I was always a planner. So when I got pregnant in December 2011, I made my lists and made sure they happened. My husband and I decided to buy a house. After months of looking, we finally found a house in Queens, N.Y., and my mom moved into the downstairs apartment, so she could help us with our baby. Little did I know that four months after my son was born, my husband would die.
So, there I was—a widow mom at age 37, with a mortgage and a newborn son, John, to take care of. I was utterly distraught, but I went straight into survival mode. I went back to work just one week after he died because I had to pay the bills. At work, I was able to put on a smile and talk to people like nothing had happened. At home, it was a different story. I was mentally exhausted from being positive all day. I often couldn't leave my bedroom and left most of the parenting to my mother—something I still feel guilty about. One day melted into the next, and I felt as if I couldn't get out from under the black cloud that seemed to be tacked above my head.
After a year or so, I decided I needed to make a change. My son was starting to walk and talk, and I didn't want to him to have a mom who was so depressed. So, I started to go to therapy and think about what I really wanted for both my son and me. It took some time to actually figure out what that was. But I realized that I wanted to be a writer, so I worked on transitioning my career from being a project manager to a copywriter.
Now, two and a half years after becoming a widow, we are in a better place. I can function in the world with other people and actually have a good time. I think my son can see that as well. At almost 3 years old, he has become quite the motor mouth, and I can communicate with him. I can say that I am definitely present with him. I no longer feel like I am hollow inside. That helps make me a better parent.
Like most working mothers, I feel guilty that I have to work so much and am not able to be with him like my mother was with me. I have three jobs: one full-time job as a copywriter and two online jobs as a writing advisor and adjunct writing professor. It takes up much of my time. But I have support: my mother cares for him when I am at work, and he is going to nursery school to interact with other kids. My late husband's family also helps when I am in a pinch. I learned to ask for help.
I show him pictures of his father, and he says "daddy" when he sees them. Some times are more difficult than others. Just recently at a friend's birthday party, my son saw my friend's boyfriend and repeatedly called him "daddy." I said, "John, that is not your daddy." But he continued to call him that while playing with balloons. Then, about a week later, he saw our neighbors, a young couple, and said, "There is mommy and daddy." My heart sunk at that very moment.
I thought to myself, "Why couldn't he have that conventional family: mom, dad and child?" That is just not how our lives turned out. My own father passed away when I was 18, and I always felt that my father would never be able to be with me all of the time if he were alive, but now that he has passed, he will always be with me in some way. So, I told my son that his dad lives in the sky and in his heart.
I don't plan things out now. I often can't think past two weeks ahead, and I think it is better this way. Life will always have its ups and downs, and one must take it as it comes. That is also what being a parent is. Parents are not always in control, if ever. So, I live in the moment with my son. And when I look into his eyes, I know he is right there with me.
Natalie Altieri is a New York-based writer and mom to her, son John. She is a contributor to MommyPoppins.com, ScaryMommy.com, and WellRoundedNY.com. In addition, she teaches writing for the University of Maryland University College.