I know I say this often but I felt like I was really stuck with this assignment. It took me until the last week before it was due to truly pull my thoughts together and, even then, I didn’t feel all that convinced when I pressed submit but I went through with it anyway because I didn’t know where else to go. It was a unit that was both easy (in workload) and tough (in content). So with that in mind, I’ve posted my unedited assignment below with my tutor’s comments at the end. Final mark: high distinction.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve known my father was a cheater. I knew that about him like I knew he was Puerto Rican and brown skinned and a man. I didn’t know it in a hateful ‘he tore this family apart’ kind of way, just as a simple statement of fact. Maybe it would’ve developed into that if he’d lived longer but I don’t think so. That’s not really my mum’s style. Where other people’s love curdles into hate, my mum’s simply cools and forms a skin. The love sits there underneath, chilled but never evaporated. Not necessarily waiting to be warmed up and consumed, more just there. Forever.
My parents weren’t exclusive when they first started seeing each other in New York. They dated but continued seeing other people (although my mother knew early on that he was the one for her). Once they were married, she expected things to change but, for my father, they never did. My mother confesses that she had her doubts about his fidelity even when they were newlyweds in Nigeria but she chalked it up to her own insecurities. When they eventually moved to Canberra, she thought they would be more settled but she was wrong. He preferred to go to the pub with his friends. Sometimes he’d come home with phone numbers in his pocket. My mother once told me, “He could have gone on the rest of his life being single. I don’t think there was anything that would have tamed him.”
My mum remembers a family outing where we went to the Cotter River and, as she was parking, she saw another woman by the water with her two sons. My father went straight over to them and starting chatting. The boys knew him by name. She heard them calling out “Francisco! Francisco!” as he approached. My mum busily unpacked the car, her frustration rising the more time he spent with this woman when he should have been helping her. She later asked him if anything was going on between them. He denied it but she later found out they had an affair. And she wasn’t the only ‘other woman’ in my parents’ relationship.
When preparing to write my first assignment for this unit, I decided to re-read my father’s diary to see if I could find some clue as to who he was. His diary is a small black book, disintegrating as steadily as my memories of him. It’s the only one of his belongings that I still have, everything else has been lost or stolen over the years. The spine has long since crumbled and the book exists in two parts held together by sheer will and binding string. The pages are old and yellow and covered in his chicken scratch handwriting and vivid drawings filled with colour and life. He illustrated some of his thoughts with little doodles, as if he didn’t want the words to stand alone in representation of him. Writing was not his strong suit. He didn’t finish high school so his spelling is poor. I think he adds the illustrations because they better represent who he is; he’s more proficient that way.
On a page on which he talks about two women he’s in love with (neither of which are my mother although they were married at the time), my father writes this:
You may think how can one person love two people the same way? I say that in us there is a power that allows us to love the world and, if we can love the world, then why can’t we love two or three people the same?
This phrase comes back to me when my mother mentions that they weren’t exclusive in the beginning. Their relationship had no set boundaries for being with only each other. In that setting, it’s hard for jealousy and infidelity to find footing because there’s no place for it as yet. Although, my mother does describe one instance where my father got jealous because she was dancing with another man (insert something witty here about a goose and a gander). Still, once married, many couples follow the conventional path and become monogamous. Things are ‘serious’ now. You’re a married couple. There are rules – or, at least, there are for most people. But my father wasn’t most people and I don’t think he would’ve adhered to the rules no matter who he hurt along the way. Maybe if there had been open and honest communication around the type of relationship he wanted and what that meant in terms of monogamy and commitment but, then again, would my mum have been ok with such an arrangement? My mother speaks of the hurt, of the lies and betrayal, the ‘woman’s intuition’ that was then shot down as being silly. The near constant litany of ‘No, nothing’s going on’ until you start to question whether it really is all in your head. If he’d just said what he was doing, she could’ve decided if that was the type of relationship she wanted to be in but, as it was, it all happened behind her back. I suppose the end result may have been the same: she left him after four years of marriage.
As I write this essay, I realise that I have no memories of my parents together. My dad died a few months before my third birthday and they were already separated by then. The few memories I have of my father are of him alone; my mother doesn’t feature at all. Although I know they were a couple that was happy once, my mind can’t show me what that looks like. I’ve seen pictures of them together, smiling at one another, but I have no mental motion footage of this. The stillness of their photos makes it seem posed. The fact I can’t see them moving, interacting – even in my memories – makes it seem unreal. I was spared the fights and tears but I was also excluded from the happy times and the laughter.
