Last night my kids and I read — for the zillionth time — from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I’ve loved Silverstein’s poems since I was a kid, and I now appreciate so much what a great artist he was. “Backwards Bill,” about a doofy dude who does everything wrong is my favorite. It manages to be ridiculous (“Backward Bill he rides like the wind, Don’t know where he’s going but sees where he’s been.”), tragic (“And he’s got a wife named Backward Lil, ‘She’s my own true hate,’ says Backward Bill.”) and tenderly evokes empathy for the poor dolt, leaving us with the brilliant wordplay of:
Backward Bill wears his hat on his toes
And puts on his underwear over his clothes.
And come every payday he pays his boss,
And rides off a-smilin’ a-carryin’ his hoss.
After the kids went to bed I googled Silverstein to learn more. Turns out that he had a long, varied career as a songwriter and performer with the 70s outlaw rock band, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and cartoonist of record for Hugh Hefner for 40 years. Much of his content was raunchy tales of sex and drugs.
Yes indeed. The man who makes parents around the world weep like babies with The Giving Tree, evokes children’s giggles (“Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout [would not take the garbage out]”) and squirms, with warnings about the sharp-toothed snail who lives in your nose and chomps off little picky fingers, also penned songs “Masochistic Baby,” and “I Love My Right Hand” for an album called Sloppy Seconds. Cartoons for Playboy spanned topics from orgies, weed, and cynical commentary on marriage.
This is so liberating! Silverstein did whatever the fuck he wanted to do, created whatever he wanted to create, paid no attention to any marketers or moralists may have tried to box him into a single brand, a single medium, target just one demographic. Though he may be remembered mainly for children’s literature, it seems he had a pretty awesome time writing songs about rolling the perfect joint and documenting sex parties for Playboy. Because that suited him. And we’re all richer for it.
This applies to single motherhood. No one tells you that if you are the sole provider for kids, it is A-OK to quit a safe, high-paying job and go follow your creative and professional passion. No one tells you it is really great if you chose to have a hot bath instead of playing Legos, or buy yourself expensive chocolate and not share any with the kids. There is no broad paradigm in which it is celebrated when women prioritize being really awesome mothers AND fulfilled lovers.
SO I’M TELLING YOU: You can do whatever you want! We are all blazing new paths of feminism and family here. WE, SINGLE MOMS, ARE MAKING THE RULES. The rules include being passionate and real and making the world a whole lot better for it. Go forward!