Category Archives: Single Motherhood

8 things I’ve learned from living ten years post-breast cancer

Ten years ago, on my 37th birthday, in the elevator on the way to pick up my 20-month old from daycare, the surgeon told me that “they found cancer cells,” and everything changed.

Did I imagine that I would survive and have the life I’m living now?  Did I have any idea that I would be working as an environmental lawyer for a state agency, living in a house in the suburbs, single, and with a middle-schooler who is learning to play the violin and loves detective and cop shows? Did I imagine that I’d actually write a memoir and start to take writing seriously?

I was afraid to imagine anything, afraid that my life would be snatched away and my daughter left without me, as an orphan.  I started listening to audiobooks in the car because I always started crying when I had too much time to think of the possible outcomes. All I knew was that I had to get through it.

I did get through it, through the slash, poison, and burn.  Through the “new normal.”  Through a number of boyfriends, an engagement, and then years of learning to accept my singlehood. Together, my daughter and I have made it through the terrible twos (and threes), kindergarten, elementary school, and ADHD issues for both of us.

But I am so grateful to have had these ten years.  Here’s what I think I’ve learned:

1. It takes more courage to be alone than to be trying always to meet someone.  I always thought I was being brave to put myself out there online dating and asking guys out, but dealing with rejection is easy.  There’s always someone new to distract yourself with, more profiles to scroll through, someone who may have just joined the site or walked into the bar.  What’s hard is to not have someone in your head to fantasize about, to think about what it will be like when you are together, or when the relationship takes that next step.  Not having someone in your head is the only way to truly get to know yourself, to take care of yourself.  When you’re always thinking about someone else, how do you know who you really are?

2. Flossing is important.  B.C. (Before Cancer), I was in denial and thought daily morning and haphazard bedtime brushing would be enough to keep my teeth and gums healthy. After diagnosis, I didn’t think I needed to floss at all because gingivitis is a long-term thing and so it wasn’t terribly likely I’d have to deal with it. But as the annual anniversaries started accumulating, I thought I’d add daily nighttime brushing, and then flossing.  Wow!  My mouth is happy, and so is my hygienist!

3. That restless feeling won’t kill you.  I remember feeling like I had to do something, anything, just to get out of the house.  God forbid I didn’t have plans on a Friday or Saturday night.  I would shop, or find friends to go out with. But now, it’s not that I don’t get restless.  I still do.  But I sit with it.  I pick up the notebook, write a little bit.  Or I go for a walk.  Or to the library.  Acquiring things or being with other people won’t calm my brain. My spiritual practices of reading, writing, and walking help the most.

4. Eat the ice cream.  Cravings don’t go away.  I try to practice intuitive eating, and life is too short to miss out on the pleasures of a quiet house, a good book, a soft bed with warm covers, and a bowl of Blue Bell to enjoy.

5. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions you’ve made about yourself.  For years, I believed that I was an extrovert–I enjoyed being in front of people, talking to groups, and just interacting with other people on a regular basis.  But then I started to notice that when I walked with a friend at lunchtime, talking the entire time, I had a terrible time settling down and focusing afterwards.  I noticed how when the phone rang, sometimes I didn’t want to talk with the person on the phone, even if they were someone I cared about. I noticed how exhausted I was on days when I had multiple meetings scheduled.  It was like all of the interaction spun my brain out of control.  I tried putting my headphones on at work so I wouldn’t listen to the goings-on in the hallway and be tempted to join.  I started walking alone at lunch.  And so I honored the little girl who would rather read, alone, than do anything else.

6. Listen to your body.  There is wisdom there, whether it’s saying you need more movement or sleep or broccoli.  You just have to slow down enough to be able to feel it.

7. You can only do what you can do. Life is overwhelming, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.  We all make mistakes and don’t do things we’d committed to.  It’s OK.  Try better next time, or, don’t commit to doing so much!

8. You don’t have to say “yes” to every social opportunity offered.  This is related to #5. I used to never miss an opportunity to meet a friend for lunch, or dinner, or to do something with other people.  I still enjoy the time I spend with other people, but I’ve come to appreciate limited time as a hermit.  These days, a great Saturday is one where I walk to the park, get to the gym to lift weights, and finish a book.  My brain is clearer, and my life isn’t as frazzled.  Sometimes it’s better just to stay home and get a few things done.  It makes the week go much more smoothly when there are clean dishes and clothes, and food in the fridge on Sunday night.

