I rarely have visceral reactions to movie previews, let alone previews for Tyler Perry movies that I am never, ever going to see, but I gaped through a two-minute trailer for The Single Moms Club. Gathered on a broad porch, drinking rosé and sharing laughs, are five single moms, none exhibiting a single dark eye-circle or a frenzied need to get somewhere they’ve forgotten. They look like they smell nice and eat well. They’re laughing. They’re talking about men, ho ho, how can we lock them down?
My mother, who divorced my father in England in 1995 when I was eight and my brother was nine, and moved us across the ocean to America, never looked like those women. She did her best to hide it, but she was often harried and panicked, shuttling us from school to activities while pursuing her master’s degree, then her doctorate, all with a lower middle-class income and mounting debt. She moved us to a new country with little to nothing and continued to support us through years of fighting, ungratefulness, and trial. When I was home last week, she and I reclined on my bed and talked about her experience as a single mother operating under precarious and challenging circumstances.
When you were living in England and you wanted to get a divorce, did you have apprehension because you knew you were going to have to raise us by yourself?
Yeah, just like anybody would. Previously, before things started to go badly in our marriage, I wasn’t worrying about things like money and security and your future. It wasn’t a concern of mine until I knew I was going to be on my own.
Again, the situation is unique because once I decided I wanted to get a divorce, I knew that I wanted to go back to America. So that was the driving impetus. I didn’t want to stay in England, and your dad wanted me to stay there. At one point I even suggested that we go back together, and he didn’t want to do that.
Would you have been happy doing that, though?
How could I know?
If you’re going to divorce someone, it’s about the person. It wouldn’t matter where you were living with them.
I was going to give it a shot, you know. I was torn because I didn’t want to be the bad guy taking you two away from your dad.
Why do you think it was so important to not take us away from our dad?
I think it’s a sad thing for any child. Not that I felt that you were particularly close to your father. You were only eight and your brother was nine. And my parents were divorced when I was nine. You don’t want to replicate the same mistakes your parents had made.
Why did you see their divorce as a mistake?
At the time, I didn’t know enough about their relationship. Now I know that if my parents had stayed together, it would have been a disaster. And with your father and I, it just became more and more apparent as the years went on that we were so different. I just couldn’t see it working.
Why did you want to come to America?
I felt very lonely, coming from a large, extended Italian family as I do. I was missing so many things—you know, people’s marriages, people died and I didn’t get to pay my respects. England is a different place, it’s a whole different culture. Your father’s family weren’t exactly the warmest, touchy-feely kind of people. There wasn’t that closeness.
What was it like when you first divorced Dad?
Our divorce went through in around July of ‘95, and it took 9 days because I wanted to take you back with me. The way the law works in England is that if you’re a citizen of another country, you can divorce and go back at any time, but if there are children involved, then the court decides whether or not the children leave.
How did you convince the court?
The judge ruled that he was going to let me decide. He said these words: “I know that you will make the right decision. I’m not going to decide for you.” Barristers on both sides had never heard of this happening before. But we had witnesses. Grandmom flew over from America. Your aunt was there. A few people wrote letters that were read out in court.
What was dad’s testimony like?
He painted us like this family from Sicily. He didn’t really have a whole lot to say about his forthright behavior as a father because one of the things that he and I always used to argue about was when he would take you guys out on a Sunday or whatever, he’d always end up at the rugby club. I don’t know if you remember those days. At the pub and at the rugby club, and there’d be nothing for you to do, you’d go kicking and screaming.
Why do you think a person like that would have kids if he wasn’t really interested in it?
He didn’t really want kids.
Then why did he have kids?
I wanted kids. I didn’t trap him, it just happened. To me, it was a natural part of being married and being with someone.
Do you think that you were better off once you were a single mother?
If I had to choose, I wouldn’t do it on my own. Why not have support from another person? Who would say that you’d want to do this job on your own? It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life.
Obviously the money side of it. Basic security things. Raising you and having to buy things and find a place to live. Once we got divorced and we were settled and I put the house up for sale, he was told he had to pay so much money a week for each of you, no more, no less, and he did it begrudgingly.
