In 2020, I made many swift transitions. I relocated, began and learned a new job, lost that job (but not employment altogether) and learned I would need to originate a new position within the company. I met a man in May. He sort of moved in* in August. We’ve quarantined together, along with my daughter, from then till now. I’ve gained considerable weight — and had to change my relationship with my body because of it. I’ve lost a significant amount of hair and had to reconfigure how I regard myself in mirrors because of it. I’m raising a ten-year-old who I’ve moved away from her village: her dad, his wife, their baby who made her a big sister this summer, my mother and hers — the women who’ve helped me with the hands-on work of raising her from the moment she was born. And in so doing, I’ve made good on half a promise (that we would make a home of our own) and unexpectedly reneged on the other half (that we would live alone).
I cannot imagine what it must be like to be my daughter, unable to leave home without cloth cloaking two-thirds of her face, unable to bond with her classmates because she’s not once spent time in the same room with them, unable to grasp about half the concepts of fourth grade because the pandemic made it impossible to finish third. Both homes having changed up on her near-simultaneously. Nearly ten years as an only child gave way to her being the eldest of two. And after just a few months living alone with me for the first time ever, she has to deal with a mother she doesn’t recognize, a mother she’s never met, a mother in love.
I have been meaning to write about making the decision to love someone this year and how a pandemic challenges what we once assessed as risk and as fear.
For context, you should know that I used to be terrified of partnering while parenting a child who’s still school-aged and living at home. I thought that I might disrupt some delicate dynamic, that in making room for one more, my daughter may feel displaced or, worse betrayed. I thought I should forfeit the luxury of romantic love after full-heartedly accepting the charge to raise a child.
It seems silly now, irrational. Over time, several people told me it was. I just couldn’t see it any other way, having made a mess of the relationship that resulted in my child in the first place, and having been raised feeling displaced and disrupted myself when my own single mother married (incidentally, when I was ten years old). I thought I owed my daughter my undivided attention and I didn’t want to risk its division for a man with whom I might split, just as she was bonding with him or warming to the idea of the three of us together.
Until this year, I was terrified of taking that sort of risk. This is the year when we learned what risks are actually not worth taking. As it turns out, widening my sense of possibility beyond the perimeter of past pain is not on that list.
Leaving home without wearing a mask is. Leaving home to gather with unmasked people is. Kissing our loved ones living in other households, without knowing for certain if that kiss is one of brief illness, long hospitalization or untimely death… that is on the list of risks not worth taking**.
Starting a relationship seemed far less daunting by comparison. And moving quickly once committed to that relationship, which would’ve seemed counterintuitive in the Beforetimes, seemed to reduce risk instead of raising it.
My partner and I met on a dating app I joined on a lark one night, shortly after moving to Durham. From what I understand, this is how a significant number of pandemic partnerships began. It’s the safest way, physical distance and abundance-of-caution being encouraged, typical “don’t match with me just to text” impatience being a huge red flag. We sent paragraph-long texts for weeks before meeting, masked, in a parking lot after a month. He brought flowers for me and for my daughter, whose guileless, curious, eager expression I still remember as she leaned forward in the passenger seat of my car to wave at the first man she could remember her mother ever introducing her to***.
We disclosed where we’d been and with whom we’d been in contact before we spent time together, trust-building acts that initially made me feel exposed and susceptible and, on some days, when we disagree on whether or not someone’s decision to leave home is “essential,” still do.
What I realized early was that proximity to my partner made me feel less anxious, more patient. Having him here gave my daughter someone new to talk to, someone new to investigate, interrogate and entertain. She and I bicker less with him as our buffer. He fell in easily with our motley duo and there are times when I suspect that he arrived just in time.
Though my daughter and I didn’t have many months to ourselves before I met him, though I did not get to mother her “on my own” for very long, I had just enough time to know that we were not off to the best start. All those years of living with the constant in-home oversight of two matriarchs had taken its toll on both of us. My daughter had never learned to look to me as the adult in her home who had the final say; she had two other, older mothers she could turn to for a second or third opinion. And I had never learned to be more authoritative with her than I was alternately affable or annoyed. Before this year, my daughter often told me I was, “kind of like a big sister,” though she’d always follow up by reassuring me that she knew I was her mom (occasionally with a [maddeningly] placating pat on the shoulder).
I thought relocating might help, but that trend continued here. I do not know for certain whether it would’ve worsened with time, whether I would’ve been able to break the decade-long mother-sister dynamic I had with her or simply reinforce it. All I know is that we were living a bit like wildlings in the beginning. Though we had the run of an entire apartment, she rarely wanted to leave my bedroom, day or night, and she rarely drifted off to sleep before midnight. Without a school day to regulate her or schoolwork to ground her, while I was trying to find the rhythm of working a new job remotely in a city neither of us knew, day and night had little demarcation. Takeout was king. Screentime was plentiful. We barely remembered routine.
Along with all the other reasons, I avoided real relationships as a mother because I had long considered my way of mothering as vaguely chaotic. I did not feel like I was in full control of it, and I did not know how to regain control of it. Until I did, it made no sense to enfold anyone new into our family. What if he judged me for my failure to run a tight ship? What if he boarded with a strong sense of reform?
I will not pretend that this relationship has rendered all my reticence moot. It has not. Some of my dating-as-a-parent worries were founded.
But I think what laid at the root of all my worry was fear of how much things would change. Things have changed. Significantly. It is my first serious relationship since having my daughter. And it bears zero resemblance to any relationship I was in before having a child. Adjustment was inevitable.
When someone chooses to date a parent raising children, especially if they spend significant time inside the parent and child’s home, that someone will not be a silent observer. They will not remain agnostic to the goings-on they witness. They’ll pitch in where they see that it may help. They’ll lean in and fall back, in accordance with what the cadences of that household require. They will do so voluntarily, freely opting into a lifestyle their partner cannot opt out.
They are yielding to something larger than themselves. And if all goes well, so are the parent and child.
This is as it should be. But I would have never given myself permission to learn that without a pandemic raging beyond our walls, reminding me each day of how fragile it all is, how fleeting our attachments are to everything but faith.
No matter how this pans out in all the months to come, I will not regret relocating or meeting someone in the middle of a kind of world’s-end or moving quickly with him or introducing him to my only child. I am better for it. I believe my daughter is, too. And I have only this harrowing, clarifying year to thank for it.
* He still has his own place.
** Please do not read any judgment here. I’ve road-tripped three times since March. Twice to see the matriarchs in Baltimore. Once to meet my partner’s family in Virginia. Though we quarantined beforehand, masked up when meeting anyone in passing, kept distant and disinfected as best we could, we knew that it would’ve been safest just to stay home. Risk is risk is risk.
*** She “met” the one other man I dated, but she was two or three at the time.