Working parents often find themselves playing in a one-man or -woman show

June 02, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

A GREAT MANY social ills have been laid like kindling at the feet of the single parent. Her hands are tied (it is most often a mother) to the stake of public opinion as she waits for someone to strike a match.

Poverty, difficulty at school, early experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol, petty crime and delinquency. Social scientists confidently predict these things for the children of the woman who tries to raise them without a man around the house. She is blamed for every blemish on society from the disintegration of the family dinner hour to the epidemic of coldhearted teen-age criminals.

When they talk about these women, these parents without partners, I wonder if they are talking about me.

I belong to a shadow demographic group: the de facto single parent.

You won't see our numbers on any U.S. Census. On good days, we would deny our very existence, claiming that we are members of an intact family that tumbles through the week with a healthy mix of love, laughter and careful scheduling.

On bad days, we grumble bitterly that our mate is nothing but a phantom, and it is we who face the storm of greedy, needy children.

It is often women who feel thus abandoned by men who cram a 40-hour work week into 60 hours, who commute the distance of a book-on-tape every week, who jump on airplanes, who work shifts, who golf.

But my husband might define himself as a single parent, too, as might the husband of any working mother. He and I tag-team through the week, passing the children like a baton between us. He packs lunches, I do homework. He coaches, I drive.

It has been so long since we had a meal together, he might very well be a vegetarian and I don't know it. He has threatened to dial 900 numbers so he will have another adult to talk to.

My daughter wakes each morning and asks: "Is this a Mommy day or a Daddy day?" I sometimes wonder if her life is much different from the schoolmate who packs a bag for Dad's house every Friday. She has two parents, but she has them serially, not simultaneously.

My children, and a good many children of friends, live with this Doppler effect. Mom says one thing coming, Dad says another thing going. Our instructions, our disciplining of them, must sound like aphasic speech. The lips of their parents are moving, but the words they hear don't match.

The children adapt, I think. My children and the children of my friends have known nothing else except that Mom leaves before they are fully awake and Dad kisses them while they are sleeping; that Dad muddles through dinner because Mom works nights, or that Dad is the weekend coach, but Mom is the homework police.

It is a different matter for the parents, though. We didn't get married so we could ride in separate cars to the same pizza parlor or soccer game. We didn't get married so we could leave notes on doors or messages on answering machines. We didn't get married so we could each have a cell phone. We did not expect to argue about whose work schedule is more critical.

We didn't get married so we could be single parents.

But we are. Either Dad is out slaying the beast while Mom stays home and grinds the corn, or Mom and Dad are both out trying to slay a beast large enough to feed the kids, who wear keys to the cave around their necks.

We are all working very hard for the family, but while we are thus occupied, the family evaporates.

My husband talks sometimes about giving it all up and "living Amish," as he calls it. He is taken by the glimpses he has had of the lives of these simple people, and he would like that life for us: spending the day with the children in an ambitious version of yardwork, going to bed with the sun and rising at dawn to the smell of my baked ham and homemade pies.

Reincarnation or remarriage is his only path to that world, but he has tapped into a national longing for a less complicated life. Journalists and pollsters have discovered a deep and troubling dissatisfaction with our work-and-spend treadmill and, though people are uncertain how to accomplish it, many express a willingness to reduce significantly their standard of living if it would mean a simpler life.

It is one of the ironies of all of this that though it most often takes two people to keep the American family solvent, we feel that we are doing it alone.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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