Greg Correll is a writer, poet, artist, and web designer/manager. He was also once a runaway and then a young, destitute, single father struggling to survive. He and his eldest daughter Molly have been working on a heart-rending, harrowing and ultimately hopeful memoir. Now Greg has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease that threatens to rob him of his ability to work—or write. We have launched a campaign to raise funds to allow Greg to focus exclusively on finishing his manuscript by year’s end. To learn more about our project—Like Father, Like Daughter: a Memoir—please click HERE.
I was a single parent in the 70s and 80s, when I was in my early twenties. I raised my first daughter alone until she was seven.
Here’s a typical day for a single parent:
Wake up prepared. Breakfast is in the cupboard, at least for her, and there’s a clean bowl and spoon and glass. Get up first if possible. Purge all personal grumpy and drag-ass. She has clean clothes, even if it means wash and rinse and hang out to dry the night before, if it’s not laundry week. She eats. Try to sit with her and eat, too. Get her stuff ready. Make sure she brushes her teeth. Dress her and/or vet her choices (underoos on top of the sweater, tutu on top of the jeans? ixnay, gently; make some excuse for why not). Brush and braid her hair (no matter how late we are, go slow … no “ow-ies”). Find her shoe. Stay calm. Say something encouraging, constructive, or funny to her. Listen to her complaints, stories, and jokes. Hug her. Let her sit in your lap or carry her if she’s still sleepy, but don’t let her fall asleep. Choose weather-appropriate whatevers. Remind her of this, warn her about that. Hug her again. Play a little, maybe, but at least show affection. Defer, until she’s safely dropped off, all adult anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, and panic about work, so she doesn’t think being an adult sucks.
Rinse and repeat, day after day.
Get it? This has nothing to do with one’s plumbing. Man or woman, the daily routines are almost always exactly the same.
The differences do show up, of course. As a single father I got a little more notice, the occasional acknowledgements, from some people, sometimes. It’s surprising how little it takes to improve your perspective. It usually amounted to “I think it’s great that you…”, as if stepping up as a father was a merit badge. It rarely went much further.
The other mothers and I used to chat on this, too: same lives, same dedication and work, but I also got noticed. Simply: noticed. See, to other twenty-somethings all young mothers are invisible. I guess the assumption is: Oh, you went the “have a kid” route. Later, adults in their 30s and 40s see parents, but as part of the landscape, generally. Older folks, who might have grandchildren (or want one), start to pay real attention, chatting us up on the bus, etc. But across the spectrum, single fathers get more, approving or otherwise, eyeball time. It is debilitating to mothers, single or otherwise, to be invisible.
Noticed or not, the work is identical. A good single parent is defined by endurance, compassion, rectitude, and a sense of humor (and being tired.) These qualities are not gender-specific. Meeting your kid’s needs is a set of habits. Anyone can learn habits. Habits eventually form constant characteristics suitable to the job of raising a healthy child.
And the so-called traditional parent roles, assigned by our culture to gender? Almost completely irrelevant. “Traditional” moms can sometimes be emotionally inaccessible, lousy communicators, short-tempered, or any damn thing. “Regular” dads might be inattentive to their kid’s ordinary needs, or carry out tasks in an obligatory way, or emphasize pro forma behavior over creativity.
Some significant gender-related issues show up later, when they reach adolescence—having “the talk”, dealing with menstruation and emissions, all that usual stuff. And there are cumulative effects. Some of them seem to be inevitable. Good men demonstrate what being a good man is. This is useful to girls, growing up, but is oblique to their personal formation. The same is true for good women, with sons. I used to go out of my way to show role models to Molly: a woman who was a certified electrician, or a chef; professionals and hard-working women of all kinds. I chose women doctors for her. But when I married my current wife, who became a second mother to Molly, I saw she was able to give things, demonstrate truths, that were missing or at least abstracted, coming from me. From the banal—how to sit in a dress—to the subtle—if an aggressive man dominates the environment, deflate him just a bit, then step into the vacuum of his befuddlement.
But this emerges later. It’s important to understand how universal the experience is for raising kids, for almost all routine tasks. And it’s all routines, endless, repetitive routines. A friend of mine, a clinical psychologist, once likened parenting to having a water spigot in the middle of your back you can’t reach—but they can. Becoming good at the routines means being available, being responsible means “response-able”, too.
