Nonfiction / Debra Monroe
:: The Makeshift Years ::
For ten years I was a single parent, not the first, last, nor only. Because I adopted, my ideas, my house, my character, and my income were assessed in advance by experts. I planned ahead for likely setbacks, and the adoption agency doublechecked. Preemptive problem-solving is a skill and a tic. On one hand, it’s planning, and planning helps. On the other, no one can anticipate all future bad luck or glaring miscalculations always so obvious after the fact. Still, as I waited for my baby, I envisioned upcoming hurdles: my worrying and readying, and rushes of elation as I’d clear them. I’ve daydreamed like this since I can remember, with hope or hubris or willed faith in my ability to spot looming pitfalls.
The elementary school principal later said: “No ex-husband, no grandma, no aunt, not even an uncle?” My extended family was geographically afar. I visited rarely and called often. Geographically afar worked: unfixable history and latent eruptions, even by phone. So I began as a mother who hoped to forestall all problems and then noticed my daughter was emerging into consciousness with the idea that, if push came to shove, no one else would love her, feed her, and save her. She asked often about her contingency plan.
She was sick when she was little, which I did foresee, that a child might have special needs. Hers were appointments with medical specialists in a city an hour away. But a problem I didn’t foresee was that I would get sick. One day she was wearing cozy pajamas and watching TV. I lay on the couch, wondering why nurses rushed me when I phoned to say I hadn’t recovered from surgery yet. My daughter said, “How will Aunt Cindy”—a friend in Florida, and we lived in Texas—“know to come on a plane and get me?”
I thought: some fantasy about going to Disneyworld?
“When you die,” she said. She’d arranged her expression to convey that she needed this information but knew I was overextended. I’d traveled to my mother’s funeral. The mother of a sitter had died a good death at home in the room near the room where my daughter napped and played. “I’m not dying,” I said, ignoring my post-op malaise.
Caregivers had a finite interest in her. They worried about their own children, their own mothers. None were terrible, though one seventeen-year-old had bulimia. I could tell by the candy wrappers and the state of the bathroom. I wondered whether to tell her mother, whom I’d first met when the mother was a childcare worker at a Methodist Church program called Mother’s Day Out, which I’d used for daycare when my daughter was two. You left your child there—Tuesdays, Thursdays, nine to three, steep fines if you’re late for pickup—to relax or shop. The childcare worker who turned out to be the sitter’s mother told me she knew by my clothes I was going to work at the university in the college town a half-hour away. I couldn’t use daycares there. My hours were erratic, midday classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, also a Thursday night class requiring a second arrangement.
“The church board is strict,” she said. “Be discreet.”
I nodded and tried to seem on the verge of shopping.
This was another problem I’d failed to foresee. I owned a small house near a visually appealing village with a low cost of living, but it had just one daycare center that everyone described as dodgy, in a pole barn between the dancehall and auto body shop. Social workers must have assumed I’d devise childcare. I did. Here are maxims I lived by:
When at last my daughter was enrolled in all-day kindergarten, I needed just one sitter one night a week for night class. I said this when I ran across the Mother’s Day Out childcare worker, who first told me I should put my daughter in Saturday morning ballet classes in the city an hour away, expensive yet excellent classes she’d heard. Surely I wasn’t working on Saturday mornings? Then she said I should hire her daughter who had a car.
I hired the daughter and discovered the bulimia. My habit of misgiving tumbled onto a new question: Was it my place to tell the sitter’s mother about the bulimia? Telling the mother might be wrong, thankless. This was an etiquette question, I realized. Etiquette is about conveying difficult facts kindly. Next I had to fire the sitter for not picking up my daughter—leaving my daughter’s small, dear self at the top of a hill where the school bus dropped her. One of my neighbors’ other neighbors, called Crabby Old Man, but never to his face, drove her back to school where the principal called me at work, and I rushed out of a seminar in which I let students keep their cell phones on, a new gadget then, because I couldn’t object to theirs if, alert to predicaments, I kept mine on.
