A couple summers ago, I had one of those perfect first dates, where you go to bed afterward knowing your life has fundamentally changed for the better.
We’d sort of known each other for a few years, crossing paths in the neighborhood, running into each other here and there. We stayed in touch occasionally via Facebook, and when she became the single mom of an infant, I reached out with an offer of moral support and maybe some grownup conversation when she needed a break.
It took months for our schedules to work themselves out, so when I finally met the single mom at the Light Rail station near my house, I wasn’t sure if we were just meeting up to talk about parenting, or if it was an actual date. Either way, I was looking forward to seeing her.
I’d offered to pick her up at her house, but she’d been looking forward to a little quiet time on the train. She told me after a hug that she should have let me drop by, though, because her mother was excited that she was going on “a date with a nice Jewish man.”
That she used the ‘D’ word without hesitation made me smile. I’m usually the last to know when someone’s interested in me, so having a clear signal that we were actually on a date helped me understand the parameters of our rendezvous.
As we walked together to a favorite bar (late afternoon clouds were rolling away from the city after just a hint of a rainstorm, revealing deep blue pre-sunset skies), I had a chance to take in this young single mom I hardly knew. She was small and slight and crazy pretty, with deep brown eyes, a smattering of freckles, short brown hair, and a shy smile. She looked fragile and very young, but when she spoke of her life and her son, there was a sense of conviction and intelligence that gave her gravity and depth.
And later that night, when she kissed me first, I knew someone very special had found her way to me.
I can’t remember if that kiss, all warm and unexpected, came before or after she asked me if I wanted more children.
My answer, without hesitation, was “yes.” In fact, part of the appeal of dating her was the chance to be there for her adorable 15-month-old son.
When I first got divorced 10-plus years ago, I was sure that I’d have at least one more child. Considering how much I loved kids, and how rewarding it had already been to have Simone in my life, I just couldn’t imagine not having more. So it was easy to answer the question — of course I wanted another child.
Through the summer months, we spent more and more time together. One weekend morning, as we walked to a street festival where I was sure to run into a ton of people I knew, she took my hand in hers. I was immediately uncomfortable, but forced myself to walk a bit before using the need to push the “walk” button at a traffic crossing as an excuse to unlatch. We made our rounds through the festival together, with me introducing her to friends along the way, only touching hands sporadically.
Later, over lunch on a patio a few blocks away, I told her about my discomfort. Just talking about it, and explaining it to her, helped me figure out where the feelings came from. As we talked it through, something shifted for me. I realized that I actually liked holding her hand — not only did it feel right (is there anything better than holding hands with someone you adore?), but I was ready to make the statement it implied. Even though we were done with the festival, she humored me and walked through the entire area again, but this time with her hand firmly in mine, just so I could try it out for real.
When the single mom had a babysitting emergency, I volunteered to be at her house by 5am and watch the baby sleep until she was able to get home from work a few hours later. That same day, I insisted she drop her son off at my house so she could go to her class (she was finally finishing up her bachelor’s degree). When the little guy began to fuss as she handed him over to me, I distracted him by showing him a bunch of picture books I’d grabbed from boxes before he’d arrived. By the time she left, he was comfy on my lap, engaged in the stories. He hardly noticed his mom was gone, and didn’t want to leave when she returned.
Being with kids has always been easy for me, whether they were infants or toddlers or pre-teens. I’m even better at it now, after years of teaching elementary school and raising a child of my own. So it comes naturally to be a caretaker when given the opportunity.
But it was also exhausting to chase a toddler around — I was out of practice, and the house was not kid-friendly. Sure it was fun to read and make funny voices, but it was also a heady reminder of the energy and intensity required to keep the busy, inquisitive child occupied.
To her credit, the single mom didn’t pull punches when it came to the challenges of parenting. She consciously communicated the highs and lows of her life — the diaper blowouts, the dad’s poor decisions and flakiness, and pictures when her son was being heartbreakingly cute. She didn’t want to hide what her life was like, because she wanted me to be very aware of what I was getting myself into.
It didn’t bother me. I had fallen for her. She was so different from most of the women I’d dated, with her level-headedness and calm demeanor. She could laugh at my quirks but not get riled up by them. She had strong opinions, but drama wasn’t in her repertoire. It was easy to be with her, and our energy was incredibly compatible.
