It's Saturday in the Nordstrom shoe department. Hordes of people are here, making it difficult to maneuver through the labyrinth of footwear. The din of shopper's voices rises above the murmur of smooth jazz and makes it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. There is a wedding tonight, and in addition to the responsibility of dressing my son and my boyfriend-who are, of course, equally oblivious to fashion decorum-I must find a matching shoe for my dress, a dubious pleasure indeed.
My 6-year-old moves like a bumblebee in my peripheral vision. He's playing battleship with a pair of Manolo Blahniks and making explosion sounds the way only a little boy can. The sales assistants look at me with an expression that says, "For heaven's sake, get your kid in order, ma'am," and all I want is to get back to the social safety of our home.
Just as I'm picking up a slingback, I glance up to find that my son has disappeared. In a mild panic, I search the department store floor, calling out his name in a way that alerts other mothers to look around in empathy.
"Cormac?" In cosmetics.
"Cormac?" In purses.
"Cormac?" In hosiery. I'm really nervous now.
Casually, he emerges from behind a jewel case, as if strolling away from me is a freedom he and I are both accustomed to. My countenance changes from worry to menace. Through clenched teeth I say, "If you can't see me, then you've gone too far!" I give him a frustrated smack on the butt for punctuation.
A classy, middle-aged woman gasps, and looks at me as though I had just branded my son with a soldering iron. I want to scream, "Look, lady, mind your own business!" But instead, I storm off with Cormac's wrist firmly in my hand. Of course, I know it looks bad. In a culture of time outs and reasoning with toddlers, spanking no longer seems to have a place.
A grouchy mom is not my first way to be, really. As a young girl, I imagined myself more like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, all heavenly and soft of voice, passing out gumdrops and Jujubees. Now that I've developed into something more in between, I understand that my identity as a mother is complicated by my singlehood.
The complexities of single motherhood can often make an uncomfortable existence. A part of me wants to stay home and work with my son in the garden. The other part wants to dance until dawn to house music. I dutifully go to T-ball and parent-teacher meetings. But while the other matriarchs of Wicker Park are working on their next child or complaining about listless husbands, I'm yawning and making up some business-related excuse for having stayed up too late.
Though the gravity of it sometimes escapes me, my love for my son is bigger than all the joys and heartbreaks of my life combined. On the day he was born, after countless hours of screaming and sweating and pushing, I lay in bed for an entire day staring at his flaky, wrinkled face, knowing even in those first few hours of life he was my one true love. The emotion I feel in the stolen moments-at the popcorn line before a movie or between the kiss good night and the close of his bedroom door-is so powerful that I feel like I could just die, just lie down and die there on the choo-choo train rug, fat with happiness.
It's so important to give him the best childhood under our circumstances. In Cormac, I instill equal parts love, independence and fear. Because without one or some, who knows what kind of man he will be? Disrespectful, unkind, reckless, timid and alone are the first words that come to mind. But to give this, I know I must be mother and father under our roof. I must be tender and harsh, chef and coach, playmate and punisher.
It's a few moments after Cormac's public spanking, and he's already eyeing the food court's candy shop. Still feeling guilty, I say, "You want some candy?"
He answers with an emphatic, "Yes!"
He nearly runs toward the store. As we peruse the rainbow-colored bins, he asks if we can stop at the bookstore to look at Thomas the Train books. At the register, he wants to know if we might take the bus home. He likes public transportation.
As I answer random question after random question, I realize that Cormac has shown me another thing: Though our life together can sometimes be clumsy or embarrassing, it also goes on.
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