I Love My Kid, But… is Refinery29 and Red Baron’s exploration of the honest, often unspoken, realities and challenges that come along with parenthood.
“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb with specious roots that has been used by everyone from former Secretaries of State to random strangers doling out unsolicited parenting advice. But an equally accurate proverb, and one we hear far less, is “it takes a village to date as a single mom.”
My early days of dating as a single mom in grad school were shored up by a support system I now realize I took for granted. My daughter was born in Atlanta, and I had an older cousin in the city who loved to spend time with her, giving me the free time it took to build the kind of social life I’d only dreamed of. The rest of my “village” was made up of fellow grad students and their friends, many of whom doubled as babysitters and companions to nightclubs, house parties, and other social events.
This network of people was crucial when my friends and family began to encourage me to “get back out there.” I met a nice-enough guy on a dating website, whom my daughter — who was just learning to speak and easily mixing up the “n” and the “d” sounds — called “Dick.” When we’d go on dates, my cousin would watch my daughter, whom she treated like a granddaughter. When she wasn’t available, I paid a trusted staff member from my daughter’s daycare, a child-development major vetted by parents of her classmates. When things went left between “Dick” and I, I dealt with the breakup by expanding my circle even more.
I began to spend more time with Tamika, another friend from graduate school who introduced me to a diverse group of people who worked in social justice organizations and frequently used the word “community” in everyday conversation. Tamika was intentional about being my village; she volunteered to keep my daughter every Wednesday night whether or not I had somewhere to go. I began to look forward to Free Wednesdays like many people look forward to the weekends. I was also gifted time and support by other women from my cohort, Janet and Dior, both of whom were married to the kind of men my daughter called “Uncle.”
On a Wednesday soon after I began my friendship with Tamika, I had a place to go: my first date with a woman. Tamika introduced me to a friend of hers who lived in Louisiana but had managed to date around our friend group in Atlanta. She charmed me in the same restaurants she took all her Atlanta dates while Tamika kept my daughter. The long-distance relationship that followed was made possible by my village. In fact, it took me a long time to figure out that the distance between my first girlfriend and I was about more than physical space, because I was having too much fun with my friends to notice that I was unfulfilled. Because of my community, I didn’t depend on her to satisfy my emotional needs or notice her inability to do so.
My romantic endeavors were made possible by an organic community that met so many of both my and my daughter’s needs. Our small apartment was always full of friends, and new people frequently came in and out of orbit. A few of my friends were great cooks who helped develop my daughter’s palate with Caribbean dishes and vegan soul food. Still, they weren’t disappointed when it was my turn to host and Red Baron pizza was on the menu.
I found new joy one Free Wednesday night when I confessed my crush to an old friend who lived 30 minutes from the house where my daughter was too busy being Tamika’s favorite niece to notice my world shifting on its axis. I stumbled into Tamika’s house that Thursday morning, sleep-starved and infatuated. Tamika, Janet, and Dior all coached me to manage my expectations. Rebounds, after all, are healthiest when you have a chorus reminding you that relief can sometimes feel like love.
Unfortunately, graduations and job searches disrupted my first village, sending my daughter’s favorite aunts beyond our reach. I moved back to Kentucky to teach too many classes at a university. Most of my colleagues were close to retirement and disinterested in making new friends, and many of the staff members were recent graduates of the university who were at least 10 years my junior. Gone were the days when my daughter and I spent time in homes full of community, my daughter’s “play” aunts, uncles, and cousins spread around our small apartment laughing over paper plates.
These days, I set two plates for our small table. My daughter is 8 now, with a developed long-term memory that makes it riskier to introduce her to people I casually date. Not that dating ever feels casual these days.
I know that before I try dating again, I need to rebuild some semblance of the community I had in Atlanta. No matter how independent you may be, dating as a single mother takes so much more support than childcare. Everyone has a multitude of needs, and no one person can fulfill all of them.