As I stepped out of the car on to the curb at Newark Airport last Saturday to embark on a four-night trip to Austin, Texas, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that I successfully made it out the door. The preparation leading up to my departure was harried as usual. As a single mom, I must get a lot of ducks in a row in order to enjoy a few days on my own, not as someone’s mom or, as in the past, someone’s wife, but as me, the woman I’m first getting to know at the ripe-young age of 41. I smiled to myself. Excruciatingly tired, but satisfied. Content in the moment. Excited for the days that lay ahead.
I swiftly made my way through the airport, pretty sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, and not really caring much if I did. When I reached security, I got on line amidst all of the excited families leaving for Winter Break, destined for fun in the sun or hot-chocolate filled ski trips. My own family, now fragmented and broken as a consequence of my recent divorce, would be separated this school vacation, my children leaving the next day with their dad for the Bahamas. I was, it seemed, the only lone traveler in a sea of happy families.
I could practically taste the non-fat latte that beckoned me from Starbucks on the other side of security when an airport employee ordered me off the line, pronto.
“Do you see the sign?” he hollered, causing heads to turn, expressionless in their complacency. “You are only allowed to have two carry on bags. You have three.”
“I have one carry-on bag, a computer, and my handbag,” I explained. “I’ve never had a problem traveling with these items before.”
“Get. Off. The. Line.” His voice escalated with every utterance.
I glanced down at my watch. The airport was crowded, still regrouping from yet another snowstorm two days earlier, the umpteenth one that plagued the Northeast this winter. Coupled with the crowds traveling for Winter Break, I knew I didn’t have a lot of cushion time before I would come dangerously close to missing my flight.
“I’m traveling alone,” I pleaded. “What am I supposed to do?”
“That’s your problem,” he sneered.
I stood silent, watching the crowds of people file through security, many carrying the same items as I was. Of course it’s my problem. It’s always my problem. I’m alone. And I felt it.
My eyes welled with tears.
Another airport employee nearby, witnessing the commotion, questioned her co-worker why I was being singled out. She looked quizzical.
“Please,” I said to her. “I’m here by myself.” I have no one to take my computer, and I need to have it with me. Please”
And then, to my surprise, I said it. Out loud, for the world to hear. Judge.
“I’m a single mom.”
I was mortified. I had just asked for special treatment because I’m raising kids alone. Kids who weren’t even with me! I cringed as I heard the words escape me. Had I just implied I have a disability of some sort? Did I subconsciously believe I was deserving of special treatment because I have no husband? I felt like a disgrace to women everywhere.
The two co-workers immediately began bickering. Minutes later, and much to the original airport employee's chagrin, he begrudgingly aborted his attack and allowed me back on line. I thanked the female employee for her assistance and went on my way, trying to make sense of the implication of my words.
My life as a single mom is challenging, more challenging than it ever was when I was married, even to a workaholic husband who was rarely home to help. In addition to the monetary, physical, and logistical challenges, the emotional impact of raising three children alone is something I struggle with every day. It never leaves me, even when the children are thousands of miles from my side.
As I thought about it, I realized I didn’t utter those words in shame. I stated them with pride. I’m a single mom. I’ve come this far. And I’m going further. Faster, full speed ahead. Never will I stay silent while someone singles me out because I’m alone.
No, I didn’t have time for my morning coffee. But I made my flight.
The ironic part is I wasn’t playing the single mom card that morning.
I was living it.