No Man’s Land

Stephanie Land essays

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I stood with a friend in her backyard one afternoon last spring, watching our kids play together.  I’d just been dumped, right after my kid’s dad told me he couldn’t take his daughter for the summer. “Alone” felt like a permanent way of my parenting life. “I’ve been so hopeful for you with this one,” my friend said of the recent ex. She watched my then five-year-old daughter, Mia, run in circles after a butterfly for a moment. “Children need two parents at home,” she said. “It’s just better for them.” Oh great. Now, not only was I a failure in love, I’d failed, once again, at filling a void in my daughter’s life as well. I told my kid it was time to go.

Never mind how hard dating is in general. With a kid who I now had full-time, the prospect of attracting a long-term mate felt impossible. I had to be at home at a decent hour to pay the sitter—when I could afford one. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who often invite my daughter along with them on camping trips, or for a sleepover, and tell me to go out and have some fun. I stepped into a different world on those nights. I turned into someone who could see a show and dance until two in the morning whenever she wanted, hiding the person who had to put a kid to bed every night at nine, then stay there until she woke up early in the morning.

When a young man asked me out on a date a few weeks later, my friends offered to babysit with happy smiles. I didn’t understand their enthusiasm. Dating felt more and more like a prospect that didn’t suit my situation. Not only did the words “looking for a relationship” feel detrimental, guys can’t “date” single moms. It seemed fun for them at first, but after a couple of months, a look of “holy shit, there’s a kid involved here” came over their faces. Having a kid at home was like telling a potential suitor over the appetizer on your first date that you have the perfect wedding dress in your closet at home. Waiting.

But my friend convinced me to go out with the guy. “Look,” he said. “Life’s short. And you’re really hot right now. It’ll only be so long that you’re able to attract rock climbers in their early 30s.” The date, of course, inspired me to write poetry. By the next month he admitted to feeling all of this meaningful connection, but he couldn’t give me what I needed. He was right. They all are when they say that.

I fought to see my kid as an added bonus to my single self. I pushed on, convincing myself I dated for her, because I didn’t feel like I was enough. I wanted her to have the two parents. The family. I kept looking for suitors over the summer, but in different ways. When I did get time off from motherhood, I turned into every other single lady going out for the night, just looking for fun. That’s what guys wanted, right? Less meaning. Less neediness. No responsibility. But by the time fall came around, I found out I was pregnant.

My mind switched to some kind of default mode. I scheduled an abortion. What other option did I have? I didn’t want to strong-arm a man into fatherhood again. But the appointment loomed over me, encased me with guilt and sadness, pulling me into grief. Then this little thought whispered to me in the shower. “You can do this on your own,” it said. I could opt-out of the battle altogether. 

I sucked in air, looked up, and puffed out my chest. I might have even put my fists on my hips, standing there under a stream of hot water, naked. “You are capable of doing this on your own.”  Thoughts of babies laughing in baby clothes with scratchy baby fingernails and wispy baby hair making baby faces pushed the guilt and sadness aside. I’d always wanted a second child, but couldn’t find the right person to have one with. The thought grew confidence, “You can have a baby on your own!” I stood up straight, and smiled for the first time in a several days.

When I told friends, they all relieved me with their excitement. “You’ve got this,” one said. “You’re one person I don’t have to worry about,” said another. Over ice cream after my first trimester, I told my daughter about her new sibling. She’d been begging for a sister, asking me to make her one like she would normally ask for a snack after school. At my announcement, she stared at my face, then said, “I knew it, Mama. I wished for one so hard that it happened.”     

She's at this incredible age where she's funny, and sweet, and so damn smart. When a friend of mine dropped her in the water at a pool the other day, Mia laughed and said, “I was totally not prepared for that.” She blows me the most sincere kisses when I drop her off for kindergarten and I love every stinkin' one, because I know a day will come when she won't do that anymore.

Then I have this little baby kicking inside, and it's like my “once more, with feeling” kid who set me straight. I'm older now, with confidence, esteem, and worth. I'm not scared. I’m not afraid of what people will think about the father not being involved. I'm not so hard on myself to be perfect, attempting to make up for my single parent status. I’ve raised one badass kid on my own, and I can certainly raise another. I'm not in a place of desperation, grasping at the yarn of an unraveling sweater worn by a father who's walking away. I’m no longer looking outward for a man to complete us. None of that matters. 

What matters are the letters to Santa. The “I need you to lay with me” at night, and being there when she gets off the bus and runs for me, arms outstretched and saying, “Mama!” It's no longer this bittersweet moment, knowing she'll grow up and demand a closed door to her room.  What matters is I get to do it all over again, without the fog of anxiety while resisting to fully surrender myself to motherhood. I get to start over from that first breath, already comfortable as a mom (and 90% of the time a dad, too). And I get to start over with Mia. 

This little being I'm growing has made me relax with the kid who's growing right before my eyes. I don't fight her for time to myself anymore. I don't feel the need for freedom from my daily life to maintain who I am without her. I don't need men to see me as a fun, sexy woman who just happens to be a single mom. I don't need men at all. Sure, I remember the dancing and climbing fire escapes to make out at two in the morning when Mia spent the night with friends, and it was fantastic. But I don't miss it. I know I have more to miss out on every day, if I'm not paying attention. It's like a cosmic shift of priorities, or snuggling into a role. But maybe it was as simple as a little click. And I’m sure it has a lot to do with hormones. Either way, I'm grateful. I know I'm headed for a hard road, raising two kids on my own. Sometimes I feel a pinch of insanity, pushing forward with finishing my degree and applying for grad school. 

But I don’t see my kids as this hindrance in staying true to myself and pursuing my dreams. My dreams are still within my grasp. I’m not searching for love anymore. It’s already within my little family. Or in those kisses, blown to me through the window of a car, before she runs off to school.

Stephanie is a total badass. Read more from this awesme mama here.

About the Author

Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land's work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change, and through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID: A Single Mother's Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home, is forthcoming through Hachette Books. She writes from Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters.

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