Finding Home: On the Journey Back to Writing as a Single Mother

Kelly McMasters: “My own writing, meanwhile, was like a distant song.”

The first time I confessed aloud to being a single mother, I was talking to Rebecca Solnit. She’d come as a guest speaker to my university as part of our MFA reading series and we met before her event so I could interview her for our literary magazine. We’d spent an hour together, first examining the old black-and-white photographs on the walls in the austere conference room, laughing conspiratorially about the ratio of men to women in the images. She recounted some esoteric historical fact about Holland, because she is Rebecca Solnit, and we sat down at the glossy lacquered table, the kind I’d recently grown accustomed to in my divorce lawyer’s offices, the same impenetrable glaze atop the same piss-yellow wood.

The room grew dark as we sat. Solnit is passionate in thought but not diction; her answers, as transcribed later, came out in full, potent sentences, forming perfect unhurried paragraphs. Her casual brilliance is intimidating, as much for her meteoric intelligence as for her all-in-a-day’s-work air.

She is insanely prolific, and though I called myself a writer, the truth was I hadn’t filled a page in a very long time. I’d wanted so desperately to impress her, to feel some camaraderie, but at that giant table I felt like an imposter. I ruffled through my notes, suddenly hating all of the questions I’d so painstakingly prepared. The experience was uncannily similar to the way I often felt at the same godawful table at my lawyer’s firm, the bloodless copies of court papers in front of me.

This was my second year teaching at the university, and I’d spent most of it trying to hide my slowly disintegrating home life. I was working towards tenure, and the last thing I wanted was to become a red flag; divorce signals disaster, and I preferred them to see me as a calm, sure thing.

In that conference room, Solnit and I talked about the essay and literary maps, the notion of hope and whether we had any. “I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about boys,” I began, hesitating, seeing Solnit’s eyes flicker to her watch. “I have two young sons,” I continued. She smiled blandly at this, and I suddenly hated the navy blue gabardine pants I’d chosen to wear, and the bed in my suburban Long Island bedroom I’d laid them out on that morning, my bright bird-patterned pillowcases suddenly seeming childish and fey.

The first time I confessed aloud to being a single mother, I was talking to Rebecca Solnit.

I swallowed and kept going. “The thing is, I’m a single mother—”

Solnit’s eyes returned to me with interest. She drew herself upright, to attention, leaned forward and said with feeling, “Good for you.”

We finished the last 15 minutes of the interview sitting with our knees almost touching, talking about boys and their possibility, the struggle of raising good ones. Then we walked next door, joined in the tepid buffet line, filling our plates with salmon and rice pilaf, and moved with the rest of the professors and deans to the auditorium.

Good for me, I repeated to myself later, sitting in the audience and listening to her talk about mansplaining and Trump and protest. She’d said it as if we were talking about a raise, or a decision to quit smoking. Good for you also means: You are moving in the right direction, or Keep going, or You’re on the right track! I couldn’t exactly feel authentic in that sentiment, but I tried it on sitting in that dimly lit auditorium and found that I liked it.

*

Since leaving my marriage, I felt like I’d been driving backwards. Two years earlier, I’d sat in the kitchen of my newly-rented apartment in Lancaster, PA, three hours southeast of my still-farmhouse and still-husband. I had a stack of papers to grade for my one-year visiting professor gig, but the kids were fighting in the playroom and I kept looking at the pile of bills next to the pile of papers and wondering what, if anything, I had in the fridge to make for dinner.

The new-email chime sang out and I clicked on the computer gratefully. I have an idea for an anthology, the email from my friend Margot read. In this email, she wrote about the concept of home and belonging. Remember that essay you wrote about restoring your old farmhouse with your husband right after you got married? Could you write something like that for this book?

I turned the concept of home over in my head like a bucket and torrents spilled out. I replied to Margot with ideas on themes, potential reprints from other writers, possible contributors. I replied with agent ideas and publisher ideas and poets to approach. I replied with the gusto that only comes when you have thirty other things you are supposed to be doing at the moment, so you are doing this thing instead.

Since leaving my marriage, I felt like I’d been driving backwards.

I did not tell her that I hadn’t been able to write in more than a year. I did not tell her I’d left both the husband and the farmhouse from the essay she recalled. I did not tell her that I’d recently exploded my own home.

*

Was there a moment you knew you wanted to end your marriage?

This is the question everyone always asks, the still-married ones, after one too many glasses of wine at the PTA fundraiser, in the corner of the patio at the neighborhood 4th of July party, alongside the dance floor at weddings. After a while, I came to understand that this was not actually a question for me, that the men and women asking were really just matching their experience with mine, pulling a measuring tape around my ribcage and then circling their own to see how closely the numbers fell.

I’m sure I’ve given a different answer every time I’ve been asked. The most honest one is this: You never know.