After I found a new sitter, I found myself oddly missing the previous nonurgent question of whether I should tell the sitter’s mother her daughter wasn’t okay. Next I pondered why I’d found the question mildly intriguing. I’d rolled it over in my mind as I drove to and from work, as I vacuumed and folded laundry, as I’d answered my daughter’s questions about who made the sky and were animals people, as I’d helped her with her kindergarten homework, easy, fun, the two of us pasting feathers onto a drawing of a turkey for Thanksgiving or reading aloud a list of seasonal words as I quelled panic about how supervising her homework would get harder in years ahead, taking up more focus.
I probably never would have found the spare courage to tell the sitter’s mother about her daughter’s eating disorder, which was concerning. A red flag about the sitter’s well-being. A red flag about the sitter’s fitness. Something to keep an eye on. But not a firing offense, not yet, I must have decided, coming home from teaching at ten p.m. to empty the wastebaskets and clean the bathroom. Problem-solving in a pros-versus-cons way had turned reflexive. Thinking about someone else’s problem, hard for them but easier for me, had felt like a pastime. Mother’s Day Out had the right idea—I needed to relax. But any new pastime had to overlap with time I’d spend with my child. Maybe gardening?
The next sitter picked up my daughter right at the school, along with the sitter’s daughter who was the same age, and at ten p.m. I’d drive to this sitter’s, heading north off my route home, otherwise western, then south again home, twenty extra miles but just one night a week. This sitter was affectionate, big-hearted, with a dry sense of humor, but she’d just begun taking an antidepressant, the first rough weeks of adjusting to a drug. When I knocked on the door to pick up my daughter, this sitter was disturbingly hard to wake.
Don’t worry about keeping my sitters straight. Think of them as members of a fractious Greek chorus, contradicting each other while letting spill with advice derived from their circumstances, different from mine. But I had to prize them as individuals since I needed them to prize my daughter. I didn’t treat them as interchangeable as they interchanged.
I slept lightly and woke often, and my dreams were as busy as action movies. I’d be driving home but couldn’t decipher the infinitely branching roads just beyond the windshield. Or I was in an unfamiliar city, wide expressways crisscrossing before me like lines in an M. C. Escher lithograph. In one dream, my car wouldn’t start. So I stole a motorcycle, kickstarted it, and sped off, one hand steadying the baby draped over the gas tank. I woke, relieved to find myself in bed, my child asleep, nowhere I had to be for two hours.
Linear time was my roadmap. Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday (different due to night class), Friday again. Saturday and Sunday unstructured but full of to-dos. Weekdays, seven a.m., eight, nine, ten … Starting at four p.m. on weekdays except Thursdays: meet the school bus, fix a snack, see to homework, chat happily, fix dinner. We ate. She bathed. For TV, she liked physical comedy, extravagant pratfalls. I’d be in the next room, washing dishes, and hear her helpless with laughter, chortling. On weeknights, America’s Funniest Home Videos. Saturday, British comedies like Fawlty Towers.
I now see that, despite daily progress—the clock mapping my day, the calendar mapping my week and, zooming out for a disorienting minute, my month—I’d get stuck. Any intersection with a forking set of options, with more than one way forward, possibly two, three, or four, all potentially the right or wrong way, unsettled me. Friendly landmarks looked strange. I mean those talisman-like assurances of routine like the yellow school bus coming on time in the afternoon, the alarm clock’s reliable beep every morning, Arthur switching to PBS NewsHour my cue for dinner prep. When new factors forced me to change my navigation, these talisman-like markers marked a now-obsolete route.
When my daughter had asked how Aunt Cindy would know to come and get her, I wondered if not feeling well was psychosomatic, as the surgeon’s nurses on the phone implied. They had responsibilities too, long lists of patient calls to return. They’d say “everyone has pain,” and I’d say “three weeks later and I have a fever,” and they’d say “but not a high fever,” also “so make an appointment.” I had made an appointment ten days earlier, which required the afterschool sitter a second time that week, and I’d used one of my at-home days when I should have graded papers to drive into the city to the surgeon’s.
If my daughter rode the bus in the afternoon, I had forty more minutes to work; if I drove her to school in the morning, I had forty more minutes to sleep. I drove her to school the next morning and, infused with caffeine, social reserve not yet operational, I spoke to someone else as if to myself. After delivering my daughter into the classroom, I walked to the parking lot beside a father I knew from village gatherings, our kids in slippery herds around us in Halloween costumes or bib tags for field day, clamoring about cupcakes, hot dogs. Most dads avoided me, single by choice. Mothers were curious. One said, “I have friends who are single mothers and they don’t endanger their kids, but they’re so busy they forget to turn on the old mental camcorder. They miss the fun.”
