Many years ago, I was a very young teacher in a big public high school. There was a student there who caused all sorts of problems, and I was in a meeting one day about how to help him. “Well,” said one teacher, “you know his father is gone. So it’s just his mom at home. What can we do, really?” All of the other teachers — myself included — nodded in agreement about this “impossible” situation.
We never did find a solution for that kid. I’m sure we tried something, though I can’t remember what. He was a kid who seemed hard to reach.
I’ve thought about that meeting a lot lately. But instead of imagining that kid from the past, I think about my own three children. Their father was taken from them after a short battle with cancer, and now they are left only with me. A single mother.
It is a monumental task to figure out how to parent them, but if I’m honest, I feel okay about the role I will play in my daughter’s life. I know, at least somewhat, what sorts of obstacles she will encounter and the types of things I will need to know to make sure that she turns out okay.
It’s not the same with my two boys. They are both young right now, but what lies ahead is daunting. Everything — from my lack of understanding about baseball rules to my complete dearth of “Star Wars” knowledge — feels like an example of how I am failing them.
And so now, no matter how much everyone tells me that I’m a great mom and I’m doing everything right, the words of that teacher from over a decade ago haunt me. Not just because it showed an obvious bias, but because I agreed with her. I thought, “Yes, the absence of his father is clearly why he’s acting out. It would almost be expected.”
I’ve known single moms since then, and I never uttered such a phrase. I told myself that I had become more open-minded in my 30s. My friends who were single parents were doing a great job, and I was sure that their kids would be okay.
But if I’m being honest, that bias was still there. I know in the back of my mind, I thought, “Thank God my kids have a dad who takes them to sporting events and grills them hot dogs on Saturday and rides bikes with them in the alley. Thank God they have him, because it means that my kids will really be okay.”
I guess we all just want reassurance that our children will grow into thoughtful and happy adults. Right now, however, it feels as though getting my boys to that point will be really difficult.
There’s a lot of advice for mothers like me. Almost every article on the topic discusses the importance of finding a good adult male role model to spend time with my boys. Some writers emphasize letting boys “play rough” and others say I should be careful not to be a permissive mom. I even read one article about the value of buying young boys toy guns, which was countered by a different article on why buying young boys toy guns was a terrible idea.
All these articles do is get me back to feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’ve voiced my concerns to some of my friends, and of course, they have all been supportive. They tell me that my kids are going to be okay. But then society seems to say something back to me that counters these reassurances, especially about my boys. The fear remains.
Should I make sure my boys have male teachers and coaches? Should I make it a priority to throw the ball with them every afternoon? Am I totally screwing them up if I don’t enroll them in Boy Scouts?
In so many ways, I am still paralyzed by all of my biases about single moms raising boys. Because that’s what they are — biases. It’s just that now they are directed toward my own family.
The other day, I saw a neighbor who knows my family well. He understands that things are hard right now, and he knows I’m worried about my sons in particular. I was telling him about something I’d messed up with one of my boys, and he stopped me.
“Marjorie,” he said to me, “I want you to know something. I was raised by a single mom.”
I looked at him. We’d known each other for years, and yet this was the first time he had opened up about this with me. He started to tell me about all the incredible things she did for him, and then he paused and looked at me. “I want you to know one thing. My mom taught me how to be a man.”
I started to cry. Under all the questions about how to teach them how to shave and throw a football, this is what I really worry about:
He seemed to read my mind.
“You are worried about all sorts of things, I know,” my neighbor said. “But you will teach your boys how to be men in all the stuff that really matters.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not about explicitly showing them how to move through the world as boys. Maybe learning to be a man is about something else that’s a bit more intangible. Maybe I don’t need to constantly call my male friends to show my boys how to do everything. Maybe my boys are actually watching me pick up the pieces every day and seeing qualities in me that will help them become better men: openness, determination and a healthy dose of resilience.