It is 4:54 p.m. on a bleak Wednesday in November. I’m walking back home after hiking to the lake down the road, an audiobook in my ears to protect me from the sound of my own breathing. I think about what I’ll eat for dinner. There’s one portion of pizza dough in the fridge, plus some mushrooms and spinach and shredded cheese — and I think the pesto is still okay. Or I could eat Mini Wheats. Or drive the five minutes to town for a burger. Or pull out my red lipstick and take myself out for dinner and a glass of wine. The night stretches in front of me, blank with all of the decisions I have to make just for me until I can just go to bed and start it all again tomorrow.
I’m a single mother of four adult sons. Years ago, every decision I had to make — every thought I had, practically — was about my children. And even though I’m nearly 50, and my kids have grown up and moved out, my mind hasn’t caught up. I’m still thinking about who has a permission slip to sign, who needs clean socks, who was too quiet at dinner last night, who needs money for football that I do not and never will have. Back then, I didn’t want to be her — that single mother, always pressed for time and energy and money. But now that the “mother” half of the equation feels like it’s in the past tense, I’m realising that I don’t know how to be anything but her.
Each one of my boys is a good bake, a walking resume to what a great job I did, how well I helped them turn out. When they were little, I dreamed, sometimes more than I’d like to admit, of them growing up, packing up, and leaving. When they were difficult or dismissive or just too damn expensive, I thought of the future — the one I’m currently living — and I celebrated inside my quiet self. I imagined a Wednesday exactly like this one, imagined what it would be like to have my limbs free of them, an entire bed to myself, surfaces clear of little fingerprints; imagined being able to get into a car and go somewhere, that simply, without arranging childcare or finding jackets or buckling anyone in.
Sometimes, when they were very little, being with them could feel acutely, almost painfully lonely. Then, getting a moment to go to the grocery store alone was a reprieve, like a return to myself.
All of that waiting, and yet now, I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to do with myself. My sons transformed from children to adults — the men I wanted them to be — and I, too, expected to transform from single mother to… something else. But I’m still a single mother of four sons. I’m just also not, really.
I had my kids when I was just 21, and I didn’t make adult friends; my kids were my friends. When I left my husband, I was 30 and my best friends were 9, 7, 3, and 2 years old. I didn’t make work friends, didn’t stay for drinks after waitressing in a local pizza joint. I didn’t date. I didn’t want to. I had all the touching I thought I could ever want. Limbs tossed over my legs on the sofa. A hand in my hair while I read a book. Arms around my throat while I slept. Banging on the door when I was in the tub asking me, “How long? Are you done? Do you miss me in there?”
Then, I was more mother than single. Now, I feel more single than mother. Certainly, other people perceive me that way. I stayed in the small town where I raised them, where we were always so noteworthy — a single mother with four boys. I spent my life being Callum’s mother, Ben’s mother, Jack’s mother, Nathan’s mother. Now I’m just Jen. But I still find myself reminding people: I’m Callum’s mother, Ben’s mother, Jack’s mother, Nathan’s mother, like a school football star trying to squeeze into their sports kit decades later.
I could try dating again. When my kids were little, I would go on one date every six months or so, because I had to. People talked otherwise, wondered what was wrong with me. And so I’d meet a friend from school for a bonfire in his backyard. My boss, in secret, when the kids were away. That one mechanic who told me he was okay with me having kids so long as I didn’t talk about them.
I did that for 25 years. Briefly, barely connecting with these men. Never really looking for anything with them, so touched out by the end of the day I could not imagine choosing someone new to put their hands on me. I was busy with my kids; I was happy with my kids. My life could be exhausting, and stressful, and uncertain — but it was also cosy, and intimate, and joyful, and I never met anyone who seemed worth changing our family. Sometimes I thought, Maybe when they’re grown.
Now that they’re grown, I have idly thought that maybe it’s time, maybe I should look for a partner. But soon after, I always think, Why? Then also, Do I have to? Because I guess I missed the part of my life where I thought dating might solve something for me, or become a new thing to distract me. I’m still trying to figure out how to be a person inside my old thing. When the boys were so little and I was never alone, I imagined something else: a movie on my own, a thin-crust pizza all to myself, with artichoke hearts, my favourite topping, instead of pepperoni. I craved all of this alone. I’m not ready to fill up my time and my life with other people. Not yet.
My kids still text me. We share shows like always, everyone up in arms over this character, that ending. We get together and I visit their lives, they visit mine. But I don’t always know their clothing sizes by heart anymore, not like the years when I bulk-bought jeans for Christmas, when there were always stacks of identical khakis waiting to be put away on top of the dryer. I don’t know who they like best at their job or how they take their coffee or, even, which ones drink coffee.
And so I wait. I go for walks to the lake down the road. I try to cook food for one person, but I always end up going back to ordering in. I get baking supplies out of my cupboard and then ask myself who’s going to eat all the chocolate caramel shortbreads, and I put it all back away. I call my kids and remind them, “Don’t watch A Christmas Story without me,” and “Don’t decorate your tree until we’re together,” thinking ahead to the years that I’m sure will come, when we’ll start meeting on one of those days near but not on Christmas — the 23rd, the 28th — to accommodate their partners and plans and lives.
All the while, a little sliver of a door is cracking open, and on the other side is everything I can do now. A night at a hotel with a big king-sized bed and room service. That yoga retreat I bookmarked years ago. Friendships, ready to be moved up to one of the front burners after simmering on the back burner for decades.
I chose my kids long ago. I chose them over friends, over lovers, over jobs, over anyone. And I’m choosing, now, to stay in this movie, although the credits have already rolled. I liked that movie — our story —more than I’d expected to when it began. But now… I’m almost ready for the next movie to start.
Jen McGuire is author of the book Nest, which details her journey travelling solo through Italy, France, and Ireland as she tries to figure out how to be alone for good after her four sons left home.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.