I never dreamed I would be a single parent. I grew up in the deep South and naively believed the Disney fantasy of growing up, finding Prince Charming, getting married, having a house full of kids and living happily ever after. I grew up in a family shattered by a nasty divorce so I was desperately dreaming of a happy ending. So I earnestly set out on my fairy tale quest, confident I would manifest my dream. I was going to be a famous Broadway actress who married a dashing man while having three amazing children. I’d have a nanny and spend only loving time with my children. (Oh my, how young I was.)
Embarking on my fantastic journey I did travel the world, gathering amazing experiences, all the while searching for the perfect romance, along with fame and fortune. I didn’t really “get it” that my childhood fantasy was just that until one morning I woke up and realized I was 43 years old and still hadn’t met Prince Charming. It felt like I was in a house on fire and all my alarms were going off, with a frantic voice in my head screaming, “What if you are 60 years old and haven’t had the experience of being a mother?” All of a sudden I jerked awake as if from a “bad” dream. Unknowingly, I had veered way off the path I’d originally thought I was taking and as I looked down the road of the path I was on, it was childless. This realization prompted me to find the courage to see the fork in the road and take the path less traveled.
At 43, I felt the urgency to get down to business, exploring any and all options to being a mom. I could get on Match.com and find a “daddy” candidate, search out the perfect sperm donor or look into adoption. After exploring all the avenues, adopting from China became my preferred choice. I was clear that I wanted a girl and I knew that adopting from China I was likely to get one. Also, as a single woman I would be treated as if I were a married couple when applying in China which wasn’t the case in the States. When I learned the top agency for Chinese adoption was 30 miles away I took this as a sign. This was the road I was meant to take. One phone call and the next day I had an application to adopt. I filled it out on the spot before I had a chance to think twice, and so began my journey down the new road to motherhood.
It took 14 months of endless paperwork, fingerprints, police checks and spending a small fortune before I finally found myself on a plane to China to meet my daughter. At the time I hadn’t really thought through the joys and challenges of doing this alone. All I knew was that this was the most “right” decision I’d ever made in my life. I was finally fulfilling my long-cherished dream to be a mother!
My 12 days in China were other-worldly. From the moment I met my precious daughter I was in awe; here was this tiny bundle of love that I was to spend the rest of my life caring for. All the day-to-day details were taken care of by the adoption agency so my only job was to make googly eyes at my beautiful daughter while falling madly in love.
Looking back I can see how I didn’t have a clue how challenging life could be as a single mom. I was riding high on the fantasy and believed that love would see us through all obstacles.
We returned home three days before Christmas and life as a single mom ardently began.
I’ll never forget that first week home––I did more laundry in that week than I’d done in the last six months. It quickly became crystal clear that I didn’t have a clue how to be with my precious nine month old child for a full 24 hour period while also attending to life. I was completely overwhelmed and began to question my capacity to take this on. Fortunately, there was no “out,” which I had always found when in relationship with men, so the only way forward was through. I remember looking at the clock in those early days and seeing that there were four more grueling hours before her next nap. I thought I was going to die. Each of those moments were excruciating due to the pressure I put on myself to “know” what to do. Instant baby was much more challenging than I ever imagined. Somehow I had this overpowering expectation that I would naturally know how to be with her since I loved children. And yet I found myself at a total loss as to what it really meant to be a mother.
By week two, loneliness set in big time and I longed for a partner with whom to share my vulnerability and doubts. At the same time, I was afraid to let anyone know how scared and overwhelmed I was because many folks, especially my family, had had serious doubts about my capacity to be a mother at all. Also during these first months my best friend who I expected would be my helper and companion on this wild unpredictable ride was trying to get pregnant herself and decided she needed to pull all her energy back in for herself. It became very clear that I was truly on a solo journey and all I could do was sink or swim.
Looking back, I realize the one person that I didn’t look to for guidance was my daughter. I had been so deeply conditioned to believe that I was supposed to “know” what she needed, when she needed it and how she needed it that I began to forget that she had her own internal GPS and that I could relax and begin to take cues from her. Having read too many parenting books on how to control my child, I didn’t trust my own internal guidance. So instead of confronting and working with my feelings of helplessness I began to look for any way I could to get my daughter to behave. Because it was excruciating for me to see her suffer I tried to create the perfect environment for her to thrive. Sadly what I created was a stifling container that didn’t allow her to express and share her experience or to process her old emotional memories from China.