As the pleasant dad and I unlocked our cars, I said, “I had a surgery almost a month ago and don’t feel better.” He got a look on his face like a good husband would get. I eventually had a good husband so that’s how I know. But he wasn’t my husband. We’d chatted as he dropped off and picked up kids because his job was nearby and his wife’s wasn’t. I was wearing a sweatsuit. It was a cold day, so I’d thrown on my warmest coat, fake-fur, knee-length. Paired with stylish but understated clothes, with my hair washed and makeup applied, it could be an interesting fashion statement. He looked at my face, my wild eyes. My hair was wild too. I know because a few seconds later I got in my car and flipped down the visor mirror. “Maybe talk to a doctor,” he said, backing away.
I drove to the village doctor’s.
I said to the receptionist, “The doctor referred me to have a surgery three weeks ago, and I never got well.” She told me to sit down as other patients arrived. Then a nurse took me to a room and returned with the doctor who said he’d do a field test since lab test results wouldn’t come back in time. He’d place a finger on each side of my cervix, deep to the lateral fornix with pressure towards the anterior abdomen, while using his other hand to apply external pressure to the pubic bones in the center of the pelvis while watching for the chandelier sign, as textbooks call it, wherein if the patient has a post-op infection she shrieks and reaches for an imaginary chandelier, he said, as I shrieked while reaching.
The nurse drew blood for a white blood cell count, which the doctor completed in his tiny onsite lab. He wrote a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic. He said: “I know you’re a single parent. Make childcare arrangements.” He explained I’d come back for another test in the morning. If the count stayed the same or went up, he’d check me into a hospital in the city or college town. “If this infection is resistant, time is not on our side.”
I called the big-hearted, sardonic sitter and asked, if need be, she could watch my daughter. I called the sitter I’d used a few years before, JoAnn, whose mother had died a good death, for a second layer of my daughter’s safety net. Or third; I was first. JoAnn hadn’t worked since her mother died but said to give her number to the other sitter in case the other sitter had a conflict. My next white blood cell count was lower. But, the nurse said, if over the weekend I had vertigo, a spike in fever, changes in vision, I’d go to the ER. On Sunday my daughter and I stood in line picking up breakfast tacos, and we saw this nurse again. She put her wrist on my forehead. “No fever. I figured. You look almost peppy.”
Another problem I didn’t foresee was that since my schedule required not just daycare but, once a week, nightcare, which isn’t a thing, my nighttime sitters would be hard to find and unreliable because a job so intermittent is a sideline. I asked to switch this class to daytime but my supervisor, due to a blind spot or preternaturally rigid managerial style, said no. When I made the request over his head, he changed my schedule to make it harder.
Who can find a virtuous woman? Her price is beyond rubies. Proverbs 31:10. That’s about a wife, though. At first, I’d found my sitter named JoAnn. I worked at home when I could, and when I couldn’t, I left my daughter at JoAnn’s, her house eight miles away, but I found a semi-shortcut, impassable in wet weather, from JoAnn’s house to the college town, and my daughter was still a babe in arms, easy to carry. When she was one, I used Mother’s Day Out to give JoAnn time off, JoAnn’s Day Off. Mother’s Day Out was also said to be good for the child’s socialization. I still used JoAnn for night class. When my daughter was two and three, I used JoAnn a few days a week and for my night class.
JoAnn’s caring was a low-key miracle that lasted until it didn’t. True, she argued about giving my daughter one of her medications. It made her heart beat too fast, JoAnn felt. I took my daughter back to the specialist who said my daughter’s heart rate was fine, that “some agitation is unavoidable,” and “this medication is vital.” JoAnn still said no, she wasn’t giving a baby speedy medicine through a plastic mask like a gas mask. One day a week, my daughter missed a dose, which the doctor okayed. He said: “I take it this is the grandma.” JoAnn also noted my daughter’s food allergies and cooked and pureed, reporting foods my daughter loved. My daughter loved JoAnn, calling out in baby patois: OJann!
