It’s hard enough for a woman over 35 to get a boyfriend in this town, but try being a woman over 35 with a kid. Though single dads are automatic chick magnets, single moms aren’t so lucky. To some guys, they’re at the bottom of the dating barrel—they’re harried, busy, poor, and thoroughly committed to someone who was fathered by somebody else. And yet they’re tough, they’re up-front, and there’s very little that can throw them. In a world where single women’s baby hunger can drive men crazy, single moms may be their new best bet.
Jo, 38, a boutique owner, lives on the Lower East Side with her 10-year-old daughter, Ella. Jo is white and Ella’s father is black, and the two barely look related, much less like mother and daughter. Jo is slender and drawn, with long, dark hair, while Ella is bulkier, with a huge curly mop. “I don’t like any of her boyfriends,” Ella tells me over a sushi dinner with her mom, “because they take my mommy away.”
Ella’s grumpy because lately she’s been having to share her mother more; Jo has been dating an artist named Nick since September, and he sleeps over in their tiny apartment almost every night. Recently, Jo and Nick were talking about their future. “I fantasized that we’d have this wedding ceremony,” Jo recalls, “and at the end I’d say, ‘Oh, that was fun. See you tomorrow,’ and we’d go back to living in our separate worlds.”
“You know what I’m going to do if you get married?” Ella interrupts. “I’m going to get two of those big grenade-gun things, and I’d shoot Nick in the head. I’d kill him, and then you’d be too old to get married.”
Not surprisingly, Jo recently put Ella in therapy. She’d been expressing violent thoughts about Nick, and Jo was worried. Part of the problem is that the apartment is so tiny. “It’s too small for his stuff,” Jo explains, “and I pay $636 a month, so I’m not going anywhere unless it’s a really good deal. Part of that is just being realistic, but it’s also that I’ve been living independently for so long that I can’t imagine giving up that world for somebody else.”
Still, Jo’s had no shortage of boyfriends since she and Ella’s dad broke up. Most guys last more than a year. Some stay in touch; one of her exes still takes Ella to the movies. “I called him my daddoo,” Ella says.
I start thinking how cute that sounds, then Jo adds, “It was a combination of daddy and doodoo.” I ask Jo if she thinks she attracts unconventional men. “I think the people I attract are 40-year-old kids. They’re not totally irresponsible. They’re committed and interested, but being with me is a safe way of trying a family on for size.”
“But once they get to know you, they have responsibilities,” I say.
She nods. “I have a lot of expectations because of Ella. I expect them to help me move my car or drop my laundry off. The Chinese man that does my laundry around the corner, I don’t know how many different guys he’s seen picking up my laundry, but he knows it’s the red bag.”
Jo and Ella’s dad, Steve, who was 24 when Ella was born, had already broken up when she got pregnant. “I made the decision to keep Ella,” she says, “and he didn’t really have a choice.” Her fantasy was that if she raised a kid alone, she’d get to make all the decisions: “I wasn’t thinking about some of the other things that come along with making all the decisions—like the nonstop 24-hour workload.”
“ ‘I don’t like any of her boyfriends, because they take my mommy away.’ ”
Steve lives in California these days and has gotten married, and he’s been in and out of Ella’s life. Jo’s begun looking into establishing paternity so she can get child support. “I feel guilty in a way,” she says, “but he is legally responsible.”
I have a hard time respecting this way of thinking, since she chose to raise Ella on her own. “Do you see your dad a lot?” I ask Ella.
“Yeah. I went to California last summer.”
“Two summers ago,” Jo corrects her. “You hardly ever see him. He came here one day last summer and bought you a T-shirt.”
So far, Jo’s relationship with Nick has been going well, aside from the fact that he has no income to speak of. She was careful not to introduce him to Ella until a month after they started dating. Jo met Nick on the street in front of Jeffrey, where they’d both been shopping. They talked about fashion, and she told him about her store. He stopped by a few times and they flirted.
“I didn’t actually tell him I had a daughter,” she says, “and then one day, he stopped by when my friend, who also knows him, was painting the gate. My friend told him I had a kid, and Nick didn’t come back for two weeks. I thought, Damn, it’s because I have a kid. Well, fuck him. But it was because he was in another relationship.”
The night Nick met Ella, he charmed her by telling her he was retarded. But as he began staying over more, Ella began complaining. “It’s okay if my mom has a boyfriend,” she explains, “because I’d like her to be happy and everything, but I don’t want her to be in a really big relationship where he sleeps over every day. She used to say, ‘He’ll sleep over two nights a week—’ ”
“I never said that,” Jo says. Ella shakes her head, sticking to her story.
Now that Ella’s in therapy, she seems a little less angry at Nick. The biggest problem for Nick and Jo nowadays is that his biological clock has begun ticking. He’s 42, and when he sees babies, he tells her how cute they are. “We have these friends who just had a baby, and they say his ovaries are twitching,” Jo says.
She gets a faraway look. “I’m not against having another child, but I don’t want to do it alone again. And I don’t want to do it without really good health insurance and more income than I make right now.”
In the meantime, she’s focusing on more immediate concerns. With Nick sleeping over a lot, she’s thinking about buying a door—a big step in an apartment that doesn’t have any. “If you get a door, I’m going to break it down,” Ella says.
“I’ve already decided I want a door,” Jo insists. “I just have to find the right one.”