I desperately needed her to be the perfect child so I could feel good about myself. The one thing I wanted to be was a successful Mom and I felt that she had the illusive key. Honestly, it was just one big hot mess and the more I tried to control her the more she fought. Thank God, she was a fighter who was determined to live. She had already survived nine months in a cold, barren orphanage in China and she was not willing to let me take over and convince her that she could now relax and be loved.
Thank God I’m also a fighter and together we went at it with a force and fury that was shocking. I still remember the day I picked her up, trying to force her to take her nap and she began flailing in my arms, striking out like a mad child. As I tightened my grip and became even more determined to force her into the bed she lashed out, scratching my face and looking at me with hatred in her eyes. As I let go and reached up to touch my face I felt blood dripping down my chin. Shocked, I looked at the blood and so did she. The dam broke and I found myself on the floor sobbing and feeling like such a failure. Something had to change and it did. It was as if in that moment we both laid our weapons down and began the journey toward opening our hearts and trusting our knowing. The fight was over.
In surrendering I took off my old conditioned glasses and recognized that she was doing the best she could to take care of herself. I was the threat and she was showing me her wisdom. She didn’t need me to coddle her and force her to nap because I thought it was good for her. She needed me to see when she was afraid, and in that moment to remind her she was safe. She didn’t need me to tell her when to eat, when to sleep, what to play and what was best. She needed me to trust her knowing. She needed me to see her goodness and her determination underneath the perceived “bad” behavior. She needed me to listen to her and not all the books I’d read. She wanted an authentic relationship not a parent trying to force her into a mold.
With my eyes wide open we forged ahead. I had to throw out any and all beliefs I’d learned that caused me to contract into my own fears and withdraw love. I had to open to my innocence and return to a place of beginners mind. I felt like I was starting over and together we began to learn a new way.
Without the outside voices or a partner’s voice telling me what they believed, I found my deep wisdom and truth.
In this process of finding our way anew I fully realized the “rightness” that inspired this solo adventure. I was being given the opportunity to return to my authentic self, and the path was to turn away from all that I had learned about relationship so far.
My daughter was this beautiful, precious bundle of love who came to show me the way back home. We were in this together and I learned that “love” will conquer all. The big revelation however was that it wasn’t “other love” but “self love” that showed us the way. Being a single mother pushed me toward my inner knowing since I couldn’t rely on an external partner. My daughter had the courage to fight for her being and I had the courage to listen.
Today, she is an amazing 13 year old and often I just stand in awe of who she is. We still have our ups and downs and can fight like the best of them but the difference is that we get in and out quickly and always return to love. We celebrate our humanness and never seek perfection.
Most of our upsets come when I’m not listening to myself and trusting my ability to love myself. Most of hers come when she thinks I’m mad at her or disappointed in her.
It has been a continuing process to not judge myself when I fall back into my old conditioned behavior. And there are still times I long for a partner to work things out with instead of her. But consciously stepping into the wisdom received from going it alone has been powerful. I get to trust myself and my decisions. I get to trust my daughter and her decisions and we are doing it together.
I’ve learned to be the open field of presence which allows my daughter to guide her life experience and follow her inner wisdom. She has attended school, unschooled and now has returned to school for the social contact and sports. Even though I would have chosen to keep her out of school and all its cultural conditioning I trust that she is living the experience she wants.
I’m living the experience I want also…being a single mother. Though this wasn’t the future I had planned for myself, I am having a glorious adventure filled with support and challenge and so much love.
Leslie Potter is the founder of Pure Joy Parenting, a joy-based parenting model which supports parents in moving from a traditional, fear-based model to a joy-based one, focusing on relationship and healthy attachment. She is a co-author of Chaos to Connection: 9 Heart Centered Essentials for Parenting your Teen. Leslie is a parent coach with a background as a body centered therapist. She created the Parent Coach Model at Vive, a national company working with at risk teens and their parents. In 2008, she founded Purejoy Parenting to educate and support new parents in understanding the importance of their attachment stories and how they affect their relationships with their children. She lives outside Boulder, CO with her amazing daughter and their sweet doggie George! Visit her website for more information: www.purejoyparenting.com
This article was published in the March-April 2014 issue of HEM