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Author: Single Dads Need Love, Too


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, a fresh and sultry sound on the music scene, singer and songwriter Lizz Wright in performance here in our studio. But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mothers support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today we have a mocha twist, a Mocha Dad who is here to talk about the joys and the trials of being a single dad. A single dad of two little ones who, how can we put this delicately, ain't dead yet and still wants to find love or some female companionship before the kids go off to college. Trey Ellis is the author of "Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single Fatherhood," and he joins us now from NPR's New York Bureau.

But from another perspective we decided to invite Mocha Moms regular Asra Nomani. She's also an author and she is a visiting professor of journalism at Georgetown University and also a single mom of one son. And she joins us here in our Washington studio. Hi folks. Thanks for coming.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Georgetown University): Hi Michel.

Mr. TREY ELLIS (Screenwriter): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Trey, I was trying to describe your book. Kind of a memoir, kind of a guide to how to keep it together when your world falls apart. How do you think about it?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I'm a novelist and a screenwriter and I was reading Dave Eggers' book "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and it occurred to me that my story was heartbreaking and humorous at the same time. And I thought, let me try writing a memoir, creative non-fiction about what I'd been through in my life.

MARTIN: There's a lot of funny and some heartbreaking stuff in here - it has to be said - the kind of thing that women talk about. Like you know, how you feel like your heart is being ripped out of your chest when you understand that your marriage which was so important to you is falling apart. I'm wondering if it was hard for you to make the decision to be so revealing.

Mr. ELLIS: I think even in my novels I've been a bit of a voyeur of myself. My friends say, how can you write all these things about yourself that are so personal? And I just can't help it. It's a compulsion.

MARTIN: And I also have to say that you are a minority within a minority within a minority. In 2006, there were 2.5 million single dads. That's a big increase from 1970. There were only about 400,000. Among single parents living with their children only 19 percent are men. But you are African-American for those who don't know. I just wonder if that's something that you feel keenly. Do you feel like a lone ranger out there and kind of navigating this unfamiliar terrain?

Mr. ELLIS: Oh yeah, I like to think of myself as this, as a martyr, and that helps. But the reality is I do have lots of very good friends that take pity on me, especially my friends' wives. And they help me tremendously and without their help I couldn't have made it.

MARTIN: Well, let's get into the kind of a the heart of the thing which is your search for love as well as for, you know, just trying to keep it together. So you've been a bachelor and you've been a single dad. What's the biggest difference between when you were single and on the hunt and then being a single dad and on the hunt?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, when I was single-single on, you know, on the hunt, as you put it, that was in the '80s, so that was a long, long time ago. So my boxy coats and you know, you know, Grover Washington, Jr. albums I had to put aside. So when I was thrust in, you know, six years ago, into singledom, it was a big shock for me. And my first forays into those bars and Internet dating were pretty terrifying and humiliating, and you know, I wouldn't want to do that again. What the book to me is...

MARTIN: Just a hint. None of us wants to do it again. Nobody wanted to do it the first time.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, that was, that was, you know, pretty horrible. But then I must say, moving here to New York City from Los Angeles has made a huge difference. I just feel that, as I said at the end of the book, my conclusion of the book is that I really - I'm still an incurable romantic but I'm incurably romantic about my kids. And that's taken some pressure off from every woman I meet; you know, they don't have to say, like are you going to be my kids' new mommy? That's helped a lot. So now I think that my relationships have a much healthier beginning.

MARTIN: Asra, talk to me about your, your life. You've written also about being a single mom. But in the political context of being a Muslim and in some parts of the world, you know, what we think about sort of being a single parent in this country as being kind of just sort of one family choice among many. But you've written about it in the context of being a person who some people consider worthy of death threats because you're a single mom. And so dating in contrast to that maybe seems a little bit mundane. But how do you think about that? How do you manage that?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, I got to say that if a mom wrote a book like this, I think that somebody would basically call Child Protective Services on her. I don't think it's the kind of thing that a woman can get away with most of the time, especially in public, whether you're Muslim or not, because all of the sort of exploits of trying to find love and welcoming, you know, significant others into your home with kids is something that I wouldn't even think about doing now.

You know, when we welcome men into our house, if we're dating the, there's all these other layers of complexity.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Come on. I mean I think this a classic scenario, a single mom trying to figure how to date and...