But after JoAnn’s mother died, JoAnn was bone-tired. People get this way after a hard stretch of weeks, months, years. Not during. So for one year, the year my daughter was four, before kindergarten, which I relied on to go to work, along with the bulimic sitter and her successor the sardonic sitter, I used a Baptist preschool, eighteen-miles round trip, thirty-six extra miles every day. For night class, I hired a graduate student who ended up having absenteeism and, to replace her, an undergraduate with stellar references who one day stopped coming. So I called JoAnn, who finished out that semester, my night classes.
JoAnn said years later it had been hard to watch me make plans. Triggering, as we say now. She’d been a single mother. “I don’t assume childcare will fall through,” she said, “but it can.” When it did, my week stalled, broken until fixed. JoAnn’s parenthood hadn’t had the pre-supervision mine did, the interviews with social workers and pre-adoption checklists creating false confidence, no stone unturned. I turned over stones for years.
One night during the year before kindergarten—so the year I used the Baptist preschool, before I fired the graduate student with absenteeism, not a firing offense yet, I’d so far decided, finding substitutes, asking her to please not cancel again—the phone rang, my new stepfather. My mother was in the ICU. My experience with extended family didn’t match the advice I got from the Baptist preschool workers. They weren’t my friends, as one of them, not even a supervisor, said. She was a single mother who worked at the preschool to be near her son. “Don’t be friendly,” she said in a tense, puzzling whisper.
But I’d told one childcare worker, who’d said I looked tired, that my mother was in the ICU, and she’d told the others. Advice based on the advice-giver’s circumstance materialized. For context, I recounted a condensed version of my circumstance. People said: Still! Go see her or you’ll feel everlasting regret! The sitter I hadn’t fired—I liked her but couldn’t count on her—was close to her mother and told me she’d reserved cheap plane tickets for me, “bereavement fare,” which was a thing then. I just had to confirm them.
My mother had been married less than a year, her third marriage. Her first, to my alcoholic father, had lasted twenty-odd years. Her second, to an obscenely violent man, lasted another twenty years. He was violent to everyone, so I’d stopped visiting out of concern for my safety, though I remained concerned for hers, and, yes, I did advise her to leave him, but she never did. Then he died, lucky break, and she married an apparently pleasant man. When I met him and his grown children at the wedding, they seemed nice. Eight months later I flew to see her in the ICU because I hoped not to feel regret, and she died unexpectedly while I was on my way, while I was on a plane reading a book by Dave Eggers. As we planned her funeral, her husband and his grown children still seemed nice.
But I’d dithered before traveling because racing to and from Oregon with a four-year-old sounded hard. This decision was another fork in the road with optional routes into the future. Who would watch my daughter? The graduate student who’d so far canceled every other week wasn’t good at routines, but she loved emergencies. She offered to stay overnight with my daughter one night. JoAnn took a few days. Two childcare workers from the Baptist preschool, younger than me, the age of aunts, each volunteered for an overnight. People passed my daughter around, dropped her off, picked her up.
The short trip to see my mother in the ICU to preempt regret turned into ten days and nights, none of the nights with sleep for me. Even before I left, I hadn’t slept, deciding to stay, go, speculating how my mother’s death at some far-off future point might be hard to process. The night before I traveled I didn’t sleep, typical, not sleeping the night before travel, nor during, the unfamiliar bed, lights, noises. Choosing a coffin and burial clothes, writing a eulogy, delivering it, good manners by day, grief at night—my brain ran on high, making new neural paths to register that my mother, locus of love and regret, was dead.
I assumed a return to my bed, my neighbor’s dusk-to-dawn yard light making familiar squares on my bedroom walls, would relax me. When I got home, a Baptist preschool worker said, “Someone is glad to see you!” My daughter’s face was a mix of glee and terror. I put her to bed. I got into bed. I couldn’t have slept forty minutes when she shook me awake. All night, all week, all month. Weeks into these multiple shakings-awake per night, I wasn’t sleepy, just dull-witted and, once I bestirred myself, robotically coherent.
