Motherhood, Mishaps, and Miracles: an Interview with Mary Pols

Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother recounts movie critic Mary Pols’ journey to (and through) motherhood: accidentally becoming pregnant,  having the baby, becoming a single mother (and freelance writer), and working out a successful co-parenting relationship with her child’s father. This memoir is touching, funny, and a great read for professional women who are also mothers. Accidentally On Purpose has been made into a CBS sitcom starring Jenna Elfman, airing this fall — here’s a chance to “meet” the real Mary before seeing her on-screen version.

JENN NORTHINGTON: You talk about your struggle with the idea that, despite your desire to have a family, you had put your career first for too long, and you mention Hewlett’s Creating a Life as particularly nettling. Do you feel like, in the years since then, these choices have gotten any easier for women? What would you say to women dealing with this dilemma today?

MARY POLS: I do think that things have gotten a little easier for women in the years since I got pregnant. It seems like our culture is more accepting of different choices in general, and that there are more examples of strong single mothers out there. It could be that it’s actually been that way longer but I had my blinders on until it happened to me, but it feels different to me. At my son’s preschool, where there were plenty of people in complicated and non-traditional parenting situations, I never felt like an alien.

JN: Your portrayal of the early days of motherhood is funny as well as honest — I was particularly struck by some of the odder moments you had, like breast-pumping in the car or accidentally locking baby Dolan in the projectionist’s office of a movie theater. What was the craziest moment you had, the moment you could never have imagined?

MP: The craziest moment I had in my early days of motherhood was probably that occasion [mentioned in the book] where I had to write an obituary of Marlon Brando, only the most inventive, natural actor ever born, and I had to do so while home with my tiny, needy baby. My boss told me there was not getting out of it, even though it was my day off and I had no day care. Major pressure to be a super woman that day… Probably the craziest thing I ever did was bring infant Dolan to an interview with Spike Lee, thinking he wouldn’t mind if a quiet baby sat in the corner while we talked. Thankfully, the publicist who was handling that junket had a clearer perception of Mr. Lee’s tolerance for wacky single mothers; they brought in an intern or someone who would look after [Dolan] while I did the interview. The minute I met [Lee] I knew it would have been a disaster.

JN: There were a lot of unique factors for you as a single mother — being involved, but not romantically, with Dolan’s father, having a large family and support network, being able to work from home, having a single income, etc. Which factor made it the easiest, and which the hardest?

MP: Oh for sure the easiest was being able to work from home as much as I did. By the time I left the paper, I was only going in to the office one day a week. This meant that when I forgot Dolan’s item for “sharing day” (do they seem to have sharing day every other day or is it just me?) I could buzz right over to his preschool. And as a freelancer, I’m in an even better situation timewise (although not yet financially). The other asset to my work schedule is having to see a lot of movies at night. Because Matt is so willing and able to come take care of Dolan and put him to bed when I have to buzz into San Francisco at night to see a movie, we get to have a lot of family dinners together and then I get to go off and feel like a grownup who gets to have her dose of night life (such as it is). It’s a great break from the sometimes drudgery of motherhood; it’s also the way I bring home the bacon, and from the beginning months, it gave Matt bonding time with his son. The hardest aspect has been the peculiar nature of my relationship with Matt. As you say, we’ve not been romantically involved, not for a long time, but having a lovely, loyal man around who you love, and who loves you, platonically, can sometimes be… confusing. It’s a constant redefinition of the traditional.

JN: You write movingly about the different ways that having Dolan changed your relationship to the rest of your life — your family, your parents’ deaths, and your love life, to name a few. Do you think it would have been different if you’d been married with a child, instead of a single mom?

MP: Yes! I do think it would have been different if I’d been married and had a child. As a single mother who had a child “later” in life my perspective has always been — despite the considerable challenges Matt and I faced in trying to work out how all this would function — that I am extraordinary lucky to have gotten to be a mother at all. I’m by nature impatient and demanding and stubborn and all that stuff that doesn’t necessarily make for an easy parent (or partner) but to have that constant checkpoint has been a powerful factor in keeping me humble and grateful. I’m still, five years later, struck by the awesome stroke of good fortune I had. This beautiful baby out of nowhere, when I least expected it, when I had come so close to giving up, and this good, good kind man who wanted to co-parent. Of course it would have been lovely to have a traditionally happy life, with a husband and home and maybe even more children, but then I wouldn’t have had this child. And I can’t imagine life without him.

JN: Congratulations on the upcoming TV show! Have you been involved in the writing at all? Are you worried about changes they might make?

MP: Thank you! I have not been involved in the writing of the TV show at all, which I think is healthy. I’d like to someday work on another show, but this hits too close to home. And they’ve made changes that I, as the writer wedded to her book (and to her own life story) would not have been able to groove with (but as the detached, possible collector of royalty checks, who would someday love to own her own home, I can accept). Since you’ve read my book, you know that I had a lot of real life financial struggles, and I don’t expect that it’s going to enter into the sitcom. My struggle with the process of losing my beloved parents will probably not be included either; I imagine it would seem like too much of a downer in laugh track land. But if there is one thing I learned from my life in the last six years, and from writing my book, it is that the power of letting go is a beautiful thing. I would love to see my book reach a wider audience because of the sitcom, and I hope the sitcom succeeds because I think there are some great people involved. But I look at them as very separate things.

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