Ms. NOMANI: All right, so like the most action I've gotten in the five years that I've had my son is basically cuddling with him and Dr. Seuss. I mean this is the story of our lives, and I have to say that I worry. I have a little boy but I still wonder about protecting my son. And I don't know if - I'd love to hear from Trey whether he felt that same vulnerability, that same fear even.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I certainly did and part of the divorce decree with my ex-wife was that we had to know the significant other up to six months before actually introducing them to our house.

Ms. NOMANI: Right, but then you broke that decree.

Mr. ELLIS: I did break that decree, but that person, Alex, the French actress, was living with us.

Ms. NOMANI: Because...

Mr. ELLIS: Throwing herself into this world with us. And it certainly was kind of a rookie mistake as a newly single person. But you know, one thing, it's almost easier when they are really, really little because they are not really, they don't really know who's around them. Now that they are older, it's much more like here is this person. Like my ex-girlfriends are friends of my kids now and still give presents to them. They're still like an auntie, they are part of their life.

MARTIN: One thing I think that I've found interesting is that as a guy I don't think you got that kind of support that I think women would get from their friends. I mean I think that women going through this kind of expect their girlfriends to show up with casseroles, you know, with cake, to sit on their couch as long as is necessary with the Kleenex right there. And I don't know that you got that as a guy.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, certainly that's true in the beginning, and I was just writing about this on my blog, that the single moms, there's a group of them, so I know so many single moms that get together and they do things together. They cook together, they co-parent together. I'm the only single dad that I know.

MARTIN: On the other hand, like Asra, you were saying that one of the stereotypes about single mothers is that they are desperate. You know, they are looking for a husband. They are willing to take anybody to sort of fulfill that role. Doesn't that just irritate the heck out of you?

Ms. NOMANI: It does, and you know, I got my grief. I got from within my Muslim community when I would go to the mosque, people would think that I was just looking for a husband. And so in a way, I don't even want to engage in that, because I don't want that projected on me. And so, yeah, I got my letters you know, from uncles in our community who said you must get married soon, otherwise your son will condemn you. And I was like - condemn? Man, that's a tough call. But that's exactly the pressure.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we are talking about sex and single parenthood, and our guests are journalist Asra Nomani and author Trey Ellis. Trey, you also wrote about not wanting to be that guy. Explain who that guy is and why you didn't want to be that guy.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, that guy is - I mean I grew up in the '70s and thinking of the show "Baretta," Tony Baretta every single week would have a new girlfriend and he'd say this is my cousin so and so to the chief of police, and it was just a revolving door of women. And I was determine not to be that guy. Not that I was, I have the skill set to make that happen, but even if I did, I wouldn't be that guy. I don't think that's fair to my kids, and it's - it's ultimately a waste of time.

And I've been writing about this a lot recently as well. When you have the love of these children in you, you don't have the fear of growing old alone, the fear of abandonment. You are not like a desperate single. You have so much of your - your heart is already full. So you really, what you're looking for is something more sexual and more adult. But if you breathe into it, you can really - that takes a lot of pressure off of the relationships you're looking for among adults.

MARTIN: One of the things I think you're really honest about though, Trey, is the loneliness. Sometimes just the loneliness, you are the only one there at night, maybe somebody's got a fever, maybe somebody else is, you know, sick, maybe somebody is, you know, you've got two kids crying or something like that and there's no other adult to share that load or there's decisions to be made and there was not another adult right there to share that load. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mr. ELLIS: Yes, certainly that was - I felt more lonely when they were younger. That's when I looked bad. When Chet, in the beginning when my wife first left, Chet was eight months old and Eva was three. So I really did have, you know, besides some help during the day, at night it really was a whole lot of work. And yeah, that loneliness threatened to swallow me whole.

Now that they're older, they're more friends to me as well too, so I feel much more filled up in all aspects, and we just - the three of us have just the greatest time together. It's really - I don't know. I feel that we're coming into a real golden age for us.

MARTIN: Asra, what about you? I know you live with your folks, and they give you a lot of help. But what about you? Do you ever feel that way?

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Journalist): Well, I thought it was really interesting reading Trey's book, that journey that took him a little while, you know, to have that sense of companionship and kinship with his kids, filling that space in his heart that was empty, was one that really happened for a mom, for me, really fast.

