After dark, there are often two men sleeping in my house: my young son and my boyfriend of the moment. Which one needs more nurturing? It’s a toss-up.
A FINE SPRING MORNING. 6:30 A.M. Beside me, sleeping soundly, is a man who—against the odds, given my experience to date—I am hoping will be the real thing.
I should be exhausted. I’m not. The French have a saying, “Vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche,” which means “To live on love and cold water.” It’s a concise way to describe the initial giddiness of a new relationship, that time in the first few weeks when food and sleep seem unnecessary. So high am I, I wake up before the alarm goes off, though I set it only four hours earlier.
I zoom across the room and, my mind racing, hit the off button so the radio won’t blare. I must plot my next moves carefully because down the hall, also sleeping soundly, are my son, Henry, and his best friend, Charles, a child I help co-parent. It’s not at all unusual for him to sleep over on a school night, which is what last night was. Which means this is a school morning. Which means I should’ve gone to sleep by eleven at the latest. Which I didn’t.
What to do? What to do? Routine is important to my style of parenting. I stand there in my robe and weigh my options. “Inconsistency leads to fear in the children,” I begin to lecture myself, “and if I don’t make this a regular morning . . .” I know I should open the back door and let the dog bound in to lick the boys awake. I know I should burst into the room, sing loudly, rustle them from their bunks, and lead them to the table for a ten-decibel breakfast of Poppin’ Sugar Crunchies.
Never mind. We’ll deal with broken rituals in therapy at a later date. I must have silence.
“Boys,” I whisper, rousing them earlier than usual, “I’ll make you a deal.” Though they’re groggy, their ears perk up at this last word. “I know morning is a time for us, but just this once—if y’all will dress real quietly and hurry up and hop in the car, I’ll take you to Burger King for breakfast and”—now they’re awake and listening—“I’ll let you be as annoying as you want in the car and I won’t make you stop.”
In a flash, they’re up and at ’em, on tiptoe, carrying shoes and socks in hand, to be applied in the Toyota. I’ve made them the ultimate bargain. I spend half my life in the car telling them to tone it down, I can’t concentrate, yadda yadda yadda. This promise to let them take over is like giving an Emmy to Susan Lucci.
Glancing at the car clock, I realize that, in my love-and-water frenzy, I’ve given us 45 minutes to make the 5-minute drive to school. Now what? Unbelievably, the BK Lounge gets the order right on the first try, so that only kills a little time. What now?
I know, I’ll run to the H.E.B. I lock the boys in the car and pick up some orange juice, coffee, and milk. Back in the car, there are now thirty minutes left and the boys have big, big news for me. They’ve invented, if it is possible, a new sound that’s more annoying than any before it. “Check this out, Mom,” says Henry, giggling in unison with Charles. They begin simultaneously blowing through their straws into their orange juice boxes and rubbing the straws up and down against the containers’ opening. The sound is like a five-hundred-pound cricket slowly chafing his chunky thighs together. Worse than a hundred nails being dragged down a blackboard. I say, “Quit it . . .” and they shoot me a look. A deal’s a deal.
By the time I have dropped off the kids and made it back to the house, my man is awake, dressed, and heading out the door to work. I try not to sigh.
For eight years now I’ve been a mother. For most of that time—except for a brief, mania-inspired, mostly long-distance marriage—I have been a dating single mother. And while keeping the kids quiet when a new man is sleeping in my bed falls into the stuff-dating-moms-invariably-must-deal-with category, there is, I’m convinced, another whole, whacked-out angle that child-free singles don’t have to face.
I call this the Mother Love Factor (MLF). Let me jump ahead of myself here with a wee bit of foreshadowing. Not long ago I ran into an ex of mine, Andy. Handsome, rich, funny, wonderful. Naturally, I couldn’t bear to be with him—we dated for roughly fifteen minutes. He was too normal.
I was discussing my latest dilemma with him. A man I’d been with for nearly a year was on his way to take a third vacation with his alleged ex-girlfriend. He’d asked me to be there for him when he came back. “I swore I’d never stay with a cheater,” I whined to Andy.
“But he’s not cheating, Spike,” said the wise one. “He tells you. It’s not a secret. Can I tell you something? You have had the most bizarre string of relationships of anyone I know.” This from a man who’s had more than a few odd relationships himself over the years. Andy went on, “You know what the next one’s going to do? He’s going to give you two months to fall in love with him. Then he’s going to say, ‘Did I mention I’m having a sex-change operation?’” I gave Andy a pained smile, but he wasn’t finished. “Then he’s going to say that despite the switch, he still wants to sleep with you”—wait, there’s more—“and you know, you’re still going to want to sleep with her.”
Should this hypothetical romance come to pass, I’m afraid Andy’s right. I would hang in there. And that’s a trait—camping out too long with Mr. Wrong—I had long before I was a mother. But being a mother has only increased this tendency.
The MLF, you see, relates to the archetypal Everymother—who is of course more nurturing, loving, forgiving, and understanding than anyone. I’ve had mothering tendencies since I was a child taking care of my five younger siblings. Actually giving birth to my own child, learning to love him even when he angered me, having my faith in humankind soar when he did something unexpected and wonderful, all this has greatly affected the way I treat the men in my life.