With my father out of the picture, it was my mother and me against the world, just the two of us, until my sister came along when I was six and a half and we (grudgingly on my part at least) became a trio. There were no men in our lives (aside from friends and family) until we moved to Jamaica when I was ten. I don’t remember her having a boyfriend before that and, although she did have the occasional night out, she never brought anyone home. In my eyes, she was fearless and independent. She could do anything, even the things my friend’s mums needed their husbands to do. She was my mum and my dad and we didn’t need anyone else. Although, in hindsight, I can see how lonely raising two girls on your own must have been.
This was my mother until she moved us to Jamaica to get married to a man she’d met on holiday. My sister’s father offered to be involved in raising her but my mother turned him down. It was probably for the best. He visited us once or twice in Jamaica, ostensibly to see his daughter, but would often do more harm than good. I recall one trip when my stepdad had to bail him out of a hotel room where he was holed up on a prostitute-and-cocaine-fuelled bender. We didn’t see him again after that although I do know that he went to rehab and found Jesus.
Living in Australia, many of the families I saw around me followed the traditional storyline: ‘get married, have kids, live happily ever after’ (at least in theory). In ABS data from the 2012-13 census, 85% of Australian families are couple families and 14% are single parent households, with the majority being single mother households (“Family Characteristics”, 2015, para. 7). And while single parent households have increased by 53% between 1986 and 2001, couple families are still the norm (“Living arrangements: Changing families”, 2006, para. 1). This meant that I often felt like the odd kid out with most of the other kids having a mum and a dad. Sometimes I looked at my dad-less family and thought, ‘what am I missing out on?’ But my sister and I were lucky. We lacked for nothing. My mum had a passive income, nothing huge, but it meant she didn’t have to work, which meant she was there for us before and after school and had time to help us with our homework and so forth.
When we moved to Jamaica, things were different. Very few people were married. Men and women would see each other, get pregnant (usually by accident) and, 99% of the time, the woman would raise the child on her own. Men were involved part time, if at all. Many children I went to school with didn’t know their fathers and, if they did, they rarely had any hand in raising them. It was a matriarchal society, a community of single parent households, of women raising their children mostly without any help from men. A 2005 report by UNICEF confirms that, “By the end of 2002, 45.5% of Jamaican households were headed by females – a trend that persisted for much of the 1990s” (“Situation Analysis of Jamaican Children”, 2005, para. 19).
In Jamaica, everyone was being raised by their mothers, except now I had a stepdad, which wasn’t a situation I was very happy about. When cracks started to appear in my mum’s marriage, a single parent household didn’t seem all that bad. To make things worse, my stepfather grew marijuana and, before long, my mother’s occasional joint had morphed into full blown dependency. I watched her become reliant on my stepfather for many of the things she once did herself. I saw and heard the fights. She accused him of being unfaithful.
During this time, my mother stopped appearing as the perfect, strong provider and became someone more human, with weaknesses and failures I’d never seen before. Although I suppose these things would have become apparent as I hit my teens in Australia, they seemed starker for the fact that there was now a man in our lives. It seemed she was weaker because of him. Despite being married, she was often sad and lonely and felt she had no one to confide in. Having someone else didn’t necessarily make your life better. In fact, in my mother’s case and to my childish eyes, it seemed to make things worse.
I can’t deny that seeing this type of situation – of mothers raising their children on their own, of strong women and their seemingly unworthy men – had an effect on me. Perhaps that’s why for a long time, I saw men as superfluous. Yes, maybe they were attractive, maybe I desired them but I didn’t want to be with them. Not for any longer than was strictly necessary. As a teen, part of me felt a relationship would give me worth and value in the eyes of others (and yes, perhaps in my own) and the other part didn’t really see the point. My mother had shown me that a woman could get on just fine without a man around. Hell, she’d probably be better off.
When I started this essay, I thought I would focus on how my parents’ marriage breakdown and father’s cheating put me off commitment but, when I think about it, that’s not really what I learnt. Sure, I don’t put much stock in monogamy and the idea of there being one person who is able to fulfil all your needs for the rest of your life but, at this point, that seems like a sidenote. What I learnt from my childhood was the strength and resilience of women. If we have to do it on our own, we can and we will. And we’ll do a pretty damn good job of it too.