Divorced people don’t ask me that question.

The pain of divorce is different for everyone, but it is also the same. I hate this. I hate that the books I read early on in the process, the therapists I spoke to in person or listened to on podcasts, the friends who’d been through it, were all right. I feel like I walked into a one-street town called Divorceville and the only storefronts I could see were those cheap trick psychics, one after another, offering to read your palm or your tarot cards for $5. They all say the same boring things.

And they are all right.

Decades ago, in my twenties, I used to run the numbers in my journal, betting against my friends. When I was thinking about getting married, I tallied up all the married people I knew. I would look at my two best friends from college, both married to men they met at that same college, and smugly reassured myself that my odds were pretty good.

What an asshole.

*

Shortly after I sent that email to Margot, and a volley of others, she asked if I’d like to partner with her in building the anthology. This made a certain sense. We attended the same graduate writing program and our first books had come out at the same time, collaborated on a few events. We’d never been close, but we’d remained friendly, had similar literary taste. We were both working mothers, trying to balance our writing lives with our professional lives and our mothering lives. As co-editors, we could lean on one another.

Up until that point, thinking about the anthology had been a lovely distraction from the swirling quicksand of student papers, the pile of unpaid bills, the boys’ noise and mess and laughter, our home falling apart. But a real book? A serious project with deadlines and a budget? I didn’t know if I was up to that.

The pain of divorce is different for everyone, but it is also the same. I hate this.

Sounds to me like it’s just what you need, Margot said, and so I grabbed it with both hands.

*

As the first batches of essays came in, I had already moved again, bringing my children across the state line from Pennsylvania to New York, leaving a place and faculty I’d grown to love in Lancaster for the unicorn promise of a tenure-track position on Long Island.

My still-husband still lived apart from us, but now in Manhattan. We put the farmhouse up for sale. I enrolled my kids in public school, in taekwondo, in chess. Picked a new pediatrician. Hired babysitters, got library cards, argued about which pizza place in town was best. Will we ever live with Dad again? my older son would ask every so often.

Let’s make our summer list! I’d respond. Or, do you think the ice cream man will come tonight? Deflect, deflect, defend, just like I’d watched his little body do every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, tied tightly into his white taekwondo uniform like a box of fancy cookies.

I was like a woman closing her eyes the moment before her car crashed, willing the situation to stop or simply disappear altogether. I did not have this luxury with the anthology. Ideas and concepts and whimsy had morphed into deadlines and page counts and contracts. Margot was a spreadsheet whiz and kept us on task. There was no side-stepping or closing my eyes on this one. Each week my time was split between my work at the university, my work on the anthology, and my children. And each week, one invariably fell by the wayside. I drew myself into my own body, moving quickly and efficiently through my days. Some weeks the boys would complain—All you do is type, type, type—and other weeks I’d be so consumed with volunteering for the elementary school book fair and play dates and calls with my lawyer and mid-terms in my own classes that the anthology felt like just another pile of disappointment on my table. Along with my children, my students, and my lawyer, I now had 20 or so women writers sitting on my desk, waiting, expecting. Sometimes, it felt like they were all sitting on my chest.

But I did what I always do: I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The page felt foreign at first, a country I hadn’t visited in a very long time. After all, these were not students, but professional published writers; who was I to make pronouncements? But the more I edited, the more confident I became in my editing. I slowly began to trust my notes on the page again. Getting good work done on the anthology lifted me in the classroom and at home; the boys and I laughed more, singing loudly to ABBA at breakfast or doing interpretive dances to Ravel in the living room over dessert. I’d gone from closing my eyes to trying to steer again.

I was like a woman closing her eyes the moment before her car crashed, willing the situation to stop or simply disappear altogether.

My own writing, meanwhile, was like a distant song, something I heard the woman next door singing to her child. I didn’t have time to think about where I might have heard that song, much less try to sing it in my own voice.

*

That year, I took up running. I preferred to run alone, in the woods, in the nature preserve near my house. The trails were shaded and soft, a sandy dirt with a few gentle hills, interspersed with vistas overlooking the waves crashing on the rocky beach below.

I liked to run two circuits through the trails and come out on the downhill slope leading to the waves. The rickety ramp onto the beach had a kind of shipwrecked look, and the sand was always littered with cement pilings and rusty boat rudders and whatever other beach detritus that happened to wash up on the shore.

One April weekend, I dragged my children out to that beach for an Earth Day clean-up activity. We were given gloves and plastic bags and told to tally up the different types of garbage we collected. There were the ubiquitous straws and fishing line and bottle caps and beer cans, along with a disturbing number of tampon applicators. I steered my children away from the rotting horseshoe crabs and when my oldest made a move to retrieve a condom from the thorny underbrush along the dunes, I announced it was time to go home.