Can you imagine all the wisdom I’ll be able to spout when I get to 15 or 20 years? Here’s hoping!


Katie Heaney’s Memoir and My (Still Unfinished) Memoir

Katie Heaney wrote and published a memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, before she turned thirty. Some people find that tedious, but I found it inspiring. See, Katie’s story is interesting because she has been single for her entire life. Yet she is heterosexual, and for most of her twenty-five years “there has been at least one boy [she] was thinking about and hoping to date, in the abstract….[and] there has been a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind more often than there hasn’t been.”

I wish someone my age had written this kind of memoir when I was in college, and that I had found it then.  I have twenty years on Katie, but I get her completely.  The writing that I’ve been doing is similar in scope and theme to her memoir.  She wrote about every crush from grade school forward, describing her experiences with boys and lack thereof.  I’m writing about every relationship, however ill-advised or doomed, to try to figure out why I’ve felt the need to do what Katie has done–have a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind most of the time–or go even further– have an actual boyfriend or husband a good portion of the time.

It’s funny how the image we have of ourselves when we are teenagers never seems to go away completely, or is really hard to change.  I was the boy-crazy one, the fat girl who was always chasing someone but never catching anyone.  Like Katie, I didn’t date anyone in high school, but in my case, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.  Many things came together so that it never happened for me.  And when it did happen, I wasn’t very picky about who was interested, how I really felt about him, and how he treated me.  That came much later.

Katie got to an “end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with” and ended up writing the book as a twenty-five year old who hasn’t had sex.  She refers to Tina Fey saying that she was twenty-four when she had sex for the first time because she “couldn’t give it away.”  I may not have had the exact same experiences, but I know the feelings.

Why am I writing and thinking about this now, more than twenty years later?  I’ve been deliberately single for more than three years.  This is the longest period of time since college that I haven’t been in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship.  I still think about men often, both specific men I might like to date and in general when I see them out and about.  But at the same time, being with someone after three years of not being with anyone makes it all seem theoretical, like it happened in another life to another person.  And I have a hard time imagining how a man would fit into my life with everything I have going on such as work, raising my daughter, my family and friends, and the things I want to do, like reading and writing.

But I’ve also realized that I’m writing about my sordid past relationships because I’m trying to change the story I tell myself about myself.  I’m not that fat girl who couldn’t get a date any more.  I have dated and married and divorced and broken up and been broken up with.  I’ve got almost two hundred pages with all of the gory details.  Katie’s memoir spoke to me because she has realized a lot of the same things I’m trying to, without the twenty-five-year detour.  That’s why I wish her book had been available to me when I was in college.

The status of a relationship, whether I am in one or not, or dating or not, does not define me.  Katie writes, about dating: “Why would I want to go out to dinner and a movie with someone I’m not completely crazy about when I already know how much I like eating dinner and watching a movie by myself?”  When a friend finally recovers from a bad breakup, she does so partly by realizing that “she could do whatever she wanted, work wherever she wanted, and live wherever she wanted…she didn’t have to think about anyone else’s goals or desires and then try to make them work with her own…It’s not that she wouldn’t do those things.  It’s just that she didn’t HAVE to. She could live for herself and herself alone.”  Katie realizes that her friend never felt this freedom before, but that it was “the same freedom I’ve always had, for my whole entire life.”

Last night, Friday night, there were two other possible things I could have done instead of what I did.  A female friend had an extra ticket to a gala that would have been so much fun, to get dressed up and go downtown to a fancy ballroom and people-watch.  And an online friend was in town with her husband and wanted to try to meet for dinner.  Either would have been enjoyable.  But my daughter isn’t old enough to stay home in the evening by herself, babysitting is expensive, and I am using a lot of my childcare “credits” with friends right now because of a two-week fall break.  So I didn’t do either thing.  Instead, after work, I changed into my sweatpants, made pizza from scratch, and then my daughter and I watched The Voice episodes we had DVR’d from the week, while I knitted a scarf I owe for a charity auction.  Then she went to bed and I read for a blissful hour of peace and quiet.  I don’t know how dating would fit into all this, and that’s all right.  Like Katie, I am “sure of who I am and what I want (and don’t want) in other people.”  I can take wisdom from anywhere, even from a tall, awkward girl twenty years younger than me.  Thanks, Katie.


