When I first moved back to California four summers ago, I was wedged between resentment and anger. I wasn't what you'd call "a single-mom-by-choice" -- my man had simply walked out the door -- and every time I turned around I was smack in front of another traditional, mom-and-pop family.
Just pull yourself out of it, Rachel.
But c'mon now, wasn't this Berkeley? Where were all the unconventional families like mine?
I tried to focus less on the "single" and more on the "motherhood." I really did. The truth is: I love being a mom. It's the "single" part I struggled with; that one word could be such a downer. Would I ever learn to accept my status and be satisfied with it?
Fortunately, right around this time, I spotted Siobhan at a local playground. It was hard to miss her on that foggy morning, in her red fleece flying cape, strolling with her daughter in a similar cape, complete with polka dots and a matching hat.
We quickly exchanged stats and discovered that her two-year-old daughter, Hazel, is just one month younger than my daughter, Mae. They also share the same middle name, "Frances."
"I want boobie!" Hazel said, pulling up her mom's shirt.
"Me, too!" Mae said.
As if signaled by the gods, both Siobhan and I held our hands to our breasts, as if protecting them. Then we sighed simultaneously.
"I'm trying to wean," Siobhan said.
"Me, too!" I said.
"How about some food first?" Siobhan said, opening her polka-dot bag. Then she whispered in my ear: "Let's see if we can distract them."
Our differences became obvious when Siobhan pulled bags of dried fruit and organic salt-free rice cakes from her bag.
"Uh, I have a little something to offer, too," I said, embarrassed when my own snack bag contained sugar-filled granola bars with chocolate chips.
After snacking, the girls, having long forgotten our breasts, toddled off to play in the sand. That's when Siobhan told me she was in the middle of a divorce. "Men are scum," she said. "I'm done."
"But there are other fish in the sea," I said. "Look at that guy over there. He's hot," I went on, signaling with my eyes to a tall guy with dreadlocks who was pushing his son on the swings.
"He's a pot smoker," she said.
"How do you know that?" I said.
"Berkeley's a small town. You'll get acquainted with who's-who fast."
Sure enough, Siobhan had a good bogus detector, and within months she'd become a barometer for my bad taste in men. But if Siobhan is my conscience when it comes to affairs of the heart, then Arden is my partner in crime.
I spotted Arden and her daughter at a local swimming pool. I couldn't stop staring at them; it was like looking in a mirror. Arden is white and Jewish, like me. Her daughter, Celia, is multi-cultural, like mine, with coffee-brown skin and curly hair. I waved. Arden waved back.
Arden manages a local sports equipment store for kids, and she soon became an easy resource for soccer balls and hula hoops. We met for "hair parties" with our girls, during which we sat behind them with detangling spray and long-toothed combs. Soon, we decided to put our profiles on Match.com together.
Soon the three moms began swapping houses for a weekly dinner. Each week, one of us makes the main dish, while the others bring veggies and salads. We also take turns sharing parental anxieties and work stress. We confess to screaming at our girls in public and losing our house keys who-knows-where.
When I'm having a hard day, I know that I can call them: they are the two people in the world who always seem to get what I'm talking about.
"I told Mae this morning that she was a brat," I said recently. "I spent the rest of the day feeling terrible. How could I have said that?"
Siobhan put her hand on my shoulder. I breathed in her lavender scent.
"Please absolve me," I said to my friends. They always do.
These moms know that being on our own isn't easy or graceful. But they've also helped me erase the shame I felt about it. As single moms, we get to call all the shots. We like giving our girls exclusive attention. And none of us is on a hunt for a husband. You won't catch us desperately chasing some guy.
When you're a single mom, a clan of close friends like mine is much more than a nice distraction. It's the key to survival. Sure, we swap kids if one of has to run an errand. But it's more than that. We call each other or email almost every day. This isn't Gymboree or a baby-sitting co-op. Nor is it a makeshift single mom's group; these women are my partners in a way.
Arden recently sent me a note said, "I'm so lucky that my girl has you all as part of her family." She got it exactly right. We are family, unconventional perhaps, but family nonetheless.