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Confessions of a Single Mother
Women have often asked the author whether they should become single mothers, as she did. Now that her baby is a teenager, nearly as tall as his father, she has an answer. By Susan Kellam
Comments () | Published April 1, 2008

Reid walks in first. Seeing no sign of his dad, he gives me the okay to enter. Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown is dark wood, Tiffany chandeliers, and the same booth that on June 24, 1953, was the backdrop when John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Martin’s polished-wood bar propped me up in May 1991 as I shared the results of a drugstore pregnancy test with my then boyfriend. The bar still hums 16 years later when Dick Keil is about to be surprised again, this time with a 46th-birthday party thrown by his friends.

“Over here!” Mike Allen, a reporter with Politico, yells to us from the bar. One of the grand schemers of this bash, Mike beams as we approach. “What are you drinking?” he asks.

Reid eyes the beer taps. Already more than six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a deep concentration on the Red Sox game on the television above the bar, my teenage son might pass for drinking age. Except that everyone in Martin’s knows him and he’s served a Coke.

I can still see Reid’s dad and me sitting at the far end of the bar at Martin’s near the alcove known as the dugout. Dick was understandably shell-shocked by the news of the pregnancy test. We were living together but far from talking about having a family.

“Are you sure?” he kept saying. “Sometimes these tests are wrong.”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

My body was different and had been for weeks, though I’d chalked the moodiness up to mourning. Ten months before, my brother’s life had been snuffed out so inexplicably that my grasp on day-to-day things had turned wobbly. Learning that my crazy emotional fluctuations had a physiological root was almost a relief.

I wish I could walk around the bar, back in time, and find that couple grappling with the news. They were both so frightened. I was going to go through with the birth whether Dick was with me or not. But I had recently started working as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and envisioned a very different future. I couldn’t imagine telling my bosses I was having a baby. One part of me was trying hard to be brave; another part kept saying, “What am I doing?”

Dick, at 30, was working long hours for the Associated Press and wasn’t ready to be a father. There would be weeks of arguing, tension, visits to a couple’s counselor, and eventually the day when I returned from the beach and discovered that he’d moved out of our Georgetown house.

He hadn’t gone far.

Marriage would never be an option, but Reid has entwined himself with us like a thread zigzagging through the shapes of a mixed quilt. Dick and I are different people who have somehow created a colorful pattern and, against the odds, raised a normal child.

Dick walks into Martin’s, and everyone yells, “Happy birthday!” He’s every bit the six-foot-five that earned him the nickname Stretch from President George W. Bush when Dick covered the White House for Bloomberg News. And he’s surprised. There’s a cake and Red Sox cookies. His closest friends and his girlfriend are there. So is his son. So am I.

Dick gives me a hug. “It wouldn’t be the same without you two here,” he says.

Side by side now, father and son are both tall and lanky, taking up lots of space. Someone pushes the three of us together for a photograph.

“See,” I would say to that frightened couple from all those years ago, “it’s going to be fine.”

Many women over the years have asked me whether they should become single mothers. They see Reid and me in our picket-fenced house in Bethesda’s slightly offbeat Bannockburn neighborhood, with the dogs, the tall row of giant sunflowers, and the stained-glass designs hanging in the windows. They’ve watched a towheaded little boy grow into an articulate young man. Many women, often educated and alone, now view single motherhood as a right, a choice—not a stigma.

The day Reid was born—December 20, 1991—I was scared, shivering, and nauseated. But somehow his birth helped me release the pain of my brother’s suicide.

In the weeks after Robert killed himself, I had read everything I could about why someone would do that and what happens to those left behind. I knew that siblings, especially only remaining siblings, were at risk. But I was unprepared for my irrational behavior and my small self-destructive acts, like defying an editor until she had no choice but to fire me. I didn’t get it—any of it. Robert was the sane, normal one. He’d married and had two beautiful children. Now I was left to comfort our parents and stepmother, his widow and young children, all the aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends.

At the ceremonial unveiling of Robert’s grave almost a year after his death, I announced the pregnancy, sounding a joyous note to an otherwise somber day. No one at the cemetery had any better understanding, a year later, of why someone, at 39—seemingly happy and with everything to live for—was lying six feet beneath us. As his younger sister, I’d always looked up to Robert. I figured he understood why I was going ahead with this unplanned but very much wanted child.

