Second in a pair of essays today on Louis C.K. Previously: The Louie Bubble.
Winter is the season of television discontent. Months remain before the third season of "Louie" and the second season isn’t on DVD yet. I was late to "Louie," but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I spent a summer weekend in a sweaty fugue state in my hotbox of a 6th-floor Brooklyn apartment, unable to move, obsessively watching the entire first season. I got to an episode where his daughters are off with their mother for a week and he goes on a bender of pizza, ice cream and pot, and then I experienced something oddly meta. My living room wasn’t littered with take-out boxes, but coffee was the only thing I’d consumed for hours and the only limb I’d moved was my right arm—to click the track pad of my laptop to order the next show. My torpor was induced for the same reason as Louie's—my daughter was out of town with her father.
If you share custody of your kids, "Louie" serves as a meditation on single parenting in this way. There have been television shows about single mothers ("Julia," "One Day at a Time," "Kate & Allie," "Murphy Brown"), and there was Fred MacMurray’s 1950’s single widower on "My Three Sons," but an adult in a joint custodial situation is rarely seen on a screen of any size and then always as an “alternative” lifestyle, not as a given. My girl goes back and forth between her father and me nearly every other day. TV-Louie has his kids for half of each week, and his show vividly plumbs the depths of the particular kind of existentialist crisis that such an arrangement elicits.
When my ex-husband and I first separated and I found myself wandering aimlessly around Brooklyn without my daughter, I felt like the part of my identity that had been most constant for four years had been stripped away. Sadness about the loss of my marriage was not at the forefront of my grieving, it was that grieving for my marriage took a back seat to this: I had not signed up to be my child’s mama part-time. I was unprepared for the adjustment that needed to happen and even now, nearly eight years after the fact (along with the relief that time to sleep late, date and exercise brings), I am occasionally bereft when she is with her father for a longer chunk of time and our day-to-day routine is on hiatus, however temporarily. I know what to do now, even if it is just to enjoy being alone, but it still can feel strange.
A couple months ago WNYC announced—like five times in one hour of morning news!—that the percentage of single fathers in New York City had increased by 9%, though single mothers make up 83% of the city’s single parents. This was both surprising and not. Even with the increase, that is still pretty low. It seems to indicate that the dating pool for single mothers must not include many single fathers. And this brings up something about "Louie" that is annoying for the single mama. The dude is always getting propositioned—the unmarried mom at school wants to have uncomplicated sex, the younger woman thinks old men smell good and arranges a one-night stand. It is not that the sex is enviable—in one episode the single mother turns out to be brutally damaged and that Louie jumps through her many hoops is incomprehensible—it’s that dating in New York when you are over forty makes it even more clear it’s a man’s world for simple mathematical reasons. Louie talks about being fat and the sorry state of his package, but he still gets laid—though the women Louie sleeps with are an odd and diverse cast of characters. To his credit, he even shtups Joan Rivers. A single father at 43 in New York City has a library of pussy between 26 and 76 from which to choose; a woman of 42 is not necessarily presented with similar abundance.
Then there’s the difference in the perception of a single dad and a single mom. A father taking care of kids is attractive to women, while a mother on her own is not attracting men like a moth to a flame. Generally, men are praised when they are good and responsible parents. Generally, people don’t applaud a woman for taking on the responsibility of raising her kids; they pity her because she is alone, or remark condescendingly that she is brave and strong. Not to mention that going to a bar and taking home a strange man is not necessarily thought of as a responsible thing for a mother to do. And if she does, unmarried and childless men may be perfectly happy to sleep with her, but they can’t be blamed for preferring the unencumbered.
So I have Louie, my TV alter-ego boyfriend, who, though he tries hard not to come off as a mensch, is so clearly a mensch. A not-so-subtle subtext of the show is that his daughters make him a better man. He seems to viscerally understand how important it is that he is there for his girls. The tricky business of being a single parent is that the doing it all is both the drudgery and the reward. No one else cleans the kitchen or washes the toilet. No one pours you a glass of wine and asks you how your day was, but when your child is home and the chores are done, you sneak into her room, smooth back her hair, press your lips into her forehead, and give thanks for the gift of your life and your ability to care for her. Like all reasonably competent parents, you feel satisfied you have both survived another day. Louie intentionally, or not, makes us applaud him for doing what millions of women around the world are doing solo: taking care of our kids.
And it is hard not to join the chorus. The show makes me both want to fuck Louie and to rock him to sleep. His sexual encounters have been harsh for their complete lack of intimacy and yet here is a man who is besotted by his girls. Until the second season’s episode in which he confessed his love to his single mom friend Pam, there was an odd disconnect. What I had most wanted for Louie was to have was an authentic moment with a woman where he wasn’t just coming onto her or in her but where he was (even for a nanosecond) open to the possibility of letting the right one in. Even though he’s a comic who reveals what most of us would leave unspoken, he would not let down his TV alter-ego’s guard.
And I questioned the possibility of Louie having it all—being a father, emotionally vulnerable, or at least attempting this with a grown woman, while maintaining his caustic sense of humor. Pam also considers Louie a friend and tells him he did a good job declaring his love, but Pam is the man, and Louie, though he has found a worthy object of affection, is thwarted. While Louie's female viewer may have fallen for him, in Pam he has met his match. She is wary and shrewd, and amazingly funny. Her own sad history is written all over her face, and she will not let down her own guard, not to mention that she is not attracted to Louie. (And I won’t give away this season’s finale.)
Unlike Heather Havilesky, who wrote this summer about the portrayal of divorce on TV for the Times, I don’t think Louie is miserable post-marriage. Searching and a bit lost, maybe, in possession of a depressive gene or too, sure, but there is a sense that he’s relieved to be able to figure out how to be a parent on his own. His girls frustrate him but they also make him feel necessary and alive. Single fatherhood is an opportunity for him to discover himself in some important way. I get this. My ex-husband is a much better parent alone than he would have been had we stayed together.
I'd like to think it is possible for single mothers and fathers to go to work, to love and be loved, fuck and be fucked while taking good care of their kids and creating a supportive home in some kind of integrated way. I’d also like to think that second happy partnerships are possible, as is sharing the load. There are times this feels more attainable than others. Though my daughter once wisely informed me “There are no princes in Brooklyn,” I never thought there’d be so many frogs to kiss. And while it can be lovely to make out with amphibians, I find myself wanting more. In the meantime, while I wait for season three, "Louie" reruns are good company. Divorced, funny, and fortysomething, he is doing the best he can parenting his girls. He makes visible that there are other dwellers of this in-between place: single, not childless, looking for love while their ex is with the kids.
Caledonia Kearns' poems have appeared in the New Haven Review and Painted Bride Quarterly. She is the editor of two anthologies of Irish American women's writing, Cabbage and Bones and Motherland. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter.