Rachel Sarah never set out to be a single mom. But when she got pregnant at age 27, she and her boyfriend decided to start a family. All was going smoothly until her daughter Mae was seven months old, when her boyfriend vanished. While living in New York, Sarah tried to navigate her new world, figuring out who needed a man more in her life⎯her or Mae. She goes on her first blind date, makes it through 9/11, and has sporadic contact with her ex. She juggles finding herself like any twentysomething with setting an example for her daughter.
In her new memoir, Single Mom Seeking: Playdates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World, Sarah, a 33-year-old half-Jewish freelance writer, explores the many issues she’s dealt with as a single mom, from adjusting to being a parent to trying to date by any means necessary. She openly writes about her loneliness and the shock of going from being part of a partnership to being woman in charge of two lives, displaying a vulnerability that’s profound and moving:
My life as a single mom feels like sitting on one end of a teeter-totter, holding my baby tightly. We’re weighed down and heavy, smack against the ground. But there’s no one on the other side. I wish I had a man there, keeping us balanced.
As the daughter of a single mother, I found Sarah’s take enlightening and touching. In telling her story, she stands up for her right to a sex life, while also making it clear that motherhood changed her dating m.o. She's not ashamed of her body and resists those who try to tell her that single moms don't deserve to date, while also carving out her own comfort zone when it comes to sex and dating, learning by trial and error what feels right and what doesn't. More than just a cataloging of bad dates, Single Mom Seeking explores the very real issues that cropped up for her along the way, as well as the support system she’s drawn from, largely in the form of her father and two best friends, who are also single moms, in her current home of Berkeley, California. I got to meet Sarah over cupcakes in Berkeley last month, and she seemed easily able to juggle talk of writing with checking up on a play date. I emailed her to pick her brain and find out about her reality as a single mom. Also, Rachel Sarah’s coming to New York! She’ll be reading at In The Flesh’s Erotic Memoir Night on January 17th along with Susan Shapiro, Gael Greene, Grant Stoddard, and others (Happy Ending Lounge, 302 Broome Street, 8 pm, FREE).
When did you decide to write the book, and why? How long did it take you, and is there anything you originally had in the book that you wound up taking out?
As one of the founding editors of Literary Mama, I began writing a column about dating as a single mom. (In 2003, I was the only single mom writer on the site; now, there are a number of us!)
The idea to write Single Mom Seeking came after I searched high and low for a first-person dating memoir from a single mom⎯and came up dry. There are quite a few self-help guides for single moms who are dating, but I wanted to read the real stuff.
It took me an intense six months to write.
Re: anything that I originally had in the book that I wound up taking out? Great question, Rachel!
Many chunks were cut from my first draft, but here's a funny anecdote:
One of the moms from my daughter's preschool offered to set me up on a blind date with this nice Jewish lawyer who worked in her firm. On our first date, he confessed that he'd Googled me and had to come clean about something: last summer, he'd met my Seal Press editor, Jill Rothenberg, online and they'd dated, too!
Why do you think there's been a backlash against the idea that a single mom can have a happy dating life?
I think that some men feel threatened by the fact that women are having children on their own⎯and on top of that, they're having a blast dating! Maybe it's a blow to their egos.
But why does society still bash single moms? I've been called "pathetic" and "a loser." I've been told that I should've had an abortion.
I think that J.K. Rowling⎯Harry Potter author-extraordinaire and a single mother!⎯says it very well in a Guardian interview:
"It's this universal human desire we have through history: if we demonize them, we don't have to help them. It's much easier for certain sections of society to say, 'You've brought this on yourself by your fecklessness; you sort it out,' than to say, 'You've been a victim of circumstances,' or 'Hey, marriages break up ... but how are we going to help you help yourself?'
One of the criticisms was that you brought on your situation yourself by dating and later conceiving a child with your ex, who turned out to be bipolar and an alcoholic. Do you think there's also an element of racism there because he's African-American?
Good point, Rachel. I've wondered about that. I'm grateful that today my daughter has a number of African-American fathers⎯her friends' dads⎯who are super-loving and devoted. She carpools with one of these dads every week, a warm, gracious Oakland firefighter.
You talk in the introduction about going from "Mom" to "Single Mom Seeking," and the differing expectations between those roles. Did you have to mentally shake the "mom" part of you off to feel sexy on your dates? In what ways have you managed to combine the two roles?
Oh, but motherhood is so sexy! Have you seen the naked breasts of a lactating woman? It doesn't get any better than that.
But really, on a date I would sometimes test myself to see how long I could go without mentioning my daughter. Five minutes, tops. My daughter is such an integral part of who I am, there's no shaking her. After a really bad date, she was always the best pick-me-up.
You had a mixed experience with online dating, especially Jdate. Was it easier in the sense that you could be up-front about being a single mom? Would you recommend online dating to other single moms?
Many single moms take the opposite approach that I did: they do not tell the guy that you have a kid, thinking that they'll be pre-judged. I've always been the type who reveals too much up front.
I recommend online dating to any single who wants to learn how to date. Dating really is a skill. (I finally got that when I turned 30.) You've got to learn how to scout for appropriate men and how to screen them. On top of that, you've got to have clear boundaries and know how to reject and be rejected.
In both the chapter "Whose Your Daddy?" and throughout the book, you bring up the idea that since her father left when she was very young, your daughter's been looking for a father figure. How did that need play out in your search for a boyfriend? Did it change the qualities you were looking for in men from when you were single?
Thanks to my Dad for taking the pressure off! We moved to the Bay Area just after my daughter's second birthday⎯and her longing for a father figure seemed to end with her grandpa. She actually called him "Pa" for a long time because "Grandpa" was too long.
When my daughter started preschool, the fathers of her friends stepped in to love her, too. So, my search for Mr. Right was not a desperate one.
As a mom, at last I was clear about my requirements, like being with a financially responsible family man who was also nurturing and addiction-free. Sure, a father figure would be nice in the long run, but that wasn't fueling my hunt.
Another major switch is your move from New York, where you lived in your early and mid-20s, to the Bay Area, where you're from, to be closer to your father and to be in more comfortable surroundings. Is it easier to be a single mom in Berkeley?
I love Berkeley. Aside from the high cost of living here, the Bay Area is the ideal place to be a single parent. In NYC, when I walked around with my beautiful coffee-skinned baby in my arms, strangers would stop me and ask, "Where is she from?" And, "Where did you adopt her?"
I'd point to my belly and say, "She came from here."
No one in Berkeley makes such judgments.
You're half-Jewish, and you have your first date with a Jewish guy at age 32. Did being a mom make you more open to the idea of dating a Jewish guy? Did dating Jewish guys help debunk any myths you may have had about Jewish guys?
Jewish guys really do bring home the bacon! I think that Judaism does a good job of instilling values of family, loyalty, and responsibility. Those qualities are quite attractive when you're dating as a single mom.
Most Jewish-American guys, however, still feel like long lost cousins to me. I've always been drawn to men who are totally different from me. So, while I ended up with a nice Jewish man, he's still an Israeli kibbutznik.
You're starting a support group for other single parents in your area. How is that going, and why did you feel the need for one? You talk a lot in the book about the support of your two closest friends, so I'm also curious about how the support group discussions are similar and differ from the advice you get from those friends.
I just finished leading another amazing single parents' support group in Oakland. While the kids played, we ate pizza and talked; these parents are super-supportive and open. That's so vital when you're a single parent. If you're in the Bay Area, my co-facilitator, the single dad of four kids, has just started a new group, Single Parents Rock. Check it out!
When I'm with my single mom friends⎯we cook dinner once a week for "Girls' Night"⎯we talk a whole lot more about sex . . .
I recently met a Bay Area woman who's a single mom by choice. Have you connected with any single moms by choice and do you think the circumstances⎯by choice or happenstance⎯matter when it comes to the reality of being a single mom?
The challenges of being a single mom are the same across the board. What I've heard divorced/separating single moms tell single-moms-by-choice, however, is: "You are so lucky that you don't have to deal with a #@% ex!"
Having the time and energy to focus on your child⎯without fighting any legal battles in court⎯is really a blessing. If you are thinking about becoming a single-mom-by-choice, I highly recommend this book by Mikki Morrissette called Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Women's Guide.
You recently wrote an essay about your own mom for The Christian Science Monitor. How has your relationship with her changed since you became a mom? Do you relate to her better?
At last, I've learned how to mother myself. I've accepted that my Mom is off on her own post-kid adventure, teaching English in Morocco and having her own adventure. She recently learned how to use email, so that's helping us stay in touch. She hasn't read Single Mom Seeking yet. I hope we're still on speaking terms.
Your father, who plays a major role once you return to the Bay Area in terms of babysitting, is a big part of your and Mae's life. Have you two become closer since you've had Mae?
I tell people that my 68-year-old Dad is your typical Jewish mother caught inside a man's body. We've been on quite a journey. Our conflicts used to be so severe that we'd go for months without speaking to each other. No more.
Everything took a turn when I became a single mom. He retired, which calmed him down a lot. And I finally let down my guard and learned how to appreciate him. He has given my daughter what her biological father has never been able to. Thanks Dad.
Does your daughter, Mae, know you wrote the book and what have you told her about it?
As I write this, my daughter is autographing copies to give to her friends. I say: "Honey, I should really ask their mommies if that's okay⎯"
I asked her just now, "So, what do you think about the fact that I wrote about you in this book?"
Her reply: "Did you say anything bad at me?"
Your credit Mae in your dedication for teaching you "not to settle." What does that mean?
Boy, did that girl teach me how to grow up!
Thanks to her, for the first time in my life, I wrote down my requirements for a relationship⎯and stuck to them.
What's happened in your life since you finished the book, which ends with you dating an Israeli man?
My daughter and I lived in an estrogen-rich environment for six years⎯and then the man came along. We all moved in together this summer.
He adopted a dog right before the big move. He likes to brag that he got the instant-family he wanted, dog included.
I just tell everyone: "We both came into this relationship with a daughter."
What's next for you?
I'm now shopping around my Book No. 2: And Boyfriend Makes Three, about this delicious chaotic mess known as "the blended family."
Single Mom Seeking: Playdates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World (Seal Press/Avalon, December '06) is out now, and you can find out more about Rachel Sarah at her website, www.singlemomseeking.com and blog.
Labels: In The Flesh Reading Series