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!

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