Friday, November 22, 2013

Hopes for the Next Decade

Freedom from less dependent kids
Freedom to regularly exercise
Freedom from frequent exhaustion
Freedom to have a social life.

Freedom from schedule overload
Freedom to find a relationship
Freedom from as much child care
Freedom to travel.

More visits with family and friends
More reading of books
More going out in the evening
More feeding of the soul.

More organized
More tidy
More svelte
More chill.

More time alone
Less with a scrambled brain
More privacy
Less on my plate.

More in control
Less harried
More relaxed
Less hurried.

More quiet
Less chaos
More comedy
Less drama.

Greater reach
Greater success
Greater follow-through
Greater income.

Fewer sibling fights
Fewer life upheavals
Fewer neighbor problems
Fewer curve balls.

Freedom from
Freedom to

Please, God, just smoother

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Ten-Year Send-Off

I woke up on Halloween, the first day of my next decade of full-time single motherhood, riding a serious high.

My son's tenth birthday party the day before had been a roaring success. I had created a The Amazing Race-like scavenger hunt through town for seventeen fourth graders in four teams.
After eating pizza in the gazebo at our town's harborside park, I sent the boys out with their first clue. Accompanied by a few adults who wanted to come along, the boys visited twelve businesses where they were asked to collect something (e.g. a home-listing flyer at a real estate agency), answer a question (at a restaurant: How much does the Goat Cheese Crostini cost?), or perform a task (pump up a tire at the bike shop).

Do You Know Your Town? That was the theme of the quest.

The last clue brought the boys to Dunkin' Donuts where they were told to buy a hot chocolate then to bring it back to the park. I calculated exactly how much money each team would need for the warm beverages and enclosed the dollar bills and coins in envelopes. (Upon returning to the gazebo, one team reported that they'd been one penny short. Apparently, someone had purchased a large cocoa instead of a small one, and that had thrown calculations off!)

Ah, kids. They are so funny.

I brought out a The Amazing Race-decorated cake, which quickly got half devoured before I thought to take a picture, then I gave everyone a can of Silly String or temporary hair dye. Most of the boys got the former, but Target didn't have enough Silly String on the shelf to meet my need. "Please take your can home. It's for Halloween tomorrow," I said.

Fat chance.

I defy you to show me a fourth-grade boy who can resist going wild with one of those cans in a public park surrounded by his friends! The boys reported having a blast at the party, and it made me very happy to watch them laughing and running around freely without a care in the world. When I later asked Christopher how the party stacked up to others he'd attended or I'd held for him at locations such as Chuck E. Cheese's, a laser-tag facility, a bowling alley, etc., he said it was tied for first place with the one he went to at Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park near Boston.

Sky Zone is where he wanted to celebrate his birthday, which conveniently fell on a half day at school. (Parents are pleased when this happens because it means they don't have to deal with busy weekend sports schedules when planning. And kids are happy because there's something extra special about being able to celebrate with your friends on your actual birthday.) However, I had been wanting to hold a scavenger-hunt party for Christopher for a long time. And ten is the perfect age to introduce one.

In third grade, kids who live close to our elementary school are permitted for the first time to walk to school unsupervised. Fourth grade can bring a little more independence such as venturing around our very small town in the company of friends. The boys would enjoy the bit of freedom my party afforded them, I reasoned.

I explained in great detail how the party would work in an e-mail to parents, and I believe a few of them bowed out due to not feeling comfortable with its parameters. Others, however, elected to come along or agreed to be stationed in the town to help me maintain order and safety.

Safety first! Always No. 1 in my book.

I have a soft spot for scavenger hunts. It started during the summer of 1984 when I took a post-college whirlwind trip to Great Britain and Western Europe. One of my stops was Mainz, Germany, where a college friend was living at the time. She had studied in the city along the Rhine River her junior year and had returned after graduation to work.

With a hilarious German friend of hers as the driver, she took me on a scavenger hunt through the countryside in cars. I can't remember if someone else was in the passenger seat, yet I do know Jamie and I were in the back. I also can't remember exactly what it was about the driver -- his accent speaking English or the off-the-wall things he said or, probably, both -- but Jamie and I were laughing hysterically the entire time. In fact, I remember very little of the actual hunt other than it was extremely difficult. Of course, it was impossible for me since I don't speak the language!

