L.A. Affairs: The sheer exhaustion of dating as a single mom
We love each other but we can’t stay married because he is a person with alcoholicism who won’t acknowledge his problem. He takes the king-sized bed. I keep our 2-year-old daughter, Grace, most of the time.
I also buy a queen-sized organic pillow-top mattress, plus all-new sheets, and I make some curtains, reclaiming my bedroom.
A year goes by and I’ve gotten a handle on single parenting. I watch a “Downton Abbey” Christmas episode in which a long-gone character returns — surprise! — and sinks into the arms of his wife, who is stunned, grateful and brimming over with love. I decide that I would like to be partnered in something that feels like that.
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Yet over the next seven years I’ll share my bed with a series of highly unavailable people: a funny and handsome podcast producer who announces within the first moments of our meeting that he’ll never marry or live with anyone (still, we date for more than a year); and a woman who, like me, is trying to figure out how exactly how bisexual she is (yep, we are, but we don’t have couple chemistry); and a college boyfriend who resurfaces, with three children and a not-quite ex-wife. (He’s separated but will never divorce.)
But how do I even date now, in the middle of a pandemic, when pretty much anyone can pass a deadly disease to me? And also, Grace is never more than 25 feet away.
Still, I use that old lottery logic: “You can’t win if you don’t play.” I go on a dating app and connect with R., who hooks me with his “Food is my love language!” line. He’s charismatic and can do any accent or voice I ask for, like a jukebox. We each get a COVID test for our second date and have a mind-blowing, molecule-rearranging kiss.
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It’s all perfect until we hit Month 3 of dating. Now that there are two adults in my bed a few nights a week, the center is not holding. That’s not a metaphor. My mattress dips, forcing us to roll toward each other, unless we cling to our respective sides. I buy a mattress topper, thinking this can help. But it does the opposite; it’s like a full Pilates workout to just get out of bed. Many experts have suggested that tar pits sucked in dinosaurs, contributing to their extinction. But it becomes clear to me that these great ancient beasts were actually done in by memory foam.
I have a breakthrough in therapy, realizing that as a child nobody really cared about what I wanted or needed. That basically left me unable to think about what I want in a relationship, let alone ask for it, thereby placing all the focus on my partner’s needs. Until everything implodes.
So I practice sitting still and ask myself what I want and need, and I guess I need more than I thought. I love and miss R. when I don’t see him, but when we’re actually together I feel stressed and tired trying to seem like I’ve got shutdown with a kid under complete control. That continuous cleaning, cooking, working and entertaining within my small apartment isn’t wearing me down.
We met in the middle of the pandemic. In a time with not much to look forward to, she simply brought a lot of joy into my life. But the clock was counting down, and time was running out.
During the pandemic we’re at my house most of the time, and though R. operates with multiple levels of generosity, such as bringing over Chinese food on Fridays, I want him to be more of a partner, not a gentleman caller.
He regularly says, “How can I help?” but I can never think of anything in the moment. Asking for what I want seems like an insurmountable task.
Cooking is my love language, it’s my currency, it’s my one throw-down talent I can share with my friends. Over the holidays I joyfully make a pot of bouillabaisse and a Bolognese. And then two batches of shortbread, one for a last-minute neighbor gift and one for us. And then I was done cooking. So I said, “I’m done cooking.”
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What that really means but I can’t say out loud is, “I have taken very good care of both of you! I am tired now! I would like someone to make something for me!” And of course, because Grace is only 9, I want him to take the wheel in the kitchen. It is a hint that floats in the air for a few seconds and lands somewhere over by the recycling bin.
When dinnertime comes around, I notice nobody else is making a move for the kitchen. So in my sadness and frustration, I make soup and serve it.
Adding a second adult to the mix feels like I am disturbing all the perfectly balanced, precariously spinning plates of my life. I have a foreboding feeling for the next several days after. Maybe having a boyfriend and a kid is just not possible after all.
I was still recovering from breast cancer. And my heart was shattered. I vowed I wouldn’t get back out in the dating world until I had worked through my fears and would take as much time as I needed to heal before attempting a new relationship.
I am increasingly conflicted about having enough time and love for everyone. And it feels like my plane is falling from the sky, smoking, burning. So I bail out. I break up with him. He is blindsided and brokenhearted. He would have done anything I’d asked … if only I’d asked.
I also get a new mattress. A firm one.
I make the new bed with freshly clean sheets and lie down. It’s supportive. It is exactly what I need.
I wish R. could feel this mattress, I think he’d like it. We like the same art and food and movies. We think the same things are funny. I thought I was ready. I thought I was truly available in all the right ways. Like R. is.
But clearly, I’m not there. I’m hit with the sickening realization that I’ve made a mistake by not at least having a conversation with R. before the breakup. Plus, I miss how he and Grace bonded over art and music and pandas, but I’m scared that if we got back together I’d go back to feeling stressed out and there would be another breakup.
After a few days of agonizing silence, we talk to try to sort through the wreckage I’ve wrought.
We sit on his porch, masked, warmed by the crisp California winter sun. I’m reminded of his humor and patience, that resonant voice, and his willingness to listen to me. Like, really listen. He wants me back, but it’s an all-or-nothing deal; he doesn’t want to be among a class of friends I have that used to be lovers. I can see us together, maybe sitting on this porch on a daily basis, morning coffee in hand.
I was obviously smitten, but he — recently divorced and emerging from a series of unsatisfactory relationships — did not seem to want anything more than to be friends.
I just have no idea how to get there.
For the next few days we have some sweet phone conversations. His continued patience with my uncertainty and messiness is mind-boggling and makes me love him even more. I invite him to come over with the condition that we don’t say a word.
It’s late and he slips in through the unlocked kitchen door and comes to bed. We are silent, revisiting each other, like some strange extended acting-class exercise. It feels good and right.
We will make no decisions this very second. We will sleep on it and see how we feel tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.
The author is a Los Angeles-based freelancer and the author of “Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption.” She and R. are quite happy together.
L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.
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