“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” – Desmond Tutu
When my boys still wore diapers and could not eat grapes safely, we moved to a small seaside town in Italy. There was a Mediterranean beach, open piazzas, daily markets and tiny alleyways. There was even a castle.
But it was anything but paradise.
My boys did not sleep. I did not speak Italian. My husband worked long hours. The four of us were exhausted, non-communicative and detached. The days were long. I was alone with the children on that postcard-perfect beach, one boy wanting to swim out into the sea, the other wanting to eat the hot sand, and me wanting to be anywhere but paradise.
After a year, I decided to fly home and stay with my parents for a bit. The boys and I navigated airport security and boarded the plane. I slowly walked the aisle, my backpack bursting with snacks and screens, boarding passes held between my lips, my hands full of babies. The flight would be 11 hours.
I stopped at seat 17D and looked at the woman whose unlucky fate had her sitting in 17E.
“Yes,” I said to her. “Your nightmare has arrived. Can you please let us in?”
What Every Single Mom Wears: The Cloak of Invisibility
Single mothers are everyone’s nightmare. No one knows what to do with us. Everyone has an opinion about us. We are greeted with dreaded anticipation – we are to be endured, begrudgingly supported. We are a hot mess, a financial disaster and just one leaky faucet away from losing our shit entirely. We push our strollers and race car shopping carts through airports, subways and grocery stores; shushing our children, shushing ourselves. We live under a cloak of invisibility and no one sees us until the snacks are long gone, along with our patience and our children’s minds.
It was in Italy, where I was a single mother with a husband, that I began to drink alcoholically. The geographic and cultural conditions meant I lived in isolation with my children. Like single mothers everywhere, I knew the burden of my children’s safety and happiness was entirely on me. This was problematic, of course, as I felt neither safe nor happy. In the beginning, I fought the isolated conditions. I found preschools and parks. I flew home over and over again. I raged at my husband. But after a while, I stopped fighting the isolation and began to crave it, carefully recreating it for myself every night.
I have rarely met a mother who was not a single mother. We married moms can talk with our partners about shifting housework percentages and sharing emotional labor, but even the most enlightened partner struggles to make up the deficit.
But true single mothers – for those living without an additional paycheck or shared health benefits, for those shouldering complete responsibility for medical conditions and daycare costs, for those walking a parental tightrope without a net – these women make magic happen every day while the world remains unimpressed and forever worshipping at the altar of “rugged individualism,” an altar that inherently excludes mothers who are always a plus-one package.
I used to think Doesn’t the world see that we mothers are raising the future? Don’t we want to support and nurture the future? Now I understand that yes, the world does see us. The world does indeed see us as the future and then the world does its best to shut us down early and quickly. This is true for us today and it was true for our mothers and it was true our grandmothers.
“We have made a choice in the United States to allow single mothers and their children to languish in poverty,” writes author Jill Filipovic in her book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. “Politically, we have decided not only that married motherhood is better, but that we will create economically disastrous conditions for women who have children outside of marriage – or, given that many single mothers were at one time married, we have chosen to craft disastrous conditions for mothers who have the bad luck to be widowed, separated, or divorced.”
In other words, women – married and unmarried, with children and without – are living out the realities of our cultural insufficiencies and until we commit to finding true ways to change that culture we will just be pulling people from the river. Never venturing upstream to see why we are falling in.
Our Most Powerful Addiction: Shrinking Ourselves
In the end, I found I could quit drinking much easier than I could quit isolating. More than alcohol, I am addicted to shrinking myself to fit into the world. As I write this sentence I am struggling with this addiction. What if these thoughts are too much for you? Too much for my husband? What if I am too much for the world? Perhaps it is better to stay small and silent, isolated but safe.
This thought is pushed away by the sounds of my boys laughing, fighting, being themselves. It is for my children that I finally stopped my shrinking act. I was not going to encourage them to fit into a world that tells them to go it alone, a world that pushed us into the river. This is not the world I want to perpetuate.
But I have found that the only way to truly keep the “small and silent” thought away is through sustained friendships with other women in recovery (from addiction, trauma, divorce, workaholism). These women are no longer willing to go it alone either.
“Friendships make us happy, and they can also make us more radical,” Filipovic writes. She goes on to describe the importance of friendship during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. “Across the country, women would gather and talk about the many things they thought of as individual, personal problems. The process wasn’t just psychologically cathartic; it was radicalizing. Suddenly, these problems weren’t so individual at all – they were systemic, endemic to being a woman.”
Twelve months ago I quit drinking for the very last time. For five years I tried to do this alone. I stayed within the four walls of my home, worshipping at the altar of rugged individualism. Thankfully, this never worked. I was turned back every time, until I finally realized I could no longer be single, no longer be small, no longer be silent, no longer be content to just pull people from the river. And I began walking upstream.
Erin Wickersham is the managing editor and lead writer for the She Recovers blog. She lives in Virginia where she has been working on and blogging about recovery since 2013. After years of trying to do recovery alone, she discovered the beauty of connection and friendship through She Recovers in 2017.