Anyway one goofy task was to cook a potato. How the heck were we going to do that out on the road? Our driver thought to put it in the car engine. Strange, but that's all we could come up with. As it turned out, we did quite poorly in the competition. Probably too much laughing and teasing our driver! The winning team, incidentally, managed the potato challenge by pulling over at a roadside restaurant and asking to have the spud cooked.


When I returned from the trip, I threw a scavenger-hunt party for my friends out of my parents' house in Darien, Connecticut. Again I don't remember much about it because it was a very long time ago, but I did send the teams to the city next door via train! Imagine the horrified looks on my friends' faces as I watched them board the New York City-bound commuter rail. Priceless. No harm done. I picked them up at the Metro-North station in Stamford.


Originally, I envisioned Christopher's birthday party scavenger hunt starting out of my home. Since my place was not picked up, however, I thought we could get away with setting up base camp at the park. October 30th is fairly late for an outdoor party in northeastern Massachusetts. Still, it had been a gorgeous month, so I was hopeful the weather would hold up. Well, wouldn't you know it? It rained that morning. But I was in way too deep to postpone the 12:30 p.m. adventure. We would all just have to suffer through it together. Eureka! The precipitation stopped at 12:29! The air temperature and wind also weren't too bad down by the water.

We were in luck.

Capping off Christopher's ten years in this way was great. But that wasn't all. That night my son got the gift of a lifetime when his beloved last-to-first Boston Red Sox won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thank you, David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, etc.! It was a stellar game marked by incredible play by the home team and the first time since 1918 that the Red Sox have won the World Series in Fenway Park. I let Christopher stay up to watch until the bitter end even though it was a school night.

Boston Strong all the way!

The only way the day could have been better would have been if we had attended the game in person. That would have meant missing late afternoon football practice, however, and his brother Charlie wouldn't have been able to go trick or treating in costume at an event at a nearby college. Charlie needed this treat because he hadn't been allowed to go to the birthday party. I didn't feel comfortable sending my seven year old around town unsupervised, so he went to the school's wonderful after-school program where he painted a scary death mask. He was fine with missing the party, and I was most grateful that he understood.

The day worked out perfectly. What a splendid way to finish off ten years!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The First Decade: Amazing!

A decade of full-time single motherhood. Wow. How does one wrap that up in one simple blog post? It's a daunting task. I'm sure I will forget important details, weight some experiences more heavily than they should be, or perhaps even misrepresent the message I want to send. But here goes.

Cheers to the first ten!

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan, who featured me in her New York Times Magazine cover story "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm" (3/19/06) on choosing single motherhood via artificial insemination, predicted that my experience raising two boys without a support network would be "grueling."

Indeed, it has been that.

If you asked me what one word I would use to best describe the past decade, I would choose "overwhelming."

When I think of grueling, Army boot camp or medical school come to mind. Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster trifecta were overwhelming. But single motherhood? Lots of sweet hugs. Bedtime stories. Giggles and growth milestones. Grueling? Overwhelming? Damn right. Of course, neither word is what I had hoped to select to characterize my life since October 30, 2003, my precious first son's birth day. I'd much rather it had been "wonderful," "joyful," or "fulfilling."

Please don't get me wrong. I love my sons with all my heart. They are terrific boys -- handsome, smart, athletic, talented, loving, enthusiastic, inquisitive, social, funny, compassionate, generous, and so very much more. We have had countless fun times together doing a myriad of things at home, in our area, or away on a weekend or vacation. The boys fight, though less than they used to. Occasional fighting is to be expected. They are brothers after all. Still, we are a happy unit. Yes, we are. As I knew it would be -- and that is why I decided to try to become a single mother in the first place -- my experience with them has been wonderful, joyful, and fulfilling most of the time.

However, raising from birth on up two children close in age -- boys who are temperamental opposites, no less! -- when you have no family members to call on for practical help by definition means your life is going to be difficult . . . at least for the first few years. In my case, it has been much longer.