Finally, “After”

It’s May! We are now firmly into spring, after a very long winter. Part of what made it so long was that I didn’t make very much time to do the three things that keep me grounded–reading, writing, and walking–so I was somewhat off. Between work, family, and church commitments, the time I took for self-care had gone by the wayside. But, the year-long church commitment is now over, with a successful result.  I’ve been back to the gym in the past month on the treadmill and at the weight machines, and I’ve found 30 minutes to get outside and walk during the work day about half the time. I am reading at least four books simultaneously right now, including an audiobook in the car, and I’ve been journaling daily for a while. I’m on my way back.

In my journal, which I do first thing after I wake up, I find myself writing a quick recount of the past day and giving myself a pep talk about what I need to get done that day. Lately, journaling hadn’t brought me amazing new insights and seemed kind of ho-hum. I’d start writing, but then stare off into space and stop. The siren song of my phone and social media has been hard to resist.

I found at The Gift of Writing the idea of listing several writing prompts at the front of your journal, so that when you come to a point that you’re not sure what to write, you just flip to the inside cover and pick a prompt.  I did that with the journal I started in November, with fair results.  The prompts were things like “What does your heart say?” and “What can you do in the next couple of days to get you closer to where you want to be?”

I started a new notebook recently, and thought I’d go one step further.  If you’re looking for writing prompts, go no further than The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.  He has collected over 800 of them there, ranging from introspective to prompts designed to help you work with a piece of fiction or nonfiction you’ve already started.  As if having the book right next to me while I journaled wasn’t good enough, I went through and picked out the prompts that seemed appealing and listed them in the front of my new notebook.

The other day I decided on this prompt: “What is your five-year plan?  What would you like your life to be like in five years?”  If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I have to have a plan.

For a very long time I had the habit of daydreaming about my life “after” something–long ago it was “after I lose weight” or “after I’m done with school” and then it was “after I meet someone” or “after I have a baby” then everything would be perfect and my life would be wonderful.   Of course, that’s no way to live because life is never the way you expect it would be after.  After can’t meet those high expectations.

When I did the five-year plan prompt, I realized that in five years, I don’t want my life to be any different than it is right now.  I want to live in the same house, have the same job, the same friends, and go to the same church.  I want the peonies I rescued from across the street a few weeks ago to be getting ready to bloom, and my daisies to be getting ready to turn a good portion of my lawn into a cutting garden.  I want to take my daughter to school down the street, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, lift weights and feel strong a couple of times a week, and turn my face to the spring sun as I walk off the long winter.  I want to continue to cook on the weekends so that I don’t have to during the week, and I want to keep talking to and spending time with my beloved sisters and friends.

Oh, sure, I’d love it if the clutter fairy came to my house to put everything away and work against the forces of chaos and dirty dishes.   But I don’t see that happening as long as I make reading, writing, and walking a priority after taking care of my daughter and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat.  And it would be nice if the powers that be determined that public service jobs deserved pay that was more on-par with those in the private sector.  And there is still great injustice and suffering in the world that requires a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people.  And there’s no guarantee things won’t change because of factors beyond my control.

But, all in all, I realized that I’ve got everything I need right here, right now.  There is no “after.”  This is it, and it’s pretty damn good.

Why I Became a Single Mother By Choice

This post is appearing simultaneously here, on OMG There’s Three, a blog written by Sarah, a single mother by choice of triplets.  For the entire month of September, she’s collecting stories of women who have decided to become a single mother by choice.  She says “the decision to become a single mother is often made for similar reasons, but the paths leading to the choice are as varied as the women who make it.  Here is a collection of stories answering the not so simple question “Why did you decide to become a single mom by choice?”

It is a wonder that I didn’t get pregnant when I was a teenager. Not because I slept around, because I didn’t date at all in high school. But I was obsessed with both boys and babies. I had crush after crush, almost as far back as I can remember. By tenth grade, I was full-on boy-crazy, so much so that one of my nicknames was derived from the way one of my crushes looked. (Don’t ask which animal people thought he looked like.) The notes that have survived from that time are cringe-worthy. But all of my obsession over the boy of the month was unrequited. I turned 16, 17, and then 18 without a single guy showing romantic interest in me. My aunt supplied my cousin to take me to my senior prom, and I wasn’t kissed for the first time until after I graduated from high school. Because I didn’t date, I had plenty of time to babysit. I babysat for neighbors and for my cousin—I loved babies and little kids.

