I watched my father walk out on my mother. I was 9. After they spoke about his affair, Mom went into the garage and sat in the family Blazer, crying, hands on the steering wheel as if she planned to drive but didn’t know where. Meanwhile, Dad crammed Wrangler jeans and polyester shirts into a duffle bag. The sounds are what I remember most: slamming doors and shuffled steps, Mom’s heaving, sloppy gasps, the roll and pop of sliding closet doors, Dad’s motor turning over. It became quiet after that, the kind of swampy silence that follows the crash of broken glass or a difficult and unanswerable question.
Sometimes I think about my mom resting her head on the steering wheel, crying, as my dad packed his things, and I realize that’s the moment she became a single mother. My father didn’t pay child support. He didn’t come around all that much. Suddenly she was both a mother and a father. She was my only source of discipline, homework help, and emotional and financial support. She was the only one there to help me when I was being picked on at school. She woke up with us throughout the night, and held us when we were sick. She was the beginning and end of all arguments between my two siblings.
I still remember her face as a mix of compassion, strength, and determination. I remember hearing her cry in the living room after she tucked me in at night. And at the time, I didn’t understand why she cried, but now, I realize it was the only time she had a moment to sit, think, and feel.
Mom worked days at the local power plant, and evenings cleaning houses. At Christmastime, she worked Saturdays at a music store. Late in the evening, she arrived home wearing paint-stained sweat pants and a T-shirt. A plastic bucket filled with yellow rubber gloves, toothbrushes, Lysol, and a scrubbing brush was in her right hand. She dropped the bucket, fingertips wrinkled from scrubbing toilets. Then she stepped out and returned a moment later with the navy dress she wore to her office job at the power plant slung over her forearm. There were times that she got me up for school moments before she left for her first job and then came home late in the evening, just in time to hold me accountable for my homework.
Every time I acted out in school, which was more often than I’d like to admit, she’d have to leave work and hustle to the school to discuss the situation with my teachers, and every time she gave me a straight-faced look that seemed to say, “You know I don’t have time for this.” And at the time, I took stuff like that personal because I was a pissed-off kid from a broken home. I felt offended, like she was saying that she didn’t have time for me. But now I know what she was really saying was, “I need you to help me help you.” And in that light, I realize just how much she was up against.
Because the fact is, she wanted to have those long and direct mom and son talks like you see on TV, but she didn’t have the time. That was the hard fact of her situation. But the reality was, I learned so much from watching her sacrifice everything to turn me into something.
It took me a long time to start to realize all the sacrifices my mother made to keep our family afloat. But that’s the reality of single mothers. They are the fighters. They are the truly dedicated. They are the people the world chewed up and spit out, and they keep going. They keep moving forward. They don’t give up on their children because they understand obligation and dedication. They work tirelessly, doing the work of two, each and every day, fighting with every ounce of strength, until they can feel confident that their children will turn out right with or without an active father.
And while I know that there has been a lot of conversation lately about the disadvantages of being raised by a single mother, I can say, honestly, that the hard work and passion of single mothers is one of the most admirable things I’ve ever witnessed. And were it not for my mother’s dedication, I wouldn’t have gone on to finish a graduate degree, land a full-time and stable job at a university, and be a happily married and dedicated father of three.
I learned how to sacrifice from my single mother. I learned to work hard and be devoted, and I learned how much of an impact a father has on their family by watching my mother tirelessly work in my father’s absence. I learned how to look at my wife and respect how committed she is to her children. And I often think about my mother crying at night and realize how important it is for me to work hard on my marriage, because my family needs me, and I will never do to my wife and children what my father did to his.
So to you, the single moms, working your asses off, dedicated and passionate, and giving your all to your children in the absence of a second parent, you are hardcore. You are badass. You are the real grease of this world. I admire you, because without my single mother, I wouldn’t be half the father I am today. I see you. I respect you. And I know that your children do too.