I’m not sure when Reid got so big, so independent, and so cocky. Teenagers are masters of deception. Up to the age of five, Reid let me know what triggered pain and joy—mostly simple things. The seven-year-old was swelled with confidence over his ability to swing a bat and walk unaccompanied to school. By ten, he revealed the fault lines in that confidence when he struck out or struggled with math. Even when he was 12, my presence as mom was still vital.

But at 16, he appears so capable. I can work longer hours in the office and not worry about how he’ll get home from baseball practice. If I want, I can go out for the evening and leave him. Maybe I can finally relax. Yet I don’t understand Reid’s body language anymore and don’t know what he means when he whispers into his cell phone, “It will be fresh when we get there in August.” What will be fresh? And where are they going in August? I don’t want to be a mom who’s constantly hovering, but I can’t be far away.

I’ve worked nonstop in the social-policy-research arena throughout the 16 years of raising a child alone. I understand the risks and the importance of marital status for a child’s well-being. Teenagers living with single unmarried mothers face greater chances of delinquency and lower grade-point averages. Socioeconomic circumstances, however, can be a great equalizer. More education means better jobs. Higher incomes lead to greater stability. Where do I fit in this picture, and should I be concerned about my teenager’s well-being?

It seems, experts in the field tell me, that I’ve done many things right. I haven’t gone on to multiple fertility—meaning more children with different dads. There are no boyfriends or stepdads in the home. I’ve stayed blessedly stable, and most important, Reid has a good relationship with his father.

The societal picture has also changed over the past 16 years. More stable, single women are adopting, and the 2005 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 4 in 10 US babies are born to unmarried moms. My Brookings colleagues explain to me that the number of single moms rises steadily but “relatively slowly”; as a communicator now for this think tank, I would translate to say that the number won’t climb to half of US babies anytime soon.

What’s more, the concept of family has broadened to include adoptive homes, grandparents as caregivers, same-sex couples, and parents without partners. But my baby is now more than six feet tall and in high school. I’m not dealing with research. I’m dealing with a teenager.

Reid’s bar mitzvah on February 5, 2005, marked his transition from kid to teen despite the cultural promises about becoming a man on that day. With all the mazel tovs came only a partial sigh of relief. We put a tallith around Reid’s shoulders, but he still grinned at the Adas Israel congregation through a mouthful of metal and sang in a voice not quite child but not quite adult.

Reading from Exodus in the Torah about ancient laws and what they meant, Reid epitomized a defiance of societal laws despite his very normal appearance on the bema. We flanked him like married parents—I with my memorized Hebrew and Dick with his best church English. One of many decisions we’d made before the birth was to raise our child Jewish, though Dick is Baptist and more churchgoing than I ever was synagogue-attending. Reid spent a half dozen years preparing for the big moment and carried it out well.

It was a joyous occasion for many reasons. Reid had been given my brother’s Hebrew name, Fishel, and the activities throughout the day brought Robert back—from his children, Justin and Jenna, giving an aliyah, the honor of offering a blessing before the reading of the Torah, to the photograph I’d carefully folded into the bar mitzvah slide show.

The day made me think back to Robert on the bema. I was such an awkward ten-year-old at that bar mitzvah, jealous of the attention showered over my big brother, a sibling who had always outshone me. Now I was the mother of a tall, handsome bar mitzvah boy. And it was I, not my brother, making my mother happy—with Reid’s accomplishment and by throwing an impeccable luncheon at La Ferme in Chevy Chase.

Yet because I was still the oldest unmarried female in the family, my aunts and uncles sat at their beautifully arranged table during Reid’s celebratory lunch and plotted a collection to send Dick and me off on a romantic weekend. Who could blame them? Thirteen years after Reid’s birth and neither of us had hooked up long term with someone else. I thanked my relatives for their concern, but the tough years of coparenting have churned out the grit for a good friendship between Dick and me, not the kindle for sparks.

Often people assume we’re married. Sometimes it seems that way even to me. One early weekend morning not long ago, Dick walked into our house with coffee and the newspapers to pick up Reid for batting practice. “Have I missed something?” I asked, just getting out of bed. “Did I wake up married?”

When Reid traveled to baseball tournaments with the Bethesda–Chevy Chase Gators, I often had to remind the team manager to add another motel-room reservation. She repeatedly forgot during those six-plus years of travel baseball that the three of us wouldn’t be bunking in one room.

