Sarah Weld: Which came first – your Literary Mama “Single Mom Seeking” columns or your book?
Rachel Sarah: The columns came first. Roughly half of the book’s outline was based on the column. But I really fleshed out what happened in the book by going back to my journals and memories. The idea to turn my Literary Mama column into a book came after I searched high and low for first-person dating stories from a single mom’s perspective and came up dry. I thought, “If I can’t find the book that I want to read, maybe I should try to write it.”
SW: You are amazingly frank when it comes to your sexual experiences while dating. Was this a conscious decision or are you this honest naturally?
RS: I really wanted to write an honest book. I love reading the nitty gritty and the true. I am a memoir junkie. I love reading about the real stuff. I am naturally like that. My amazing editor, Jill Rothenberg, told me that my sex scenes moved way too fast, that they were all one sentence. I realized that I had to really go for it or cut it. It would seem so false if I left all those parts out. I just went for it. Of course, there’s hindsight: like the fact that my entire family has now read the book, along with many parents in my daughter’s school.
SW: So, did you have qualms about being so open about your sex life?
RS: Yes, I’m having qualms now. When I wrote the book, my daughter was not reading yet. Now she is so excited to thumb through the pages and find her name. I’m thinking, should I have changed her name? I have some review copies and whenever her friends come over she hands them out. I say, “Maybe I should call your mom first.” When I wrote the book I was partly writing in reaction to all the negative images of single moms. I really wanted to show that single moms [who are] like me and all the single moms in my community are sexy, healthy, independent, and feel good about our bodies. I can be reactive in my writing. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this radio show talk host, Tom Leykis, whose show actually revolves around steering men away from single moms. He says that we’re needy and deprived. Please! When you see the media presenting single moms as being so unattractive and insecure, it makes you want to stand up and shout, “But look at me! I feel sexy and healthy and strong!”
SW: You’ve been doing a lot of television and radio appearances. Has any of your book’s publicity been uncomfortable for you? Are you enjoying it?
RS: It’s such a stretch from sitting alone in front of my computer and not talking to anybody for most of the day. I’m having a ball being on TV, but of course it can make you a little uncomfortable. Two of the television shows were live. I am completely put on the spot. And it’s not just being on the spot but being on the spot about my personal life. I never know exactly what they’re going to ask me. The last host warned me that although the book was quite racy, I could not bring up any sexual references on TV. It almost feels like doing improv on stage, except that it’s real life.
SW: Has your daughter seen you on television?
RS: Yes. This last Sunday I left her with a friend. She got bored halfway through and went to play. When I came home, she told me, “Mommy, you did a really good job but I really didn’t like your laugh. It was really fake.” And it’s true. I have this really nervous laugh.
SW: What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about single mothers?
RS: That we’re needy, dependent, and insecure. This latest study that came out shows that the trend for single moms is that they’re no longer teen moms. They are now women in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s who are working, have careers, are independent and want to have a child. A lot of these women have boyfriends but are deciding not to live with them or not to get married. They want to have a child and wait to see how the marriage goes.
SW: If you could give only one piece of advice to a dating parent, what would it be?
RS: Get a tribe. When you’re a single parent, [you need] a clan of close friends — a tribe. It’s much more than a nice distraction, it’s the key to survival. I met one of my best friends at the playground when she shared her snack bag with my daughter and me (after we cleaned our hands with “wipies”). I was a new single mom. She was in the middle of a divorce. Every Wednesday night, we get together with another single mom friend and our three girls for dinner and talk. One of us makes the main dish, while the others bring the sides. This third friend is the one who dared me to put myself on Match.com the same time as her. When we tried to take digital photos to put online, our girls kept jumping in front of the lens. We’re a self-made single-moms’ group. We swap childcare. We are also honest bogus detectors when it’s time for a potential boyfriend to pass the test. We absolve each other.
SW: What’s the best piece of parenting, or dating advice you’ve ever received?
RS: I like how you put parenting and dating side-by-side. Interesting juxtaposition! When I wrote a piece at WashingtonPost.com, readers called me “pathetic” and a “loser,” and said that I should have given up my daughter for adoption. Single moms all over the country wrote to me, telling me to keep my head high. They really helped me keep my skin thick. So my best piece of advice is, “Keep your head high and have thick skin.” Those are vital for both parenting and dating.
SW: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently during your dating years?
RS: Honestly, no. In some ways I feel really fortunate that my daughter was really little. She doesn’t remember her father and I do feel like I got away with a lot. I’d leave her with friends and she’d have a great time and she wasn’t wondering, “What’s Mommy doing?” As a single mom I finally learned how to date. I got really good at setting my boundaries. I really kept dates short even if I liked somebody. But I have to say that with Yanay it was a 20-minute coffee date at Peet’s that turned into two hours.
SW: It sounds like you’ve finally met someone who you really like. Are you still happily involved with Yanay?