As a woman who has been with her current partner (now fiancé) for over ten years, this might seem like a hypocritical statement but I can explain. Before my partner came along, I was perennially single. I had no need for boyfriends (or girlfriends, for that matter). I enjoyed my freedom, my ability to do what I pleased with who I pleased. I had a strong network of friends so being single rarely felt lonely as so many people assume it must. Sure, I occasionally needed a man to help me change a high up lightbulb or open a bottle of wine but the ladder of the concierge or strong arms of a doorman were more than sufficient for such endeavours. If anything, I thought of men as occasionally useful beings.
I saw friends in unhappy or controlling relationships and thought, ‘why bother?’ Sure I had the occasional drama with someone I was seeing but, by dint of there being no formal relationship, I could stop seeing them whenever I pleased. There were no strings to disentangle myself from. Seeing my mother do it on her own and then subsequently crumble when she did have a man around, made me see men as more trouble than they were worth, as the unseen force behind a woman’s undoing. It wasn’t that I specifically didn’t want a partner, more that I didn’t want to be with someone just for the sake of it. I wanted someone who was worthy of commitment, someone who was worth the relinquishment of my single freedoms.
That person didn’t come along until I was 23. And even though that seems like a long time ago now, when I tell people that’s when I had my first boyfriend, they’re often shocked. Because we’re expected to pair up much sooner than that, even if it failed and this is your second, third or seventh try. Not so for me. Jared is my first and only boyfriend because, before that, there was no one I wanted to sacrifice my freedom for. No one I saw that would be faithful, that would support me, that would love me without trying to change me. That person didn’t come along until I was 23 and I was ok with that. Because I’d seen what being with the wrong man can do, the havoc it can wreak. How much it truly isn’t worth it for a woman’s self-esteem and self-respect. And, fair enough, you don’t always know up front that he’s Mr Wrong. These guys have a way of sneaking it in after they’ve already snatched your heart.
Now, my mother, sister and I all joke about my mother’s notoriously bad taste in men. At 63, she’s given up on finding love. Two spectacular failures have convinced her that she’s better off alone. Maybe she thinks she’s unlovable or too difficult to live with. Either way the result is the same. She’s chosen a life of singleness because she finally knows what I learnt from watching her mistakes while I was growing up: being single is better than being with someone who’s not good for you. Maybe my mother is one of those people Liz Hoggard talks about in her article for The Telegraph, the ones who are actually happier being single (the author herself being one of them) (2015).
Yet society tells us, and especially women, that without a man, or at least an intimate relationship, we’re somehow less of a person. In her book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Anne Bolick “challenges the idea that women must find a partner, that to remain single is lonely, sad and pitiable” (Freeman, 2015, para. 6). She argues that being single is not the barren wasteland so many people assume it to be. That there is an alternative to the pressurised rat race of finding ‘the one’ and ‘settling down’.
That’s not to say that I’m advocating every woman (including myself) go out and ditch their partners to live a life of contemplative solitude. Not by a long shot. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t feel pressured into finding a mate. We shouldn’t see it as our life’s purpose or think that we are somehow incomplete without a partner. And we certainly shouldn’t stay in relationships that are doing us more harm than good, as difficult and as fraught and complex as this may be, especially when there are children involved.
And this is what my mother taught me in her roundabout, learn-from-my-often-painful mistakes way; that I am enough and that I am fine on my own but that I am also worthy of someone good and honest and not to suffer someone that hurts me just to avoid being alone. It may not have made sense when I was a child but, as an adult, I feel a sense of gratitude. My mother didn’t give me the perfect childhood, she gave me something better: a mould of strength to cast myself on, the skills to make my own way and the inner-resilience to be myself, even when I’m all alone.
Natalie, congratulations on a compelling and very well-written essay. You hook the reader in with a surprising and apparently harsh statement about your father, and then go on to depict your parents’ relationship with honesty and acceptance. As the piece develops and wanders from the past towards the future, the focus starts to widen to a bigger narrative about women’s independence and strength. You’ve articulated a truth that would be beneficial for many women to read, a truth that questions the need for every woman to have a partner, and even questions whether many women do better without one. Bringing the ABS statistics into the piece, and the comparison with Jamaica’s domestic trends, provides interesting context. This is your best writing for this unit and deserves a high distinction. Best of luck for the future.