On those weekends, or at school functions, or in the supermarket, I’d watch the other families. Some had two adults, but most had just one woman with children trailing behind her. Was she a single mother, I’d wonder, like me? We looked the same. Just another tired mother trying to keep her children from dropping their ice cream cone down her shirt as she hoisted one of them onto her hip, holding another one by their hand or sleeve or collar. What did single mother mean, anyway? The term smacked of being diminished, when taking care of children without a partner only inflated every responsibility. Each time I said those words, I felt like it somehow identified me as less than. I wasn’t a mother, I was a single mother. I was somehow not whole, never could be. The term made me feel like half a person, even though everything in my life had expanded.

I found parenting infinitely easier as a single mother. No longer having to fight daily against another person to establish a structural sanity was a new freedom. One of the starkest differences, though, was the sheer absence of time alone. Forget about personal time; just attending an evening PTA meeting meant finding and paying a babysitter. I couldn’t ever just run to the grocery store to grab a gallon of milk if I ran out; this involved two children peeing and packing snacks and snapping them into their carseats and then loading them into a shopping cart, herding them around a store, adding sixteen other items to the basket along with the gallon of milk including a Matchbox car and a certain type of squeeze yogurt their friend at school had in his lunchbox and cookies for being good and two packs of gum and a spiky fresh pineapple they promised to try when we got home and then wouldn’t.

In the old days, free time always meant sitting down to write. Now, when I found myself alone with an hour ahead of me, I threw on my running shoes. It was not lost on me that I chose to literally run away from the page.

*

For many months I moved on auto-pilot. Teach, mother, run, edit, feed, amass documents, hop on a call with Margot, fix the car, arrange childcare. Make a meaningful contribution at the department meeting! Read 20 minutes to the kids at bedtime! Walk the crying student to the counseling center! Make sure the kids eat something green this week!

My own writing, meanwhile, was like a distant song, something I heard the woman next door singing to her child.

I was beginning to lose hope that I’d be able to carry my part of the weight of the anthology. I kept putting off the editing until after midterms, or until the end the semester, or once I got through my summer class. My therapist, my parents, and some friends all asked why I was putting something extra on my plate right now. But your plate is already so full, they’d say. I knew what they meant. I was like the aunt at the buffet who asked for two of everything and her ear of corn is about to roll off the top of the pile into the middle of the dance floor. But if all of my life stuff could fit onto a plate, the anthology was like one of those carrots peeled into a rose, delicate and beautiful and artful, not something of pure sustenance. I couldn’t explain why, I simply wanted it.

One night, as the kids finished their homework and I waited for the pasta water to boil, I opened an email from Margot. Elissa Washuta, an essayist we’d hoped would contribute, had sent us a piece; Margot had attached it to the email and asked me to take a look. With my right hand I put the pan of fries and dinosaur-shaped nuggets in the oven, while my left thumb scrolled through the first few pages of the essay on my phone.

Hours later, it seemed, the oven timer beeped its alarm to tell me to flip the fries and nuggets. The pasta pot was angrily boiling, still empty. My back hurt where I’d leaned against the counter to read and my face was wet with tears. I stood in the darkening kitchen, a line from the essay ringing over and over in my head: “I didn’t know, then, that there are places without crickets, without mothers.”

The feeling of reading someone’s newly written essay reawakened something in me. A woman in another state had sat in front of her computer and written these pages. She filled a blank page with words. And then she filled another one. And then she’d sent it on along to someone else to read.

For the first time in a long time, standing there in my kitchen, I wanted to do that, too.

*

When I’d moved into our new apartment on Long Island, I filled the house with bright, happy things. I thought if I filled it with enough color and fancy the boys wouldn’t notice the absence of the other body.

I bought plants and hung paper birds from the ceiling and the children’s art everywhere. I hoped they wouldn’t notice our furniture was a collection of cast-offs. The TV console was a craft table from their old Montessori pre-school. The television on top of it was from my parents’ guest room. Our dining table had been given to us by a generous neighbor, who looked at me quizzically when I said the round wooden table would go perfectly in our eat-in kitchen. “But you know it isn’t a dining table, right?” she’d asked. She patiently explained that it was for a living room, the kind of table that goes next to a piano and upon which you put a runner and family photographs. I did not have that kind of living room, and didn’t think I ever would. I told her the table would be perfect for us. And it was.

The feeling of reading someone’s newly written essay reawakened something in me.

We sat at that table on some vintage 1950s Shelby Williams chairs I’d bought in my twenties when I wrote for home design magazines and had time to scour eBay for such things. The ruddy red vinyl seats were still in pretty good shape and it occurred to me that I could probably sell them and make a little money—the holidays were coming and money was tight. I was making more money more reliably than I ever had, but my expenses were also higher than they’d ever been and I supplemented my paycheck with a constellation of freelance writing gigs, making use of balance transfer offers on my credit cards, and waiting until the treads on our sneakers wore completely away before replacing them. Around that time, I saw a message on the local parents listserv offering a set of black wooden dining chairs for free. Perfect! I thought. I secured the chairs with an email and set off to pick the kids up from school.

