The Makeshift Years

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:

  • Impatience is a virtue. It helps you get chores done quickly. 
  • Worry is precaution.
  • If you predict bad outcomes, you’ll have spare solutions stockpiled.
  • Wait, wait. We’re almost at the palace. It’s not midnight. Something good will happen. (This began as an ironic aside but, after long repetition, turned sincere.)


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 & Schus­ter, 1998) and Sham­bles (SMU Press, 2004); and two mem­oirs, On the Out­skirts of Nor­mal (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press, 2010) and My Unsen­ti­men­tal Edu­ca­tion (The Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press, 2015). She is the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Con­tem­po­rary Cre­ative Non­fic­tion. Her essays have appeared in many venues, includ­ing Lon­greads, The South­ern Review, The New York Times, The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Guer­ni­ca, and The Rum­pus.