A Baptist preschool worker advised me to let my daughter sleep in my bed, but neither of us slept. I called JoAnn, who said to put a pallet in my room, show it to my daughter, and tell her if she went to bed in her room and woke she could move there only if she didn’t wake me. I went to REI in the college town and bought a pallet. A year later, during kindergarten, she was still moving to the pallet—during the months I fell ill, during the lead-up to surgery, and afterward, the virulent post-op malaise. She outgrew it, so I went to town and bought a bigger pallet. I’d kiss her goodnight in her own room, breathing deep the scent of child skin, and go to bed alone. I never woke until daytime’s first placid minute. She’d have slipped across the house, to the pallet, under the quilt, to sleep.
I tried moving the pallet a few feet from my bed with the plan to bit-by-bit move it farther from my small room toward hers. But every morning it was tucked back in the rectangular spot near my bed. She kept growing until, rolling over, she’d thump the closet and wake me. I explained this, and she offered to move to the hall outside my room and sleep there on a palliative pallet, thin layer on a hard, cold floor, harder and colder in the hall.
Quitting the pallet always registered as better sleep for both of us in a hypothetical future but a bad night right now, tonight. So I didn’t. To be clear, pallet-reliance wasn’t co-sleeping. Co-sleeping was when my daughter slept in a cradle next to my bed. Co-sleeping was when she was too big for the cradle and moved to a crib in her room, and a baby monitor amplified her small cries and I’d go feed her, falling asleep on her floor, my hand through the crib railing. Before my daughter arrived, a social worker described both bed-sharing and co-sleeping as good for bonding, though not everyone gets enough sleep while bed-sharing, she added. Co-sleeping, with the baby in your room in a playard, was easier. Playard? I’d asked her. Playard is another word for “playpen,” archaic now, bad connotations. The social worker said, “You, if you fall in love, will want privacy.” She pointed out that it would be tricky in a new relationship to have sex only during school or daycare.
When my husband and I first began to date—rare, thrilling, physical encounters, and conversation about childcare that made encounters possible—we emailed. Texting wasn’t a thing yet. I mostly nixed phone calls because, after putting my daughter to bed, I had chores. He had a cleaning service. He and his ex-wife lived near each other, with shared custody and dovetailed schedules. When his son was a baby, they’d had a nanny. One phone call to the agency will replace an unsuitable nanny, as when, for instance, a neighbor informed them their nanny smoked a cigarette in the yard as the baby napped. This couldn’t have been a firing offense for me, I’d have reasoned, thinking that even nonsmokers step outside while a baby is napping. I expressed envy, then self-castigation about my peculiar, extemporized childcare, perfected plans forever foiled, and he added that he and his ex-wife lived in a city with more options and two salaries to pay for options.
The first Saturday I drove into the city to initiate the rare and thrilling physical encounters, I paid the big-hearted, sardonic sitter, who had a daughter my daughter’s age, for my daughter to spend the night, but this sitter was still disturbingly hard to wake. So sooner than planned, then, I was having thrilling encounters frequently and always at my house.
I’d put my daughter to bed, then go to bed with my new boyfriend, who so far seemed unobjectionable. Afterward, I’d open the door, unroll the pallet. “My daughter has separation anxiety since I made a trip to my mother’s funeral,” I explained, leaving out that years had passed. One night as I unrolled the pallet, he said he was afraid of stepping on her when he got up in the night. I told him pallet-reliance was like a tide-you-over sleeping pill, easy to start and hellish to stop. I laughed wildly as I sometimes did when a mother in the village would critique my child maybe in order to check off a developmental milestone for hers, saying, “she’s not walking!?” or “don’t tell me she still naps!?”
He asked for my permission to propose a plan. The next morning he got down on one knee and held my daughter’s hand. “Is there a toy you really want?” For months she’d asked for an expensive pretend-CD player that played pretend-CDs that came with it, four tinny, shouty children’s songs. I objected. She had a real CD player with real CDs, I said. He shook his head no to me. To her, he said, “If you try to sleep one night in your room, I’ll buy it.” She slept all night in her room the first try. She liked this better, she said in the morning, better than the floor. My boyfriend and I sipped coffee. My daughter put a pretend-CD in a plastic box, as a song about a muffin man flooded the kitchen.
What the pre-adoption checklist missed:
Many single parents have extended family or something like it. A job with vaunted “flextime” means improvised childcare. A village is a childcare desert. You can get so reliant on a schedule planned by the day, the hour, the minute, that a small tweak derails you, and you’re bone-tired after, not during.