And she was quiet. She didn’t feel a need to fill silence with commentary. We could sit on a park bench and just be in the moment, enjoying each other’s company without saying a word.
I’ve said many times how much I love strong, opinionated women. And I love the propulsive energy that a brainy socially-adept companion brings to the table. I’ll always prefer crazy over boring. The single mom, with her quiet authority wrapped up in a five-foot-tall body, could be dynamic when the situation required it, but that wasn’t her baseline.
For the first time since the Peach, I had fallen in love.
The problem was, though, that the idea of having more children, and setting the empty nest clock back by 20 years, was becoming more daunting by the day.
It started on my solo trip to Costa Rica, where I had time to decompress, to think, to miss my daughter and my new love. It was the trip where I craved a beach vacation, but didn’t really get it. And it was the trip where I realized that I wanted to travel more and more as I got older.
When I got back to town in early August, I went to my shrink with my concerns. I didn’t hide them from the single mom, either. I didn’t know what it all meant — just that I was struggling, and needed to work through it.
My biggest concern was allowing things to progress with the single mom if my heart wasn’t in it to have children with her. I asked my counselor if she thought we should break things off now, before we got even more serious.
Her answer surprised me. “Why do you feel like you need to make this decision right now, on your own, without her input? Why can’t you go to her, tell her what’s going on for you, let her know that you two may not be a good match in the long-term, and decide together what should happen next?”
Such great advice. And a lesson I’ve kept with me ever since, when I’ve felt compelled to make an important decision — I loved the idea of talking it through and making a short-term choice, putting the larger decision aside until it was necessary to make it.
When I went to the single mom with my concerns, she acted as she always had — open-minded and willing to talk things through without creating drama around the situation. When both of us understood the implications of my feelings, we decided to continue seeing each other, knowing the limitations (mine, really) of what was possible between us.
And that worked fine for a couple more months, until she grew weary of being in limbo — loving each other, but not being in a real relationship; wanting to be together, but knowing it wouldn’t last. I was dealing with the grief of my decision, which meant that I was locked in my own internal closed-loop, and there was nothing she could do or say to break through.
Even today, I feel a deep sense of grief about not wanting to have more kids. I know that sounds odd. All my life, I wanted to have children. But at my age, in my position, with a teenager in the house, I’m just not convinced that starting over would be good for me.
I’m in no hurry for Simone to grow up and go to college, but it’s getting closer and closer, and when she does leave in five years, I’ll be free to spread my wings a bit further — maybe I’ll move, or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll travel more. I readily admit to having too much baggage around the sense of feeling bound to Denver — I know it’s neither rational nor wise to feel trapped in a place I love so much. But having a new child would mean resetting that clock. And it would mean living through diapers and potty training and preschool and constant vigilance and child-proofing and...and...and...all of those exhausting (and wonderful, of course) aspects of raising a child. Again.
So, when I’m asked if I want more children these days, I’m honest in my answer: “Probably not.” It’s a response that has cut short dates and caused women with potential to shake their heads sadly at me and tell me it’s not going to work out between us.
My mother thinks I’m crazy, knowing my affection for kids (she sends me articles about older men starting new families). My closest friends don’t believe that I’d take a hard line on this decision if I met someone who enchanted me so much that I couldn’t imagine NOT having babies with her.
But I could never start a new dating situation by saying, “I’m pretty sure I’m done having more kids. I don’t want to start over, and I want the freedom to travel or move or run away when my daughter goes to college. But, that said, if you were the right girl, I could change my mind.”
The young single mom and I are still friends. She’ll always be a very important person in my life, and one of the few people I know I can count on for love and support when things go sideways. She has moved on, is in love, is happy. And she deserves to be.
If there are days when I wonder if I screwed up, that’s not surprising. If there are times when I get to hold a baby, both of us burbling and laughing, me sniffing the top of its head and feeling reluctant to pass it back to its parent, that is not surprising, either.
I’m wise enough to know that any decision can be reversed. I’m crazy enough to think that I’m on the cusp of a new phase in my life, with freedoms that haven’t been possible in more than a decade. I’m idealistic enough to believe that I can surrender to the vagaries of the future, and find happiness down many different possible paths.
So let me fly your kid around like Superman. Let me hold your baby so you can eat your dinner. My little one is too big to carry, too proud to coddle, to old to rock until she falls asleep. But that’s okay, because I can choose to move to Thailand in a few years.