From the get-go, I was blessed with a good first baby. "Christopher is so smiley!" exclaimed a college friend who had encouraged me to have a child on my own after the finding-Mr.-Right-at-the-right-time thing failed. Others praised my baby-handling skills and asked me if I had multiple children. I found this hilarious because I was completely clueless about caring for an infant. It was just a testament to the kind of baby I had.

Nevertheless, there were problem areas. One was getting him to nap. Once down, he was capable of sleeping in the middle of the day for four hours, but it was extremely tough to get him to fall asleep when the sun was out. Another was my living environment -- a ground-level apartment in a noisy building with a scary tenant at a major intersection in a sketchy neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yada, yada, yada, we moved to the suburbs when Christopher was just under fifteen months of age.

Finally, peace and quiet! Well, not exactly. I bought a townhouse on a densely populated street with tight parking. The woman who owned the home next door routinely blocked me in then didn't take it well when I had to ask her to please move her truck so I could get out to purchase my toddler milk and food because a snowstorm was approaching or was already under way! Yada, yada, yada, it got to the point that I had to visit the police station because of the criminal activity being perpetrated against me by this woman, who flaunted her untouchability due to being a prominent town employee's wife.

Oh, please!

So we up and moved to yet another community, our present one. I had been seriously worried that word would get out about this woman who, not surprisingly, was rather unpopular in the townhouse association. Fortunately, though, I found a buyer after several months.


By this time, my second son -- a colicky-baby-turned-rambunctious-toddler -- was almost fifteen months old, and I was several years into chronic fatigue syndrome due to extreme sleep deprivation. (Did I mention that I'm an insomniac? The poor-sleeper kind, not the no-sleeper kind.) Dizziness? Check. Headaches? Check. Ringing in the ears? Check. Crabbiness? Check, check, check. EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME? Check. What is that? Google it. It's hearing a loud bang while sleeping. A type of hallucination, it can be (and was for me) accompanied by paralysis during an attack. Most people who report an out-of-body experience say they had one of these attacks preceding it. Thankfully, I didn't reach that stage.

Yet I was so exhausted for such a long period of time that I actually thought I might die. I certainly didn't believe I could recover! There were nights -- not a lot of them, probably a handful -- when I felt myself fading while trying to sleep. I don't mean falling-asleep fading, which is what I wanted. I mean a type of fading that really frightened me. I didn't want to fade in this way. I had to exert a great deal of effort to jolt myself alert to, it felt like, stay alive. I'm sure this sounds completely looney, but that's how far into the nether regions of exhaustion I had come.

Unlike his brother who had been sleeping through the night consistently since two weeks of age, Charlie was a wretched nighttime sleeper and completely abstained from daytime naps unless he was at day care or riding in my car, neither of which helped me one iota to get any rest at all. The situation was made much worse by my ill-advised decision to co-sleep. Nursing or not, Charlie woke me every three hours for a full two years before I finally got him out of my bed on my second attempt. Then it took another six months for him to adjust to his own bed. As if that wasn't enough, he also gave me chronic vertigo after breathing in my ear while suffering from a virus during the time he slept with me. Needless to say, I am one strong anti-co-sleeping advocate!

In short, as good (easy) as Christopher was, Charlie was equally bad (difficult). Even the doctor who delivered him said: "He beat you up inside."

In addition to the two home moves, I also lugged half my belonging from a storage unit on Boston's South Shore to my then-North Shore home. The stuff had been dumped in the unit because it didn't fit in my Cambridge apartment after I moved back East from Seattle in early 2000. Problem was: it clogged up my townhouse pretty quick at a time when I was stocking up on yet more baby gear for Charlie's arrival. Then while still breastfeeding him, I singlehandedly cleaned out and later sold a distant cousin's large but very poorly maintained Vermont house across a lake from Canada.

Yes, Canada, for Pete's sake!

Finding child care has been a huge challenge from the beginning. In the early days, it was part-time help I sought to relieve me of 24/7 caregiving. I required breaks to both keep me sane, enable me to attend my grad-school class at Emerson College, and do my homework including my thesis.