I mean, I was always - I was a lonely single in New York City, in Washington, D.C. I would throw myself into relationships. I would, you know, imagine last names, right, on my own name after two dates, right? And I - something crazy happened where I don't feel it, and I'm still trying to understand it.

Because you know, you think that as an adult woman you're supposed to want to have a partner, and you're supposed to want to know love and sex also, but I don't know also if what it is is that the last time that I had a serious relationship and that I had sex was when I conceived my child. And so that stays with you, because you see the result of intimacy in front of you every single day, and you see the responsibility that comes with it, and so you don't throw yourself lightly into those kinds of relationships.

And so when I dated over the last few years, if I knew within a couple dates that this guy was not a good match, I abandoned it. Otherwise before, I would have kept it going and gone, oh, I can change. Things can change. Oh, he's wonderful when he wasn't. And so that's what I noticed just as a reader of Trey's book.

MARTIN: So Trey, what have you learned?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, what I loved about writing the book was, as you read in the last half of the book, it's a book - "Bedtime Stories" is a book in search of an ending, as I'm writing it, and when I was dating this French woman, I thought, oh, what a great ending. He's so sad, his wife left him, and now he's got the beautiful French actress who loves his kids and cooks well and likes to have sex and everything's great. And then she leaves, and it's a tragedy again.

So what I learned is - the lesson at the end of the book is that I'm not going to be dependent on these other people outside of my family, outside of the three of us, my two kids and I, to find any kind of fulfillment. And the loneliness I felt right after my ex-wife left was because I had lived really a fairy tale romance with her, first single for eight years and then for almost four years with our kids. So once that was gone, I really did have a big void in my life, because when she left I had - the day before she left, I had two kids and a wife. So I had a romantic life and a parenting life, and then suddenly that half of me was just ripped away.

Ms. NOMANI: You know, when I was pregnant I was in the middle of writing this book on Tantra, right, and this whole search for divine love that we know in the West, through Tantric sex, and so I thought it was going to end up with a man, and when I had my son without a man around, you know, because his dad bailed and wasn't around when I delivered, I actually realized that I found divine love.

I mean, I found that love that I thought that I was going to find in a man, and there's this real neat poem that says in the beginning of my life I've been looking for your face, but today I have seen it. And so that's how I felt when I saw my son, and that's how I feel, like, you know, we if we are single parents can really have more balanced lives if we see our kids as that manifestation of that incredible love.

MARTIN: Well, Asra, what do you think in all, and I know that you don't really see yourself in the advice-gig business, but if you had some word of wisdom for other women who are starting on the journey that you are now on, what would it be?

Ms. NOMANI: I think it's really important to not have delusions, really, of romantic love that is not based on just practicality and reality. Sure, there's room for romance and love and passion, but I think that the things that we do when we are unrealistic and when we are living an illusion can be devastating.

MARTIN: Trey, what about you? What about someone who is just starting on the journey that you've been on? What would you say to them?

Mr. ELLIS: I'd say what Asra is saying, like I think to breathe and to be easy on yourself because it's really, really hard. But every step - if you keep the love of your children in the center, as kind of your compass, then every step you take is going to take you in the right direction, and eventually you'll look up and you'll say, wow, I made it through a really difficult part of my life and I've actually found someone who understands the difficulties I've been through and is willing and wants to be a partner in my life, and I've come out on the other end healthier and more whole than I could've believed in the beginning.

MARTIN: And you describe yourself as a romantic. Is it your thought that you have to give up that heart-in-your-mouth feeling or you should stop looking for it once you become a parent?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I'm - you know, I'm still a love junkie. I still, you know, I know that kind of hit that you feel, that I feel, but I just have to understand the nuance between, well, is that just because she's actually really pretty or she smiled at me in some way, or is there something really profound about this person that is having - we're having a true heart connection together and this person's very special, so pay attention to those feelings.

MARTIN: Trey Ellis is a writer. He's also a professor at Columbia University, and he's the author of "Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single Fatherhood." We were also joined by Asra Nomani. She's a visiting professor at Georgetown University. She's a regular in our Mocha Moms roundtable, and she's also the author of "Standing Alone at Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ELLIS: Thank you.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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