A few days later, we drove up the hill, to the affluent part of our Gold Coast town. We pulled into the empty driveway and I spotted the chairs on the porch. “Just wait here, guys,” I said to the boys in their booster seats behind me.

I carried two of the chairs back to our car, opened the hatchback, and stuffed them in. The boys craned their necks to watch.

“What are you doing, Mama?” one or the other asked.

“The family who lives here got new chairs, and don’t need these anymore,” I said in my world-explainer voice. “So now, we get new chairs, too.”

“But we don’t need new chairs,” my oldest said.

“Well, I was thinking we could use these chairs around our dining room table and sell the other ones,” I said. I left the hatch open, figuring I could fit one more chair in, but would probably have to come back for the rest.

I wrestled the first two chairs into the car, and noticed my oldest son’s shoulders shaking. I got back in the car and was surprised to see him crying. I thought he was hurt, that his little brother had maybe reached over and punched him. “What on earth is the matter?” I asked, turning my body into the space between the driver’s seat and empty passenger seat. He just kept crying, there in the driveway with half the chairs in the car.

As we drove home, he did his best to calm himself long enough to speak. He finally said loudly, “But I like our chairs!” I stared dumbly at him in the rearview mirror. His small face was deadly serious. “You can’t sell our chairs! They are our chairs!”

I hadn’t even realized he’d noticed them.

*

The threshold of a new home is a lonely place, Margaret Atwood wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale. In my apartment, alone with the boys, I’d stare around at our hodgepodge furniture, drawings taped to the walls, my new family photo of three, and I had the eerie sense that I’d swept the sand that used to be a sandcastle out the door.

Working so closely on a project whose theme was home while my own was in tumult was painful. In addition, the entire time I worked on the anthology, I felt the looming pressure of my own essay’s deadline. Margot and I had both been contracted to submit pieces of our own, but now, two years in, as first edits gave way to final edits, I still hadn’t begun to write my own piece. I kept thinking, if I could just get to the other side of this divorce, or if I could get a tenure-track position, or could run one more mile, or could get new furniture, I’d be closer to home, or to some made-up idea of home I’d assigned myself. Then I would be ready to write my own essay.

Working so closely on a project whose theme was home while my own was in tumult was painful.

In fact, I hadn’t written anything worth its salt since I realized I needed to leave the old farmhouse, and with it, the life and family I’d built there. It was as if trying to not see that terrible truth eclipsed every other story in my life. But the pages of the other women told about not ever feeling home, and about never being able to go back home, about losing the home language they were first loved in. And as their editor, I had helped them tell those stories, helped them push through the grief and complication.

When I could no longer stall, I sat down one evening, the boys asleep upstairs, and tried to stare at my story’s center. I kept hearing the other essayists quietly chanting from their pile on my desk, a kind of Roman chorus: just write the truth.

The truth was, I was no longer one of the married. Even if I married again someday, I would never enter into that vaunted world of first marriage, of original marriage, of belief. I was no longer a wife. But I was still a mother—a whole one. And I was still a writer.

The truth was, I was already home, because this moment is what will mean home for my children. The sound of my type-type-typing all the time, our kitchen dance parties, picking through the horseshoe crabs and tampon applicators on beach clean-up day, the three of us laughing in my suburban Long Island bed with our heads on my bright bird-pattern pillows on lazy Saturday mornings. Night after night, we will sit on our old ruddy Shelby Williams chairs at our secondhand non-dining room table, the three of us, and be home. It’s not how I imagined it. But now I can’t even remember how I once imagined it.

At my desk, the empty page staring at me with terrifying brightness, I thought back to Rebecca Solnit’s words. Good for you. If this were a math problem, Solnit’s response showed me that breaking up my family was not simply subtraction. It was old-fashioned editing. By taking away, I could create room for more. Subtraction willed into abundance.

And finally, with the anthology pages of the women writers quietly cheering me on from their corner of my desk, I wrote into the night and rejoined their chorus.

Kelly McMasters
Kelly McMasters
Kelly McMasters is an essayist and former bookshop owner. She is the author of the forthcoming The Ghosts in the Hills: A Memoir-in-Essays (WW Norton, 2022) and co-editor of the forthcoming Wanting: Women Writing About Desire (Catapult, 2023). She teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York. Visit her here: www.kellymcmasters.com





More Story
On the Case for Meanness in Fiction “One should always be kind . . . in case it might be the last chance. One might be killed crossing the street, or even...