I made the choice, and sustained it, to put Molly first. This was a big part of the reason I did not re-marry for 8 years, and why the handful of relationships I had while raising her either fizzled, or never even got a proper start. I went out with some other single parents (imagine: two exhausted adults, determined to enjoy their only night off in months, dancing once, twice –– then collapsing). The algorithm of relationship dynamics was stacked against us: her kid gets along with my kid? her ex likes me, or undermines things? we have no budget or availability for each other? and most often, testing things revealed we simply weren’t meant for each other. I was always leery of women who needed a man. At least once I mistook a genuine crush on me, for the right reasons, as her trying to “fix” her broken home problem.
But I saw other things clearly. I was a pre-school teacher, or a cook at a pre-school, for several of those years. I knew mostly women, and most of them were parents, and most of them single. (To this day I still prefer “girl talk” to what men usually have to say to each other.) I had a rare perspective on women, on “women’s work.” Women’s work is excruciatingly hard, and made harder because it is “expected.” But women are also prone to mild, understandable self-deceptions about men, and women, and what both want. For example:
Ask most women what they want in a man and you will end up with a description of most of my best qualities, back then. At the time, though, I never once got a serious date with any non-mother. Having a child is a turn-off, but especially to twenty-something women. Men and women at that age are vain, and ambitious, and have other plans. Girls just want to have fun, just like the guys.
Poverty trumps all finer attributes. Some of the women I was most interested in saw me as a big bag of work-in-progress (I was), and ruled me out. Others liked me, perhaps, and a few even really understood what I was worth, I think. But without an education (I had to quit after my junior year, to raise her) and prospects, I was not a serious contender to any of the better women I knew. I was at times bitter about this.
Women do the dozens on men. It’s almost a verbal tic. They love to say what men are like and laugh about it. It’s usually cruel. The habit starts in their teens and lasts until they are in their eighties. You know what I mean, girls. Men give them plenty of reason, too. Young men are slow to take up: hygiene, their fair share around the house, responsibilities generally, and due respect for women specifically. But not all men. In particular, not me. I used to sit and laugh along, but I kept expecting more. “Well, not Greg here, but … ” was all I got. If I wasn’t to be lumped in with the rest of them, then why wasn’t I a “hot prospect”? Well, I simply got it wrong: women can do this because men are often, truth told, such dopes, and they want to do this because it brings an instant sense of sisterhood and power. It was never about me, personally, either way.
One way to see this is base biology. No matter what the myths of femininity suggest, or what they tell themselves (to each other, or to the polls and studies), young women are a lot like young men. A LOT lot. Both sexes balk at raising other people’s kids. And no one wants to be second place to a child, because the human urge to mate (reproduce) is also the urge to bond (pair up), and that requires time and attention. Our biology is ahead of our cognition.
We are not who we pretend to be. Being a single father gave me first-hand, gritty experience with this essential fact: we think we have lofty standards and measured desires, generous criteria and fair minds, but we act upon a simpler set of values and urges. We dodge or embrace things on instinct, then explain it later to fit our self-image.
Gender does not determine the outcome, for our children. Perspicacity and lovingkindness triumphs over mere roles. But we pretend gender roles offer a formula—or at least a shared set of expectations, that work as a reliable guide for both parenting and relationships. It doesn’t. It is approximate, full of strange and wonderful exemptions, and a lot of it is simply imaginary.
It’s useful for independent young men and women to elevate themselves, but single parents hit the ground running, and must shed themselves of whatever is not true, or gives them false hope. When you raise up humanity itself, you need reality, not pretense. It took me eight years to find a woman who loved me, and Molly, in that order, and was willing to put up with both of us. That’s about right. That’s how rare it is to find someone who sees who we really are. Who really wants what they pretend to want.
NOTE: Greg Correll is a writer, poet and artist extraordinaire. He was also, at one time, homeless, destitute and the young father of a daughter. Greg, who raised his girl, got married and raised two more beautiful daughters, is now struggling to finish his memoir while battling an aggressive form of Parkinson’s Disease that may give him only months to write. His friends have launched a fundraising campaign to raise grant money so he can stop his day job and devote himself to finishing the first draft of his compelling and inspirational tale. To help Greg, please click here. The deadline for this campaign has been extended to October 14, 2012.
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