at that point, with no indication that a volunteer would step up. I immediately told Phil, “Give me ten seconds to think about it. OK, he’s yours.” At that moment, a match made in heaven was born.
Another 14 years has passed and Phil has been Adam’s go-to guy for advice and guidance for nearly everything. Money, sex, women, career, life challenges, self-image, health; all of the things I would have hoped Michael would have covered had he lived. Phil jokingly refers to me as his “baby mama.” Adam sees Phil as his surrogate father. When I have overheard phone conversations between them, I can always tell who is on the other end of the line, since they now sound so much alike. They both possess a twisted sense of humor and love of all things South Park. Phil is my translator who reminds me that sometimes Adam will say or do things for shock value, because he knows it pushes my buttons.
Giving myself some kudos, here’s what I brought to the table as a single mom:
A solid sense of support for my son
Strong work ethic
Ability to gather resources so I need not do it alone
Knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know
Teaching pro-social values
Offering love and affection in word and action
Giving him roots and wings
A much needed sense of humor
The realization that there will be some days when I feel like I am the worst mother in the world and others when I seriously think I should be given the Mother of the Year Award.
I am grateful to be the mother and not father of this now 28 year old mensch who has a heart of gold. When Adam was 14, Adam told me “Mom, I’m an undercover angel sent to teach you patience.” I guess I am a lifelong learner, since even now, he’s still teaching and I’m still learning.