What about spending time with us?
I said he could come whenever he wanted. I wasn’t going to prevent him from seeing you. I would even invite him over for dinner but he would never come. He was just like, “Nope nope nope, that’s it, it’s done.”
How did you manage with your own time? Were you working?
While this whole thing was going on, I got my associate’s degree in teaching at a community college level, only in England it’s a more substantial program. I did that and during the day, I was trying to work for this insurance company, although it didn’t work out. So I got a job at Southfield’s College as an English Lit teacher and a Communications teacher.
Bri, my friend Bri, we would take turns. I’d babysit for her, she’d babysit for me. Both of you were in daycare, that’s how I managed.
Were you ever in a pickle in those years?
I’m sure I was, Dayna, but I honestly can’t remember. I do remember when you got your cut on your elbow. That was the one time I asked your father to babysit, the first time, and you had to go to the emergency room. I’m sure there were times when I had to cancel plans.
What did you feel like in the early days, when you first separated?
I felt isolated. I missed my family. They wanted us to come home so badly. My sister came over another time. I just felt like I was out on an island, it was just really difficult to do it. I wanted a normal family life, it felt so strange. I didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore.
Who did you talk to?
Bri. Grandmom. My sisters. They were my support system.
What got you through the day?
I had to work. I didn’t have a choice. I just knew that I had to provide. I never really thought about it. I just did what I had to do.
You didn’t ever have moments of despair?
I did with your father because it was never easy. He never made any of it easy. And I’m sure there were many times that I just didn’t know. He wasn’t paying a lot of support and I wasn’t earning a great deal of money, and it’s expensive over there, so I just felt like if anything happened, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Did you ever feel like we ever wanted things that we couldn’t have?
I know that I tried to give you everything that you wanted, if I knew what it was. Your brother told me that he felt a time that he couldn’t have what he wanted. Did you feel that way?
I don’t think so. I knew that we didn’t have a lot but I never felt like there were things that I wanted that I couldn’t have.
Under the circumstances, you always had your house, you always had clothes. We had Christmas. We did everything that was important.
What was it like when we first moved to America?
Well, we first moved in with my sister and my brother-in-law.
Did you come with a plan? How were you going to make money?
Not exactly. I had my bachelor’s degree, and I was banking on this teaching certificate to help me, and I was probably formulating the idea then that I needed to get my master’s degree because in the States, a bachelor’s is just nothing, even then. We moved back in August of ‘95 and I started looking at courses. I broke my foot in December and I started January of ‘96 on my graduate program on crutches. I started teaching SAT prep. I found two part-time jobs.
Did you feel a struggle at that point or a relief?
I felt a relief in some ways because I was with my family and everyone was so happy that we were there, and were part of things, but I was worried about the two of you because I wanted you to start off on the right foot. Your brother had that kid bullying him for a while, remember? We had a little bit of a rough start, I guess.
Did you ever regret your decision?
No. In terms of prosperity and advancement and opportunity, I just didn’t see it for us in England.
Who were you doing it for?
You were still young. Didn’t you want to have your life?
I made friends again. I met people. I had some disastrous relationships, just guys that were not worth two cents. I felt like I was fulfilling my desire, going to school, advancing my career at the time. I felt like that was important, too.
Did you feel personally satisfied?
In what way?
There’s always that debate—can women have it all? Can they be a mother and a career person?
I wasn’t really a career person, per se. I liked helping people. There’s not a lot of money in helping people. I wasn’t looking to be the president or the CEO of a company and drive a big old shiny car. I was satisfied if I felt fulfilled in my job, and I loved work, I really did. I guess I felt guilty sometimes because I didn’t know for sure. I was always worried about you two being happy.
How did you know that you were going to secure our happiness?
I knew I couldn’t. It was up to you to do that. Only you could be happy in yourself. I’m not talking about happiness like having material things and all that. I wanted you to feel like that you belonged where you were and that you were starting to thrive in your own direction.
Did you get a sense that that was starting to happen?
Well, there was a sense that it wasn’t happening, like I said with all that bullying that went on with your brother and you had a little bit of a patch there. But yeah, things started to get better. I saw that happening.
