Awhile ago, Gina asked me to write a post about representations of single motherhood and socioeconomic class in contemporary American fiction. I think we all recognize—due, in part, to Hurricane Katrina’s devastating lessons—that American culture likes to keep its poor as invisible as possible, regardless of whether those poor are single mothers. I think we all recognize, too, that single mothers, statistically, are more likely to live in poverty than married mothers, and that young women who become single mothers before (or instead of) finishing high school, or before (or instead of) starting any kind of post-high school education are very acutely at risk. The census numbers tell this story (http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032006/pov/new04_000.htm) and it’s true that fiction often doesn’t. (I’m grateful to Gina and OV Books for publishing mine.)
I started writing about the struggles of working class single motherhood in response—or reaction?—to the many tender, celebratory texts about upper-middle class motherhood I’d read, texts which liberally used the tropes, “my husband” and “our house.” This is not to imply that struggle is exclusive to certain types of mothers, or that fathers don’t struggle, too. The difficulties and loneliness constituent of parenthood’s worst moments transcend gender, age and class.
But the details don’t.
Here’s an example: My son contracted chicken pox when he was three years old. It was winter, Chicago was buried under snow, and the power had gone out in our apartment building, knocking out the elevator and, worse, the electric-generated water pump. My son and I, who lived on the 13th floor, climbed the stairs over and over as we made runs to the convenience store to buy gallons of bottled water with which to wash his itchy scabs. I didn’t dare buy too many bottles at once. I figured the electricity would be fixed at any time, and couldn’t afford to waste money.
Perhaps this anecdote sounds grim and “victimy” but, even then, I could see its humor. More importantly, as I climbed thirteen flights of stairs, holding a toddler and a gallon of water for the third time in as many hours, I felt a furious kind of pride. This was the kind of story I didn’t see in motherhood magazines. But not many people wanted to read it. In fact, motherhood journals and anthologies frequently rejected my work for being “too dark.”
But these are not dark stories.
When my son was five, he and I moved from Chicago to Eugene, Oregon, where we were surrounded by other single moms and their kids. Howling with laughter and hot with pride, we moms shared our war stories. All of us had our babies young, before we’d gotten through (or even started, in many cases) college. My best friend, who’d become the single mother of her first child when she was twenty, often began sentences with, “When I was pregnant and working as a cashier at Wal-Mart...” She told a story of schlepping laundry on one foot because her two-year son had gotten head lice just after she herself had broken her ankle in several places.
Another good friend had become the single mother of her first child when she was sixteen. She told a story about seeing her daughter’s father (who’d refused to admit the baby could be his) at a high school gathering. He’d asked, “Who are you?” and she’d answered, “Your worst nightmare.”
I was the group’s senior member. My son was born shortly after my twenty-third birthday. I worked full-time, then, making just over $8/hour. Like the others, I had been underprepared for motherhood, economically and emotionally, and I wrote about those struggles, with all their intrinsic humor and joy. “Too dark” astonished me as a critique. After all, I wasn’t even writing about mothers in our nation’s worst poverty. We Oregon moms were the lucky ones: We were in school.
It’s not true that poor, single parents don’t figure at all in contemporary culture. Triumphant underdog stories are always popular, of course, so much the better if that underdog has a charming kid or two in tow (see The Pursuit of Happyness). The idea that anyone can pull himself up by the bootstraps to achieve the so-called American Dream for himself and his children still seduces us, even though, more and more, we realize that trajectory is the exception, not the norm. (In Seattle, where I live, two-bedroom townhouses sell for half a million dollars, so even the trappings of middle class life are becoming preposterously difficult to attain.) However, there aren’t many “rags to rags” stories in today’s American fiction, even though that’s the socioeconomic truth of many Americans’ lives. My book, O Street, is a “rags to a few less rags” story. The main character, who’s fictional, is one of the lucky ones, too.
I was in college by the time my son turned three. By the time my son and I moved to Eugene, I was starting graduate school. I don’t take these privileges lightly. He turned thirteen just a few days ago, and I feel very lucky indeed. We rent an unsubsidized two-bedroom apartment. We drive a financed, low-end sedan. We have two computers, four cats, a multitude of health care professionals, and we haven’t qualified for free school lunches or foodstamps since 2001. Who am I to complain?
Nowadays, I teach English at a community college, where heroic students in conditions worse than mine ever were attend my classes. One student, training to be a nurse, is the mother of three children, supports her parents and siblings in Haiti, and waits for her husband to return from his 15-month Stryker Brigade tour in Iraq. Another student, nine months pregnant, missed no classes at all, not even on the day I caught her doing “Lamaze breathing” on the college stairs. A third, the single mother of five children, maintains a straight A average, even though she has health complications that include partial blindness. Whether or not they “make it” in the conventional sense, their stories, “dark” or not, should be told.