College was slightly better. I was still boy-crazy, having graduated from passing notes with my girlfriends to putting up centerfold posters from Playgirl magazine in my dorm room. (My more modest roommate made me place a construction-paper heart like a fig leaf to cover up the goods.) I still chased boys, but this time my love life wasn’t a complete drought. I had one relationship that lasted six months, but otherwise went to dances with friends and continued to keep a man in the back of my head to crush on all of the time. I chose my major—Chemistry—because most science classes were filled with men.

All of this romantic obsession and deprivation led me to marry when I was twenty-four, in a whirlwind of feeling like I was swept off of my feet. I met him through a personals ad, when I was living a thousand miles away from most of my family, and had just moved cross-country three times within fifteen months. We talked on the phone for twelve or sixteen hours over four days before we met in person. After he came to see me the day after our first date, he never slept in his apartment again. We were engaged within a month and married within nine months. I wish I was kidding.

On the surface, I enjoyed the rest of my twenties, traveling around the country for my job and spending money with my husband, even though he was showing the troubling tendency of getting let go from job after job. He had already had two kids by two previous women, so my rational mind kept me on the Pill. I thought we would eventually have kids, maybe after I went to graduate school when I figured out what kind of graduate degree I wanted.

Then I turned twenty-nine. My husband didn’t remember my birthday. I drove to work that day in tears because I was beginning to realize that I would not ever be able to have the kind of life I wanted, while I was married to him. By then, I had decided that I wanted to go to law school. But my biological clock was ticking, and I was afraid to keep hitting the snooze button. I wanted a baby and a family. But I was overwhelmed living with my husband. He was dramatic, co-dependent, and disrespectful to me. I had to do everything. The house was a mess if I didn’t keep it clean; I paid the bills, scooped the cat litter, and walked the dogs. We had accumulated a lot of consumer debt, so we had trouble keeping up financially, especially since he kept spending money even when he wasn’t working. I could not imagine taking care of a baby, along with work, the pets, and the house, while he just sat on his ass looking at porn on the internet.

I started seeing a therapist because I thought I needed help making the decision of whether I should go to law school or have a baby. I decided to go to law school at night, while I worked my day job.

We divorced between my second and third years in law school.

I was beginning the process of listening to myself and to my instincts. It was slow going, because I had always been focused on doing things that would make someone else love me. I didn’t really know what I wanted.

When I graduated from law school, I was in another relationship. But this time I was thinking more clearly. He was a sweet man, but when it became obvious that he never wanted to become a father, the relationship ended quickly. Having kids was a deal-breaker for me.

Now I turned to my therapist for help making another choice—should I become a single mother, deliberately, while I wasn’t in a relationship? I had turned thirty-four in April, 2002, and after this birthday I had a plan. If I hadn’t met anyone with good prospect of turning into a serious relationship by the beginning of 2003, I would do anonymous donor insemination and try to get pregnant on my own.

Something inside was telling me that if I didn’t become a mother now, I might not have the chance. I didn’t want to miss out on motherhood as I had missed out on adolescence.

Wasn’t thirty-four still young? Why didn’t I continue to try to meet someone?

My track record with men wasn’t great. By that time, I had only had three or four relationships that had lasted longer than a month or two, and I hadn’t made the best choices. My thinking was that I would separate marriage from child-rearing. I was certain that I could be a good mother, but I wasn’t yet confident in my ability to choose a man who could be a good father.

I had heard of women who had decided to have a child on their own, so I think I always knew in the back of my mind that it was possible. Becoming a single mother made a whole lot of sense to me for several reasons: I feared that if I didn’t have a child soon, I might not have the chance; I had already delayed motherhood once to go to law school; and I could afford to have a baby on my own because I was working at a large law firm. Becoming a single mother by choice was not a very difficult choice for me. My family supported my decision, and I had a network of friends to help.