Post-adoption, your adult daughter won’t care one whit about your retrospective doubts, your belated clarity as you realize years later that the entire plan, prechecked, checked and doublechecked, was flawed, that every week wobbled on the verge of collapse like a house you’d built yourself out of odds and ends creaking and shaking and shuddering at every unexpected gust. She’ll blink and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” And describe instead a garden you once planted, tiny carrots she pulled out too soon; how she followed you with a toy vacuum when you used the big one; something she calls Wine and Popsicle Night; the treehouse you built for her birthday a serene porch high, high in branches.
Every weekday except night-class day, I’d wait in my car for my daughter’s school bus and talk by phone to Aunt Cindy in Florida, her voice via the cell phone tower waves like the voice of a noninterventionist god, consoling but too far-off for material help. JoAnn’s help was practical and nearby. Twenty years later, which is to say last week, she sent me this unexpected message by way of her boyfriend’s social media “chat”:
Debra, this is OJann. I had a dream at dawn about our girl. She lay in my arms. I enjoyed her so much, her sweet face. How precious she was to hold those years ago. When I had this same dream 5 years ago, I ran into her in a restaurant with her friends when I had an errand in the city that day! I’m not going out today so that won’t repeat, but she is in my heart.
Five years earlier my daughter had come home from a restaurant near her high school where she’d gone to eat. She’d heard JoAnn calling her name. They’d hugged hello, smiling.
After I got married and my daughter and I moved to the city, my commute to work was long but no longer spiraling or ever subject to change as it had been in the village, new byways always added, back when I’d be at work in midday and my body, conditioned to mapped blocks of time, shifted into palpable high-alert before I even saw the clock telling me that Mother’s Day Out or the Baptist preschool or the elementary school was ending soon. I’d wrap up my class or meeting, thinking: get in the car and drive. On night-class day, I’d think: sitter, arrive! In the city, my husband picked up my daughter at onsite afterschool care. He made dinner, then supervised homework, getting harder.
A wayward sitter replaced. An illness correctly diagnosed. When my mother died, a distressing gap in childcare filled as I negotiated tangled schedules, conflicting phone messages. I strategized. I made snap decisions about the reliability of the care and caring on offer. Stopgap expediency assembled out of shortages isn’t everyone’s experience. It was mine.
When the seventeen-year-old sitter one afternoon left my daughter alone on a hill, my neighbor the other neighbors called Crabby Old Man saw her and drove her back to school, and the principal called me to come quickly. I knocked on this neighbor’s door to thank him, and he said: “All on your own then?” I had sitters, I said. A few days later as I waited for her bus, he came outside and said he wished for my sake I was married so I’d have help. Then he smiled and said: “I guess you’ve thought of that.” I hadn’t. Despite my penchant for planning to forestall all future glitches, I’d never thought about a helpful husband because I couldn’t problem-solve one into being, nor a life in which I wouldn’t be so tired, a life in which more people than me would love my daughter all day and all night, no strings attached, no caveats, would boundlessly and unlimitedly love her as my husband does now. I was enough, timetabled, adaptive, assessing late-breaking threats, making a plan, my relief surging as reward when I cleared hurdles. I’d have continued to be. But future windfalls are as unexpected as future pitfalls. I got lucky and didn’t have to be.
From the writer
:: Account ::
When I began to write this essay about the dearth of childcare in a small, rural town, I knew its structure wouldn’t be narrative. The story of my life as a single mother was often a story of fused emergencies. Even when I used to write fiction, I felt out of patience with the idea that causality and linear time explain everything. I was walking on trails in woods one day, feeling lost, and I understood that this essay would be about being lost in a zone not adequately mapped by calendars and clocks. While writing, I also read an article about game theory—about how the gamer’s risk-taking is rewarded and perpetuated—and I understood why, back when I was arranging my extemporized and sometimes substandard childcare, I was intermittently and mysteriously elated, adrenaline rush.
Debra Monroe is the author of seven books, including It Takes a Worried Woman: Essays (forthcoming from The University of Georgia Press, 2022) in which this essay will appear. She has also written two story collections, The Source of Trouble (Simon & Schuster, 1990) and A Wild, Cold State (Simon & Schuster, 1995); two novels, Newfangled (Simon &