For All The Single Ladies. And Men. And Future Helicopter Pilots
We are a family that takes a lot of summer road trips, so it’s a nice bookend to this one to have taken a road trip Labor Day weekend. No, not to relax by the lake in a sleepy Midwestern town. Not even to relax by the lake in a cheesy tourist town, but to shuttle my son to yet another adventure. This time, to finish up his open water diving and become scuba certified. Which entails, for his sister and me, a number of hours sitting at the edge of the quarry playing gin rummy. And making sure she stays out of the sun because she has become obsessed with Twilight (I know I am a terrible mother and I let her read these awful books and see the movies too), and now she wants pale skin to be closer to her true love, Edward. But that’s another blog. Or maybe not…we’ll see how this one turns out.
Anyway — road trip. Well, we make the best of it — it’s down to a science. Three songs for one kid (Taylor Swift and Adele are usual favorites with the daughter) and three songs for the son (maybe a little Africa by Toto, maybe some 90s grunge rock or Journey). Also, A LOT of talking.
Below is a transcript of an actual conversation on this road trip.
(General talk about “what do you want to be when you grow up.”)
Daughter: I’ve changed from cardiothoracic surgeon to general surgery
Son: You watch too much Grey’s Anatomy
Daughter: Well, what do you want to be?
Son: Either a Green Beret, a helicoptor pilot in the army, or a jet fighter pilot
Daughter (incredulous): Why does everything you want to do risk your death? Mom! How can you support this?
Me: Well, it’s not easy for me to support it. But if this is what makes him feel that his life is fulfilling and interesting, then I have to.
Daughter: How did this even start?!?
Me: I remember exactly when it started…when your brother read Hatchet at the end of 3rd grade. (Side note — Hatchet is a great book! Also, this is when I had more control over what my kids read.)
Daughter: I wish he’d never read that! I wish I could go back in time and make it so he never read it.
Son: Then you may as well have castrated me.
The END. (Though I wish I would have thought to say to my daughter, ‘that’s how I feel about you reading Twilight.)
I shared this story with my best friend of 30 years and she laughed and said, “How dramatic.” And it’s true that living with two young teen/ pre-teens is kind of dramatic.
But what it got me thinking deeply about are ways that my son and I are alike. About what it means to live the life you want, what it means to live freely. Is it an essential part of all of us to want personal freedom and is that on a continuum depending on how you’re wired? And what are good and not so good reasons to curtail our personal freedom.
I remember seeing a piece of folk art that I loved when my son was a toddler. These were the days of ear infections and waking up multiple times in the night for bad dreams or to comfort him with his ears. The piece of art was a Day of the Dead sculpture — a man and a woman skeleton, dressed in colorful, traditional Mexican clothing embracing, kissing — she was dipped back as if dancing. The whole scene was depicted in a jail cell and the caption said “el amor es una prision.” Love is a prison. And I remember thinking, “yep.”
Being in relationship with other people, whether familial or romantic or professional or friendship does come with some responsibilities for and toward those other people. But what are the bound of that and who defines it?
I know my son loves me and he loves his sister. Does that require him to give up his dreams of honor, adventure, glory so that we will feel safer or our minds will be at ease? What if I put that pressure on him? Would that be love?
And that’s what this post is really about — the beginning of an exploration on the connection between love and freedom.
This translates for me pointedly right now as I began to dip my toe into the water of dating after divorce. Being ‘single’ is a state of being ‘free’ in some sense — a felt measure of being different as an adult in our society (though I am reading that just under half of adults are unmarried). As a single person, I am coming face to face with how I relate to a certain kind of freedom. Growing up female, there are many overt and covert messages that being connected in a romantic relationship or marriage makes you safer in the world and a more legitimate person. (I knew I could bring it back to Twilight!). But aside from the social notions, in my work, I have often heard widows say that they felt ‘untethered’ in a negative, free floating, scary way after the death of their husbands. I myself felt that way at times at the end of my marriage.
Yet, in my singledom, I am also reacquainting myself with another part of me, a part I hadn’t truly felt since I was a kid.
A funny thing about me is that I spent a couple years of elementary school going to the library at recess rather than going out to play. It was never a big deal to anyone, including me, my friends and teachers. It wasn’t about being socially rejected or rejecting others, it was just my preference. I didn’t like the stuff the kids played and I didn’t like feeling obligated to certain friends/groups, so I just took myself out of the situation and some great memories are the books I read, like The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and no joke — Born Free by Joy Addams.
And as I continue to think about it, I am interested in other choices I’ve made in my life that reflect a preference for independence…I am self-employed, I participate in individual sports like running, rather than team sports. I am a writer, which means that something I do for fun is sit a number of hours and think about how to use words to tell stories or write poems.
When I was married, I rarely considered whether I had a need for independence or what freedom meant to me. I think that was partially my particular marriage, partially the way I was brought up, and partially the time of life I was in — with young kids, freedom can seem laughable.
But I am in a stage of life where I have more choices. I look at my kids and I am in awe of all the choices before them. What language do you want to take? What sport do you want to focus on? Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to get married? Do you want to have kids? What songs do you like to listen to on road trips?
I want them to be free to make the choices that are theirs, not socially prescribed or overly-pressured by norms.
When you find yourself divorced at mid-life, one of the things many people say to you is, “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone again.” Or, “You’re still so young, you won’t be alone forever.” It feels kind of scary — like the story of the world for you is that you will only live a fulfilled life if you are attached in this way. But this is also the world’s way of loving you like an overprotective mom — “I love you so much, I don’t want you to be alone.” “I love you so much I don’t want you to go into the military.” Basically, the same thing.
Yet, in the beginning, it wasn’t only pressure from others. Some of my friends can attest to my own moments when I first knew my marriage was ending — those untethered moments when I asked, “Do you think I’ll ever be loved? Do you think I’ll ever love someone else again?” As time goes on, “Will I ever find love?” doesn’t seem like the right question.
To me, though I’m looking at it through the lens of being single in a married world, I think the questions are deep and important for all people — in what ways do I live the life I want? If I am living for someone else or by others’ expectations, why am I doing that? Do I want to keep doing it? What choices might I make so that my life feels like it belongs to me? What choices will feel more true to myself?
I am delighted for my kids for the smorgasbord of choices ahead, and my deepest hope is that life has given them the freedom to explore and learn who they are and honor who they are by choices that reflect that. And change when and if they need or want to change. We don’t have to be the same way always.
That is the life I am building for myself too. And anymore, I don’t take on the role of my own overprotective mother. I am having adventures, like my son. I am appreciating my choices. I am trying my best to be loving to myself and also to others. I am being true to me. I turn 45 in a couple days. And you know what? It doesn’t feel scary, it feels good.