Since I elected not to go the nanny, au pair, or full-time-babysitter route, my task was to piece together the bare minimum of help here or there as I needed it. As you might guess, creating a jigsaw puzzle of occasional coverage had its issues. Anyone who has ever tried to use many sitters knows what I'm talking about. There's the flaky sitter, the careless sitter, the mouthy sitter, the irresponsible sitter, etc. The situation caused me so much aggravation that I basically gave up once my kids entered a school that offered good extended care. That became my answer. Still to this day, I rarely use paid sitters. I choose instead to rely on the elementary school's wonderful after-school program during occasional late afternoon hours and mother friends whose sons play with my own at other times of need.

Getting my home into and keeping it in a presentable condition has been a nearly impossible task for me. That is due to many factors: 1. I am not by nature domestic. 2. I have way too much stuff. (In 1995, I also singlehandedly cleaned out my parents' house, the one we lived in for thirty-one years). 3. I don't like spending much time in my home due to years of neighbor ugliness. 4. I am too busy with other aspects of my life. Multiply all of these reasons by a factor of 100, and you will get a more accurate feel of what I am up against every single day.

Now that I have reached TEN YEARS -- yahoo! -- I can look back on my trials and tribulations and give myself a huge pat on the back. Am I proud of myself for the job I have done? You're damn right I am. And nobody's going to tell me otherwise. My boys are happy and thriving. We have our struggles like any other family, of course. But they have taken a turn for the better. Chris and Charlie get along very well at home now . . . most of the time. And when they don't, I spring into action to separate them. Other times that is not even necessary because I, the sole referee, have correctly anticipated a coming conflict and taken immediate measures to thwart it.

I have learned a lot about parenting and, in particular, parenting my boys with their unique challenge of having dissimilar personalities. Christopher is innately sensitive and sweet while Charlie is aggressive and tough. Christopher likes alone time; Charlie wants to constantly interact with others. I could go on and on about their differences. Suffice it to say, the pediatrician hit the nail on the head when she declared: "Shelby, you have the most opposite full siblings of the same gender in the same family than I have ever seen."


It's been very difficult, yet our family is working. We have our moments, but they are fewer than they used to be. That's because I have bent over backward for my boys for a solid decade. I have poured myself into them. And I ride them when misbehavior crops up. Sometimes the message has to be delivered over and over again, but they are getting it.

Looking back, I am blown away by so many things: I am amazed I ever bounced back from five years of chronic fatigue syndrome. I am amazed after two and a half years that I ever got Charlie to sleep through the night. (Incidentally, he has been a terrific nighttime sleeper for the past five years. I have NO issues at bedtime or getting-up time whatsoever with either one of my sons.) I am amazed at how well I have extricated myself from bad neighbor situations in the past. And I am amazed at how well I have been able to cope with hostile neighbor relations in the present. I am amazed at how successfully I have handled two moves to new communities, one move of storage-unit contents, two home purchases, and two home sales (one practically in another country!).

Mostly, I am amazed at my beautiful sons. Life has not been easy for the two of them given all of the troublesome situations I have had to deal with alone in the past decade. Yet they have rolled with the punches with no or few complaints, and they suffer no ill effects from them. One son is now five feet tall, and the other placed seventh in the New England Junior Olympics in the 100-meter dash. I could sing their praises to the high heavens and beyond. Heck, I still can't cook or get the house clean! But my boys are devoted to one another and me, and we have a blast together . . . especially when we go away camping for days at a time.

I am a different kind of mother. A kind of mother I didn't originally want to be. A single mother by choice it's called. Still, I have made the best of it, and my sons are testament to my hard work. Reaching the ten-year point makes me elated. It feels like a much more momentous milestone than simply turning fifty, as I did two years ago. That was just about reaching a certain age; this revolves around marking something really important -- the achievement of raising two children through the first decade completely on my own from conception using, first, intrauterine insemination with anonymously donated sperm and, later, in vitro fertilization with the same sperm.

Since we are on the up and up, I want to conclude by amending "grueling" and "overwhelming" to "growing" and "overcoming." Those two words I like so much better, and they more accurately reflect what is going on in our household today.

It has been amazing. Simply amazing!

So a big Happy Ten Years to me! A huge Happy Tenth Birthday to Christopher! Let the celebrations continue!