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Reflecting on the Precarious World of Single Motherhood

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

By Jennifer Murphy

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

When people ask me what it was like to be a single mom, my response is always the same, “We grew up together.”

In many ways, we did. We were friends. We were siblings. We were parent and child (admittedly sometimes those roles were reversed). We were each other’s everything. Although I now believe those years were the best of my life, for a long time I felt invisible, part of a lesser class of citizens, a counterculture outside the mainstream that insiders didn’t understand and didn’t seek out.

I’d grown up believing in the traditional nuclear family: dad, mom, and children. I never thought much about life outside of that code and never considered the possibility that I would deviate from it. For me, it was the transition between these two worlds that I found the most difficult. I understood raising a child alone meant I wouldn’t have a partner. I understood finances would be tight. I understood it wouldn’t be easy. What I didn’t consider was the degree of self-reliance it would require, the profound feeling of isolation, and the fear that at any given moment the world could come crashing down, all fears I tried not to share with my daughter. But Madi saw everything. Fortunately, she was resilient.

Everything happened in short order. First, circumstances left me raising my five-year-old daughter alone. Then, the two of us found ourselves moving across the country for a new job. I remember telling Madi that we were going on an adventure. I remember thinking of myself as one of the lucky ones. I was educated and had been fortunate to manage a public art program for a large-scale construction project, the new Denver International Airport. The program was considered innovative due to its incorporation of large-scale artworks into building architecture.

I could have stayed after the airport opened, but I wanted to leave the past behind. I got several job offers throughout the country, all of which were larger and more exciting, and came with a bigger salary than the one I ultimately accepted. But I was drawn in by the graciousness and hospitality of the South and promises that it was “a great place to raise a child” and had “a very supportive community.”

We rented a small duplex apartment with two bedrooms, one bath, and no yard. It was what I could afford. I gave Madi the bigger room; it had a small den attached to it where I put the TV. We decorated everything exactly the way she wanted it, even though it was more of a playroom. In those early years, Madi mostly slept with me. The day after we arrived, the two of us went to the neighborhood school, which was mere blocks away, and enrolled her in kindergarten.

My first day of work included a tour and a private meeting with the executive director of the non-profit arts council where my program was housed. Somewhere during his welcome speech, he informed me that my salary would be less than originally “discussed” (I had signed an employment agreement), because one of the donors hadn’t come through yet, but he was working on it. I should be patient. He added, “I’ll be the best boss you’ve ever had.” The same weekend, the woman who had led my recruitment effort, who also had a son Madi’s exact age, was hosting an Easter egg hunt at her house. It never dawned on me that she wouldn’t invite Madi. As it turns out, she didn’t.

Madi and I boiled and dipped eggs together the night before. I hid them as she slept. On Easter morning she hunted on her own, a tiny little girl with long curly locks in a frilly Easter dress she’d picked out. She was the queen of dress-up clothes. My heart broke watching her excitement as she located each. I remember apologizing to her for it being just the two of us. I remember her rubbing the top of my head as I sat on our front steps and telling me it was okay. I hadn’t realized I was crying. We had a proper Easter dinner, watched her TV for a while, and I drank a glass of wine, and then another and another.

What I didn’t consider was the degree of self-reliance it would require, the profound feeling of isolation, and the fear that at any given moment the world could come crashing down, all fears I tried not to share with my daughter.

Soon, I noticed the lack of an invitation wasn’t an oversight. I wasn’t being invited to couples’ parties and Madi wasn’t being invited to children of couples’ parties. Other work promises were broken and obligations that hadn’t been discussed popped up. I have this tendency to lie to myself in order to keep peace and avoid disappointment, something I’ve worked hard to change. But back then I was fully ensconced in this practice. On more than one occasion I questioned whether I’d made a mistake, but I kept telling myself it would get better.

I remember the specific day I told myself the truth. One of those undisclosed obligations had popped up. I had to work New Year’s Eve — the entire night into New Year’s Day for a yearly city festival. Madi had started running a temperature earlier that day. Her throat hurt and she was coughing. The babysitter I had lined up was also sick, and the two others I had used in the past were already committed. I told my boss about the situation, but he was unmoved.

I dragged Madi along with me that night, gave her cough syrup and Benadryl as needed, held her by the hand or in my arms. She never cried. She just hung onto me. An angel saved us both that night — a kind police officer who offered to let Madi sleep in the police van. He said it was continually manned, stationed for officers to take breaks and warm up with coffee or cocoa throughout the night. I was skeptical, but he walked me over and introduced me to the other officers. He made a point to provide me with updates as I continued working. Madi was fine, they’d made her hot soup and were keeping up with her medicine; she’d gotten some sleep.

The truth was hard. It was the first time I allowed myself to see that Madi and I were completely on our own, a realization that extended far beyond the word “single” in single mom. Inherent within the code is the promise of partnership. If a child is sick, if a babysitter doesn’t come through, if a salary isn’t what was promised, there is a built-in fallback plan. Relationships with friends or work associates aren’t encumbered by dependence and can grow at their own pace. As a single mom in a new city, it would take me a while to find my community. But at least I could plan.

I started advertising my consulting services and, slowly, I built up clients on the side. I met other kind people and made lasting friendships along the way. Three years later, I started my own business developing master plans for the inclusion of art in cities, airports, and transit facilities throughout the country. Because I would be traveling a lot, I negotiated a learning plan with Madi’s elementary school, and she accompanied me on every plane ride to every city. She loved that part of our life, loved exploring new places and meeting new people. She wasn’t as crazy about homework, but I helped with that.

At home, I put up a map of the United States and made a game of marking every city where we’d been. By the time Madi was in junior high, she had visited nearly half the states in the U.S., and met, interviewed, or had dinner with some of the most recognized public artists in the country.

Around this time, we played another game I called Counter Culture because it took place on the countertop of our kitchen. It had one rule: What is said on the counter, stays on the counter. Over the next several years, I sat on that counter with Madi (and sometimes one of her friends) and listened without judgment to her deepest feelings, offered advice when she sought it or when it felt appropriate, and, unless she allowed me to do otherwise, I never repeated what she shared on that counter to others or spoke of it again to her. Oddly, it wasn’t until recently that I questioned whether the game’s title was a subconscious reaction to the alienation and dismissiveness I felt when we first moved to the South.

Webster describes counterculture as “a culture manifested by a lifestyle that is opposed to the prevailing culture.” I find this definition odd. It seems to imply that those individuals who find themselves outside the mainstream are the ones doing the opposing. As if those inside the mainstream are the true victims.

My daughter is an adult now. She’s an amazing painter. Recently I asked her about those years when it was just the two of us, what it felt like to her.

She hunched her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. It felt fine, I guess.”

“How about you?” she asked.

“They were the best years of my life.”


Jennifer Murphy holds an MFA in painting from the University of Denver and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington. She is the recipient of the 2013 Loren D. Milliman Scholarship for creative writing and was a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference from 2008 through 2012. In 2015, her acclaimed debut novel, I Love You More (Doubleday, 2014), won the prestigious Nancy Pearl Fiction Award. Her most recent novel, Scarlet in Blue, published in 2022 from Dutton. Her love of art led her to start Citi Arts, a public art and urban planning company that has created public art master plans for airports, transit facilities, streetscapes, and cities nationwide. She hails from a small beachfront town in Michigan and has lived in Denver, Charlotte, Seattle, and Charleston. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.