But you never regretted it?
I thought about it. I analyzed it. I wondered. But I would do it all over again. I realized it even more when we went back the first time. I was so glad that I left there. You wouldn’t have been able to grow the way you’ve grown.
Is that a mother’s instinct?
My instinct. My experiences. Just looking at you and your brother. I really don’t think you would have survived there. I felt like England was going to suffocate you. You’d probably end up living in America on your own anyway.
What were some of the best parts about being a single mom?
I don’t know that there are really any best parts. You get to make all the decisions, but having said that, you don’t always know if you’ve made the right decision. It’s good to bounce that off of someone else. You just have to make decisions and stick by it.
Have you ever made the wrong decision?
Oh I’m sure. I’m sure you two could tell me a few things I did wrong. But I’m pretty strong-willed anyway, and even if I had a partner, husband, whatever, you know when I feel something’s right, I just go with my gut. Hopefully, if I had had a partner at the time, they would have felt the same way. It would have been a lot easier to have somebody else just standing there, even if you’re making the decision yourself, just somebody next to you, supporting you. It was worth it when your brother graduated and when you graduated. That was a real accomplishment.
Did you ever feel like it wasn’t going to happen?
No. I got a little scared about the money with school. That was probably one place where I would have been better about decision-making if I’d had support.
What about relationships you were in? How did you know to introduce us to who you were dating?
I felt if they were a kind soul and it seemed like we could make a life together, or it seemed that way, then it made sense. I wasn’t a very good judge of character sometimes.
Do you regret that?
Yeah. Well, no, I don’t really regret it. I don’t think it was detrimental. It’s all part of the experience. It’s hard when you’re a young, single mom. You don’t know if it’s best to be alone and just stay alone until you’re too old to have a relationship. But that never made sense to me. Suppose I never met anyone until I was 60 or 65, you know?
How do you balance your attention?
I would always make sure that you guys were doing something. It wasn’t ever taking time away from you, in other words. If anything, I spent more time alone because you guys would go do your thing, and I was by myself. I always had something to do, like study, and I had my family. But I spent a lot of time alone alone while you guys were growing up, doing your thing.
What if we didn’t like the people you were dating?
Did that happen?
I never liked anybody you dated!
Well, you never made a big deal out of it!
It wasn’t my life. Do you feel like you were getting in relationships as a way to fill a role that wasn’t there?
I think that’s the basis for any relationship, whether you have kids or not.
You’re more eager, though, as a single parent. It takes some of the burden off.
I’m sure it’s nice when you meet someone that you think you’ll like and that your kids will like, but you don’t go into it thinking they’re going to take your responsibilities. I don’t remember anybody having any say in anything that I did, ever, as far as you guys were concerned.
It was only until your stepdad whom I married when you were 20 that I relinquished some of my power. But only then.
What was rewarding about being a single parent?
Having two kids like you and your brother. I’m so grateful that you turned out the way you did.
Do you think that we’re crazy?
No, I don’t think that you’re crazy, but I do think that you’re both very individual souls with your own humor and personalities. I see part of me in both of you.
What about part of dad?
I see part of him in your brother, more than you. But that’s another topic.
Would you consider being a single parent a hardship in your life?
It is the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do and it still is, even with my husband now, even with you being older. Being a parent is not for the faint-hearted. It’s tough. I think it’s easy to fall into a pity party where you look to friends with partners or husbands to share in some of the burden, but I saw a lot of relationships where it was actually more detrimental than helpful to have a partner. I saw many husbands who did nothing. It was almost like the wife had three kids instead of two. He was another liability. I don’t necessarily think that a two-parent family is always the best.
It takes a village, right?
I think it’s easier when you have a lot of good role models. They don’t necessarily have to be your biological father or mother. You have people in your life who make a difference in your life, and I think you learn from that. You could have the crappiest parents in the world and just because they’re together, what are you learning? That’s what annoys me about people who have an attitude about single parents, having this holistic system that you’re supposed to have two parents and all that business. Because that could be a toxic environment, too. It’s not necessarily stable. Nothing is.
Previously: Interview With My Mom, The Olympian Who Wasn't