How a Single Mother Helped Me Define Strength

To the woman sitting across from me, I ask what being a mother in her twenties means.

She finishes the last of her red blend and laughs, revealing purple teeth and makes a crude joke at my expense. Once satisfied with herself, her sharp features get softer. She’s going to be serious about this, she tells me.

There are times when we’re together, and I forget this woman in front of me, who’s height is directly proportionate to the presence she brings into a room, whose dark features match a “don’t fuck with me” attitude, has children. We laugh and joke about raunchy sex, nipple trees, and recent conquests. She can still put down a bottle of wine without crying in the bathroom or asking someone to hold back her long hair.

But it isn’t until I drop her off and step inside the foyer of her dark apartment and glimpse several pairs of tiny shoes, that I remember. It’s when she joins me at a high rise table at the end of our shift and the conversation trails off into the challenges of breastfeeding or the various kitchen utensils used for spankings. It’s when she comes in for her shift and she’s not upset about making rent or car insurance, but an argument with her youngest son earlier that day. It’s these times when I realize she won’t be joining me barhopping tonight or going away for the ‘girl’s weekend.’ She has hockey practices and dance recitals, bedtime stories and spelling homework to attend to.

I admire her, because in my single, childless naiveté, I cannot fathom what it must take to cultivate the sort of resilience, tenacity, and self-assuredness she projects.

She wears motherhood well, a form-fitting sweater stretched softly over life sustaining curves, denim caressing widened hips. The lines that have begun to form at the corners of her eyes are merely a compliment to a wide smile, accompanied by her quick humor and baritone laugh when she gets caught swearing too loudly. She finds humor in almost everything, sometimes it comes naturally, other times I wonder if it’s because she might lose herself otherwise.

She does this alone. 

Three of them, each unique, all essential to her existence. She is not revered, or honored, or acclaimed. She is not Michelle Obama, or Gloria Steinam, or Malala Yousafzai. She is not a woman you would recognize in the supermarket or ask to take her picture.

Although I do.

I take mental photographs of the days I sit cross-legged on the floor of her tiny apartment, made cozy by the cacophony of high pitched voices and shrills of delight, surrounded by legos and half folded laundry. I store in my memory the way in which her tired eyes follow each child, considering them carefully, equally, yet differently. She is intentional. She is poised. This is an artist devouring her muses.

Even in her catatonic states, after one hundred homemade Valentines and nine o’clock breakfast dinners, and burnt popcorn at 1 am to be the PTA mom of the century, she is holding it all together. She makes me an egg sandwich to polish off the night and I stare at her in disbelief and wonderment. Is this the actual definition of strength? Perseverance? In this woman I see the embodiment of all of the feminist soap-boxing I’ve ever done, the reason I’ll bitch about reproductive rights and equality. She is the representation of steadfastness and stability. A manifestation of grit.

I thought that I had never known any woman like her. Then I realized that I’ve known hundreds, thousands even, over my lifetime that immerse themselves completely in the molding and creation of new lives.

I attempt to articulate the deep, undeniable respect and regard I hold for this woman in front of me. Yet, how do I express to her my inability to conceptualize how she still functions, lovingly and devoted? It is not when we’re stumbling out on the town, or bitching about that one terrible table, or even sitting across from me, that she is the most beautiful. It is in her overwhelming and exhaustive, loving devotedness to motherhood. This is how I know her. Her shoulders back, longing to take a break, to be rounded. Her jaw set with resolve and feet always moving. I watch her struggle and her elation.

I am humbled.

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