As far as having a man in my future child’s life—I thought that I could take care of that later. I could meet a man who I could have a relationship with anytime. But my fertility had an expiration date. I also thought that I would make better choices in men if I had someone else to consider when I was making my decision as to whether a man was “relationship material” or not. I might make a bad choice for myself, but, if I was thinking about whether this man would be good for my child, I would make a better choice.

I thought that bringing a child into a bad relationship, or exposing him or her to someone who was abusive and would cause emotional damage, was far less preferable than deciding to have a child on my own when I wanted and desired a child with my whole heart. No, I couldn’t be a perfect parent and bring a child into a perfect relationship. But I had the belief in myself that I could be a good-enough parent.

I went to the doctor’s office for insemination on December 30, 2002. I couldn’t wait until the beginning of 2003—I had just ovulated, had decided on an anonymous donor, and thought I might as well try it. The chances of getting pregnant with frozen sperm are very low—only about 13%, or a one in seven chance with each cycle. So I was prepared to try for several months.

I got pregnant on the first try.

My daughter turned ten last month. Her middle name is Aislinn because it means “dream” in Gaelic.

It has been quite a ride, so far, bumps and all. When she was twenty months old, and still nursing, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and did the whole shebang—surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstruction. A couple of years later, I had to have my ovaries removed.

I was never so glad to have trusted my instincts.

This was just a few months after she was born.

This was just a few months after she was born.

In The Dark

This post was originally written to submit to The Sun magazine, for their Readers Write section, here.  The next one I’ve already written has been “selected for possible publication,” so hopefully, you’ll have to read it there. 

When I was a little girl and afraid to go to sleep, I remember my Dad walking with me, my hand in his big, callused hand, in the alley behind our house, to show me that there was nothing to be afraid of. Aluminum trash cans lined the gravel next to the garages. A streetlight glowed yellow and hazy. There was nothing else back there—no bogeyman. My father showed me what I needed to do was to face that fear of the dark. Confront it.

For thirty years, from the time I was a young teenager, through my dateless high school years and desperate college years, the doomed marriage and dating afterwards, law school, having a child on my own, losing my job, and getting cancer and surviving it, all I could think of in the dark was being with someone else. The last thing I thought of before I fell asleep was whatever relationship I was currently in, or what guy I was currently crushing on. When I was awake, I tried unsuccessfully to keep these thoughts out of my head, but in the dark I let my imagination fly. I’d close my eyes and relive delicious memories of what had happened that day, or imagine what it would be like to actually be with him.

Then a relationship I had believed would work ended. It had seemed promising enough that he proposed and I accepted. But then, just as we were about to combine our households and join our lives, and I thought I’d never be alone in the dark again, it fell apart.

In response, I distracted myself. I started looking for a dog. I ignored the facts that my daughter and I were away from home all day and we didn’t have a fenced-in backyard. We found a dog, a geriatric coonhound with a limp and heartworms, who had been saved from a shelter by a rescue group but otherwise wouldn’t likely have a home.

Since that time as a child, walking in the alley with my Dad, I didn’t often go outside at night voluntarily, except to and from the car. I managed that bit without anxiety, but I always felt relief when I went into the house, turned on the light, and closed and locked the door behind me. When we adopted the dog, I didn’t really think about how I would have to walk outside with him. Alone. At night. In the dark.

I always had my phone in my pocket or my hand and wore a visor with a headlamp. I loved looking at the stars and noticing the different qualities of the night, during the turn of the seasons. I watched the phases of the moon and looked forward to the times I could see Orion, my favorite constellation. Once, at about 5:30 in the morning, I walked down the driveway, looked up at the sky, and saw my first shooting star.

After our dark morning walks, I wrote. I started a novel and a memoir and wrote every day. I didn’t date—for once, it seemed like I was able to keep my head free from thoughts of a crush or someone I might have a relationship with. My thoughts were taken up by writing. Instead of dreaming about happily ever after, I would puzzle over what I wanted to write about—all the time I wasn’t otherwise engaged by my daughter or with work or chores or reading.

We only had the dog for a year, and then common sense about my dog allergies that weren’t going away and my need for continuous sleep prevailed. I realized later what I learned during that year of walking outside at night and early in the morning, and then coming inside and writing.

I didn’t need to hold anyone’s hand in the dark anymore.