Not all of them have been overjoyed that I’m a parent; after all, solo parenting limits the time and money I have to spend on going out. Plus, there is the issue of the boyfriend-child relationship. What role, if any, should these men play in my son’s life?
When Henry’s father left us, I purposefully maintained a distance between the men I dated and my child. I had a sense that these guys would disappear, and I didn’t want to increase any abandonment issues the child was already going to have to work through regarding his father. Besides, I was never looking for a replacement father; long ago a couple of dear, platonic friends stepped up to the plate and have filled the role of consistent male role model ever since.
In those days I happily sprang for a sitter when I could afford one and took the romance elsewhere. My dates seemed to prefer it that way too—it saved us the fear of discomfort should the then toddler interrupt us or come creeping in in the morning to find his snuggle partner, me, usurped by a loathsome interloper.
Some things have changed, the main one being that I now encourage lovers to befriend my child and spend nights at my place. (Henry is old enough now for me to explain romantic relationships to him. I don’t believe in hiding the truth that I sleep with my lovers. So far, he hasn’t asked about sex.) But some things haven’t. I hold that, to the men who ask me out, the most attractive thing about me is my parenthood. Not because they can enjoy Henry’s company—although if they don’t, they’re out—but because they reap the benefits of who I’ve become since I became a mother.
Which is to say that I tend to get involved with men who are in need of mothering. I admit it: I love a good needy man. That goes against every feminist belief I’ve had and every proclamation I’ve made over the years (and I’ve had and made many). But these guys, they just find me—I give off the scent. Or maybe I find them: I remember once, in a bar in San Francisco, forcing myself not to lean down and tie a drunken stranger’s shoe as he stumbled by.
So my men are mid-divorce, they’re on the rebound, they’re out of shape. What they all have in common is terribly damaged self-esteem and an immediate, urgent need to be comforted—you know, the sort of personality only a mother could love. The kind of guy who is, 90 percent of the time, in “take” mode.
Even the nice ones, the ones who give back, often take so much more than they can give. Because I let them. Because I am a mother: Everymother, Queen of Sacrifice. Because either they have never left behind their childish ways or they are in some phase where all that infantile stuff has spewed to the surface, beckoning me like an oasis in the desert.
I cook for them. I hold them—not always like a lover, sometimes like a baby. They cry in front of me. They confess, some of them using this as their sole means of communication. They seek solace and reassurance. The men I speak of, the ones I find and take in, the ones who find me and ask to be taken in, are some of the neediest humans to have walked the face of the earth.
And, like a mother, sometimes I wish to be acknowledged more by my “children,” to have them turn and thank me for the things I do and give. But, also like a mother, too often I fail to voice this desire. While gifts are given at times—clothes, trips, jewelry, books—most of the men I date are happy to just sit at my kitchen table and sleep in my bed, giving me the fleeting satisfaction of seeing a plate cleaned or having an arm flung across me as I drift off.
And, like so many children, once a dose of whatever is needed at the moment is procured, the men wander off happily to their toys, their other interests. Out of the nest. It’s been years since a man lasted in my life for more than a few months. Bolstered by my encouragement (or, gasp, smothered by the MLF?), they sashay off into the sunset to find themselves some girlfriend who, most likely, isn’t a mother.
I do feel good about being able to offer the security so many of them lack. But sometimes the dark side of the MLF appears. All that sacrificing, all those choices on my part to give, give, and give, turn into resentment. Like a mother who returns from a ten-hour shift only to face four loads of laundry, a dinner to cook, and a house to clean, I lose it. Mother love, whether directed toward our real children or the men we mother, is not unconditional, no matter how hard we try.
With Henry, it’s a little easier, and I do feel rewarded by his ongoing accomplishments, his wit, his smile. With the men, it’s trickier. Where to draw the line, when to say, “Hey, wait, I’m your girlfriend, not your mother”? It’s hard to admit, when I get mad at the glaring lack of reciprocity, that this is my own fault. I always encouraged them to take. How could they know that inside I was starting to seethe?
I tell them. They retreat. Some go away forever. Some come back years later and admit that they took too much. Some call within hours, promising to be good boys, to try harder next time. And then the MLF switches gears. Like Everymother, I feel bad that I’ve yelled, remember the reasons I was drawn to one needy man or another, want to patch up whatever it was in them I found to be broken, typically something broken long ago, when they were just little boys.
I forgive. I weep. I apologize. And then we move on to the next challenge: the announcement of the other girlfriend or the divorce averted at the last minute, the request to cease getting it on (because “you’re too much like a mother”), the announcement—I just know it’s coming—that he appreciated all of my love, but now it’s time for that sex-change operation.
I take the news as best I can. I think about what it is in me that makes them comfortable enough to reveal these things, even to seek consolation from me for the very things they do that break my heart. And I know what it is. This mother thing. Every man’s dream.
Spike Gillespie’s memoir, All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy, will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.