Everything in sight is the color of perilous loneliness. The water you flounder in is the black ink writing a life unexpected. The sky above you sinks below the surface of hope, at the rate of inevitable submersion. All sound is cancelled by a terrortinged voice screaming inside, a voice no one is around to hear. Each breath you take gets more desperate and weaker than the last. Keeping your head above water demands a lifesaving energy sapped by every thought and movement to keep moving. Gulps of dire end choke you. The fluid of submission gushes up your nose, filling your lungs. It's a terrifying reality. You're drowning. Then you wake up. Panicked breaths reassure you that you are still alive. It was just a dream.
Thousands, if not millions of women and men live this "dream", a second by second sensory nightmare that is their reality. They are caught in an unrelenting riptide that drags them away from the shoreline of exceptional normalcy that is the oasis of those who outnumber them. They are solo parents.
I recognize them, from time to time, in the mirror of my own experience. We have a shared expression of identity, one best described by a line from a Saul Williams poem: "I've got my back against a brick wall and there's a Mack truck two inches from my face." We know the look.
Life, for us, is an all day agitation to address every emotional, psychological, physical, social, educational and entertainment need of our children's lives: a conflicted and confounding performance to always tender the untainted smile from an insolvent soul; to give the comforting cuddle from arms unable to soothe the anxieties within; to speak with words sanitized by a scrutiny to never allow misery to articulate blame onto their existence.
It is a constant crisis between things we absolutely have to do and things we absolutely have to do now: a triage of responsibilities, incidents, accidents, duties and desires that must never have an excuse for not being diagnosed, treated and remedied. But one thing remains undiagnosed, untreated and uncured. Sleep. To call it deprivation would insult the demoralization it inflicts a symptom compounded by every need of every child you have to do for.
It is a no chance to cry, no time to die existence that is not relieved by the coparenting assistance enjoyed by single parents; that is not rehabilitated by the healing moments of friendship and leisure that repair psychic traumas and broken wills; that is not renewed by the solitude of silent composure bestowed upon a worry-free mind.
It is an unrewarded longing for the one thing we desire more than any other, time: a moment free from preoccupation; a minute that slows the deluge of decisions to the trickle of reflection; an hour that reacquaints us with who we once were, and reminds us of who we still long to be; a day that resuscitates us with the air of appreciation and gratitude that having our children breathes into our reason for living.
"How do I survive?" For the solo parent, this is not a rhetorical question meant to mock the demands, difficulties and disappointments confronting parents of all types. It is the dilemma we must provide the unanswerable answer to hundreds of times a day, at the risk of one failure sentencing our children to a lifetime of irreversible consequence, and us to a lifetime of condemning judgment, self inflicted and socially imposed.
Solo parents. We exist in numbers large enough to be identified. It will take announcing our identity, not as a clamoring class seeking exceptional acknowledgement and special status as applause worthy victims. But instead, in an effort to develop a supporting community, a network of camaraderie to find the cherished consolation needed to continue when we see no way to. I hope we find the time.
This past birthday my eldest called me and said, "Feliz Cumplanos. Thanks for always being at your best for much more time than anybody ever should have to."
My head remains above water.