In the last week, I have been filling out registration forms for preschools. My daughter’s school unexpectedly closed and I have been scrambling to find her a new school. Doing this requires filling out parent information and sending in copies of her birth certificate; the birth certificate that reads, “Father: Information not recorded.” This is what a birth certificate says when a baby is born in a hospital and the father is not present and later does not claim the child when the state sends him paperwork to do so. It took six months for me to receive my daughter’s birth certificate while we waited for this process to happen. I feel shame seeing this again. A birth certificate should be a happy thing, but somehow this one makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong.
Typically, I feel like I am like any other parent for the most part. Like any parent, I work hard, try to do the best for my daughter, and have good days and bad. In school or play groups, I am usually the only solo parent, but I only think about it if I see a list of parents and students and my daughter is the only one with one parent on the list. Aside from these tiny moments, I feel like the joys and hardships I feel and experience are the same for most parents. But when a school application is in front of me and the whole page titled “secondary parent” is blank, I tend to be overcome with shame. It is not sadness or loss or a desire for pity. It is this deep seated belief that I have somehow wronged the world and wronged my daughter. It is a belief that there is something wrong with me and that has always been wrong with me to make me so irregular. I am somehow unable to have a normal relationship or a normal job or simply live a normal life. And, now I have brought an innocent child into this strange abnormality.
Growing up I was the third child. Somehow I was raised in the same house as my siblings, but always did things and lived my life differently. I didn’t have a relationship in high school, I went to three very different colleges to finish my undergrad degree, I moved around and traveled and basically could not sit still in life. I always admired my siblings. They seemed to have traditional college experiences and lives and got married and had children and stayed at jobs for normal amounts of time. If our lives were puzzles, theirs always seemed to be complete and mine always felt like it was forever missing pieces. There was always some messiness about my life. This carried out of my home into my friend circles as well. I always felt like my life was somehow different and weird and not “normal.” When I found out I was going to raise a child alone, I remember thinking, “God, can’t I even do parenthood normally?!” Instead of just accepting this as being who I am, or even celebrating it, I have always felt shame about it.
Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, became pregnant when she was 35 with the child of an old friend, who upon discovering she was pregnant, became angry, walked away, and made it very clear he would not be in the child’s life. Her story is so parallel to my own, that literally dozens of people have suggested I read her book, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. The book is beautiful for any parent to read. I laughed and cried and was overjoyed to hear an experience so much like my own. In it, she addresses shame in the most perfect way,
“I have these secret pangs of shame about being single, like I wasn’t good enough to get a husband. Rita reminded me of something I’d told her once, about the five rules of the world as arrived at by this Catholic priest named Tom Weston. The first rule, he says, is that you must not have anything wrong with you or anything different. The second one is that if you do have something wrong with you, you must get over it as soon as possible. The third rule is that if you can’t get over it, you must pretend that you have. The fourth rule is that if you can’t even pretend that you have, you shouldn’t show up. You should stay home, because it’s hard for everyone else to have you around. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.
So Rita and I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”
Shame is not something others can make you feel. Your friends and family can possibly cause you to feel guilty about something you have done, but I believe shame is self-inflicted. It is something we believe about ourselves. It is not the feeling that we have done something wrong but that we ARE something wrong. It is debilitating and, quite frankly, a lie. If we truly believe that we are made in the Creator’s image, then shame should never even come into play. Each one of us has this piece of the higher being within us and that should be greater than any inadequacies we feel.
My struggle with shame is my own. It is one of the biggest ways I have wronged myself and those around me. Being a solo parent or having a gypsy spirit or not being able to function in a relationship may be a little different, but it is not wrong. As a parent, I don’t want my daughter to ever feel this shame. As weird as she is, or unconventional, or totally “normal,” I want her to just love herself and be proud of the amazing little being that she is. This desire for her makes me more aware of the fact that I need to “get over it, show up for my life, and not be ashamed.” I truly believe when any of us can be ourselves, embrace our quirks and differences, and celebrate those things that make each one of us unique, we will be able to free ourselves of shame and genuinely live our lives.