There were suitors while Reid was growing up, but I was often too exhausted to line up a babysitter and go out. I have sole physical custody of Reid, so there was never any shuffling him back and forth between two homes or a string of nights without my child when I could socialize freely. Despite lots of introductions by friends, the timing was just never right for romantic longevity.

One newly divorced man I dated throughout the summer when Reid was five became the perfect, albeit temporary, match because he also had a five-year-old son. We introduced Reid and Jake after a few dates, and the chemistry between them was pure combustion—in fact, dates often involved thwarting the boys’ pranks. At a restaurant in Georgetown, Jake released a balloon in Congressional Quarterly publisher Bob Merry’s face as I mumbled apologies to my former boss. Reid and Jake took to each other so much that they’re still good friends as teens. Jake’s dad, however, is remarried with a new family.

Not long after Reid’s bar mitzvah, I was introduced at a dinner party to a soon-to-be divorced man with two grown daughters. My new beau had even passed the Reid test—he wasn’t balding, gray, or out of shape, and he drove a ’70s convertible that Reid thought was way cool.

We dated for nearly a year. I thought I had finally crossed over into being a free, actively social woman again now that Reid was 13, then 14, and didn’t need me quite so much. I went to live music in the evenings and late dinners. Yet this man’s daughters were much needier than Reid, often showing up on our dinner dates or demanding their dad’s time because of their own thwarted love interests. So when I told friends it was hard to date with kids, I was really referring to his adult daughters, not to teenage Reid, who liked having my attention diverted.

But dating with a teenager at home isn’t easy. Even on the evening my romance flickered out, I was preoccupied with a clogged drain in Reid’s bathroom. I bought a container of Drano on my way from work to the restaurant—Martin’s Tavern, as it happened—for a relationship talk with this man. We sat outside on a beautiful day in May and talked about why he didn’t feel “deeply” toward me. I kept thinking about that clogged drain.

“It’s not that I don’t find you attractive and wonderful,” he said. “I just don’t feel a deep connection.”

Taking that as my exit cue, I stood up to leave and gathered my things. In my haste, I dropped the Drano. I didn’t look back, just kept walking through Georgetown and down Reservoir Road to Dick’s house, where Reid and Dick were watching a Red Sox game and eating pizza. They acknowledged me with half smiles.

That breakup wasn’t a total surprise. I’d learned that the man had substance-abuse problems beyond his casual pot smoking. I’ve had numerous conversations with Reid about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but I’ve never lied to him, because he knows how closely linked I was to rock-’n’-roll culture when I was younger. I joined Rolling Stone magazine’s staff in the 1970s and worked closely with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and John Hall (now a US congressman from New York) to launch the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979.

Being a mom to a teenager forced me to let go of any romantic notions of those times. For years, I’d relayed colorful tales to friends, probably tinged with exaggeration. But the truth is that the truly artistic and political people I hung out with in the 1970s didn’t have a drug problem, and that’s what I tell Reid. We might have inhaled, but most of us were too busy with putting out a magazine or putting on a concert to become obliterated.

So dating a man with a decades-old taste for marijuana didn’t strike me at first as terrible. Later, after I’d left the Drano and the aging hippie behind, Reid admitted he knew the guy often was stoned. “Too mellow,” he told me.

When Reid chose to go to St. John’s High School in DC—where he would play baseball and attend Catholic Mass in the school’s chapel—I figured that would keep him out of trouble. My bar mitzvah boy wore a uniform that included a white oxford shirt inscribed with the curling initials of the school’s namesake saint.

Having played on a selective team since he was nine, Reid at 14 was a hard-throwing pitcher. St. John’s baseball coach, Mark Gibbs, recruited him. I told everyone that Reid had inherited my brother Robert’s baseball ability. It’s at games that I most sense my brother. Sometimes when Reid walks out to pitch and my stomach clenches, I can almost hear Robert’s low laugh: “You worry too much. He can do this.”

I felt comfortable with Reid tucked inside a highly disciplined sports and academic program. How could a kid make a mistake with six baseball coaches watching him and a daily 5:30 am wake-up call? I was outlining the do’s and don’ts of raising a teenager as single mom for a book chapter and actually believed I was an expert when I got a call from the police. I figured it had to be one of my dogs out tearing up a neighbor’s garbage.

Reid and a school pal had been identified on a 7-Eleven security tape buying eggs about 20 minutes before nearly a dozen eggs splattered above a neighbor’s garage door.

“Why did you do it?” The inevitable question for a parent to ask once the kid is caught—if not in the act, then with grade-A evidence. His response: “Because I’m a teenager.”