RS: Yes! We are living together now. Well, today we are happy. He’d probably say that I’m difficult. I go up and down. I’m kind of complicated. It’s quite a challenge, moving in with The Man. After six years of living in our girls-only estrogen chamber, living with a Man is a big change. And he’s been a bachelor his whole life — he’s 45 — so he has to adjust, too. It’s been a huge transition. I expected my daughter to have the most challenges but she loves our new house, Yanay, and the dog. She’s doing so well. For me I didn’t realize what a shock it would be after living six years with my little girl. Yanay and I are both learning how to compromise and communicate. I really adore him.
In the original proposal for Single Mom Seeking, I end the book at a place in which I’m content being a single mom. The initial ending was something like: “Here I am, still a single mom, and I’ll probably be dating until my kid goes off to college, but that’s okay.” There was no man in sight. I met Yanay just as I was finishing the book. That last chapter was written quickly. We moved in together in August.
SW: You refer frequently in your book to your first date skirt, a knee-length sequined turquoise skirt that you wore on many first dates. You describe it, and yourself, as growing frayed after so much dating. Have you retired or bronzed it?
RS: It’s hanging in the closet and I love your idea of bronzing it. I have worn it some. I feel funny about wearing it, that somehow people are going to recognize it.
SW: Is there anything you miss about your single life?
RS: Yes. I never had to make mother-daughter time before. I’ve never had to ask for that before. Every night, it was simply the two of us. Now that I have a boyfriend, I’ll find myself saying, “Actually, honey, tonight my daughter and I are going out for burritos, just the two of us, mother and daughter. Is that okay?” I need to ask and make room for the two of us. Luckily, it’s always okay with him.
SW: Do you think your daughter’s life with you as a single mom has affected her outlook on life?
RS: Just yesterday, my daughter’s first grade teacher asked me to speak to her class about writing a book. Of course, the kids wanted to know what it was about. The teacher explained, “A single mom is someone who raises her child alone, like Rachel has with her daughter.” I looked over at my daughter sitting on the rug and smiling, and she looked so proud. I’m still blown away by how resilient she is and how she seems to look at life without judgment. Her friends have asked her, “Where’s your Daddy?” and I’ve eavesdropped. She’s said, “I have a birth father and he couldn’t take care of me, so my Mommy did.” She is so strong inside.
SW: How do you juggle single parenthood and full-time freelance writing? I know you write numerous articles for all kinds of publications. How do you make it all work?
RS: I get up at the crack of dawn and often work after putting my daughter to bed. She asked me last night, “Mommy, if your book is already in the stores, then why are you still working on the computer all the time? Mommy, are you writing any more books?” She does not like my computer.
SW: Can you talk a little bit about what role writing plays in your life? Has there ever been a time in your life when you haven’t written?
RS: No, but when I first became a single mom it was often one scribbled line a day. A lot of them I wrote on the subway on a little piece of paper and tucked them in my journal. I definitely used them in my book. I really tried to remember what place I was in. The hardest part to write about was being in New York and my daughter’s father coming back. When I was first starting to write I was going to leave that whole part out because it was too painful but I wanted to tell the truth.
Writing is the thing that keeps me together. You hear every writer say it: I’ve been writing since I first learned how to put the pencil on the paper. This amazes me now, as I watch my own daughter write. Whenever she’s upset at me she writes a note — like “No Mommy Alowd [sic]” — and tapes it to her bedroom door. As a kid, my mom, who is a poet, played word games with my sister and me.
SW: What about your own mother? Do you have a good relationship?
RS: Unfortunately, my mother is no longer speaking to me. She landed in California before Christmas and even tagged along for a TV interview I did on ABC News. I greatly appreciated the fact she took care of my daughter, who was home from school on a break. I told her that I was very apprehensive about letting her read my book, since it might hurt her. I explained that I wrote about her from a very disappointed place. But it’s human nature to want to know what your daughter thinks about you, right?
My mother browsed through the book until she found the parts about her. She started to cry and stormed out of my home. I have apologized profusely. I have said that I made a mistake by being so harsh. But she is not speaking to me for now. Could I have been kinder and more sympathetic? Certainly. She was really proud of me until she read the book. My dad, on the other hand, said he loved the book although he was surprised about my high sex drive.
SW: I’m curious about what you are reading right now. What do you consider some of your most influential books?
RS: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions — she is my top-top. I read that and re-read that when I became a single mom. I adore her in general. I read every night; that’s my way of calming myself down. My all-time favorite book is Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. I also loved Berkeley author Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman, and Susan Shapiro’s Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, and Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion. I also just read and really enjoyed Happiness Sold Separately by Lolly Winston.
SW: What’s your next project?
RS: I’m headed to New York City this weekend to meet with a new agent and hopefully sell my next book, And Boyfriend Makes Three. I am excited and want to dive in there.