There was, of course, a teenage girl inside the egged house. It seems the girl has a tendency to report kids to the school principal.

Both the policewoman and the owners of the home were as quick to throw accusations at me as Reid had been to toss the eggs. “He’s sneaking out and doing this damage after you’re asleep” was the charge. I’m one parent alone, after all, and the implication was that I couldn’t prevent such mischief. But I’d given Reid and his St. John’s pal permission to go to 7-Eleven that Friday evening after I’d picked them up from a St. John’s basketball game. I thought they’d buy hot dogs and come home.

Months after the incident, I came to view the teenagers’ mischief as the only normal behavior in the chain reaction it triggered. The neighbor refused to accept an apology. He didn’t like the contractor I had sent over to power-wash the splattered spot. He accused Reid of being a liar when he wouldn’t accept blame for other petty crimes against the house on previous occasions, such as the smearing of pizza across the front door. The neighbor pressed us to pay $1,000 in damages or deal with the state attorney general’s office in a juvenile court.

Exasperated, I sat Reid down and said, “You get one big mistake as a teenager. You’ve just made your colossal, singular ‘bad.’ ”

But is it realistic to expect him to go the next five years without a similarly impulsive mistake? In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Richard Monastersky described the work-in-progress that is our teenager: “Neural systems that respond to thrills, novelty, and rewards develop well before the regulatory systems that rein in questionable actions. The teenage brain, in essence, is a turbocharged car with a set of brakes still under construction.”

Reid got his learner’s permit late last year—one of those realities few parents can avoid—and soon will be driving without me. For a single mom, it will mean sitting alone at curfew time and listening for the car door to slam. Of course, a driver’s license also frees me from early-morning baseball-practice runs and from rushing home from work to drop him at the movies.

I’ve nearly gotten used to picking Reid up from movie “dates” in Bethesda at our prearranged spot outside Starbucks at exactly 10:30. Within the year, he’ll be on his own. Dating will take on more real dimensions and I’ll be increasingly excluded. None of this is really troubling. This is the time to start letting go.

Younger friends and colleagues who are single still ask me whether they should consider adoption or artificial insemination. Do it, I say. Do it even knowing that one day your sweet child might become a cocky, cranky, wisecracking adolescent who calls you by your first name, thinks news is ESPN, and eggs a neighbor’s house.

But I’m also quick to distance myself from the women who tout single motherhood by choice as the preferable route. It’s an option when other options have failed. As I often tell my 24-year-old niece, Jenna, “Don’t use me as a role model.” I’d much rather see her forge a lasting romantic relationship and then consider children.

Reid often tells people his parents are divorced. I’ve never told him what to say, and being a child of divorce puts him in a broader, more socially acceptable category. Because it’s the only type of family he’s known, Reid is the voice of experience when friends are confronted with their own parents’ broken relationships. And Reid has already warned me that his take on being a child of a single mom will be the subject of his college-application essays.

I recall the family-values debate raging when my TV-sitcom counterpart, Murphy Brown, announced her out-of-wedlock birth within weeks of my decision to have the baby alone. According to Vice President Dan Quayle, we were making a mockery of the great American institution of family. Yet Reid’s birth cemented my larger family ties at a time when they might have frayed.

My brother, Robert, had always been my strongest family connection, the one who grounded me during the whirl of my college years in Wisconsin and my early career in New York.

His death nearly cut me loose again. After my family—which includes 11 first cousins (with Robert, we’d been an even dozen)—learned of the pregnancy, I drew closer. My mother especially but certainly the larger family too have been babysitters, cheerleaders, support network, reality check, and, when needed, gentle critics.

We’re going to many bar and bat mitzvahs now as my cousins’ offspring have reached that milestone. Each occasion is fun, joyous, and different. All of the time spent with his many cousins gives Reid the feeling of being not quite an only child. We recently drove to Philadelphia for my cousin Linda’s youngest son’s bar mitzvah. Joshua is a particularly small 13-year-old and had to stand on a large block to reach the Torah for his reading. He also has Down syndrome and, thanks to careful tutelage and a strong will, had memorized the Hebrew in advance.

Watching Reid congratulate his cousin Josh after the event—a gentle giant towering over the young bar mitzvah—I saw someone who was nearly a man able to reach down and give someone a much-deserved boost.

My advice to women is to do it. Do it because one day there may be an adult there.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 04/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles