In single motherhood, friends can be your most loving family

When I first moved back to the Bay Area four summers ago, I was wedged between resentment and anger. I wasn’t what you’d call “a single-mom-by-choice” — my man had simply walked out the door — and every time I turned around I was smack in front of another traditional, mom-and-pop family.

Just pull yourself out of it, Rachel.

But c’mon now, wasn’t this Berkeley? Where were all the unconventional families like mine?

I tried to focus less on the “single” and more on the “motherhood.” The truth is, I love being a mom. It’s the “single” part I struggle with; that word could be such a downer. Would I ever learn to accept my status and be satisfied with it?

Fortunately, right around this time, I spotted Siobhan at a local playground. It was hard to miss her on that foggy morning, in her red fleece cape, strolling with her daughter in a similar cape, complete with polka dots and a matching hat.

We quickly exchanged stats and discovered that we were both Jewish, and that her 2-year-old, Hazel, is just one month younger than my daughter, Mae.

Siobhan told me she was in the middle of a divorce. “Men are scum,” she said. “I’m done.”

“But there are other fish in the sea,” I said. “Look at that guy over there. He’s hot,” I went on, signaling with my eyes to a tall guy who was pushing his son on the swings.

“He’s a pot smoker,” she said.

“How do you know that?” I said.

“Berkeley’s a small town. You’ll get acquainted with who’s who fast.”

Siobhan had a good bogus detector, and within months she’d become a barometer for my bad taste in men. But if Siobhan is my conscience when it comes to affairs of the heart, then Arden is my partner in crime.

I spotted Arden and her daughter at a local swimming pool. I couldn’t stop staring at them; it was like looking in a mirror. Arden is Jewish, too. Her daughter Celia is multicultural, like mine, with coffee-brown skin and curly hair. I waved. Arden waved back.

Arden is the most observant of us, having celebrated Shabbat every Friday night with her family in Berkeley. She’s also the one mom among us who had a traditional baby-naming ceremony for her daughter, at Netivot Shalom. (But amazingly, I’m the only one who had her bat mitzvah.)

Siobhan and I — with our girls in tow — always turn up at Arden’s home for annual Sukkot and Chanukah bashes. While we love the Jewish holidays, we are not very observant. We don’t attend services regularly, but the three of us definitely envelop Jewish values, such as being part of a compassionate and accepting community.

Every Tuesday for the past few years, the three of us have swapped houses for a weekly dinner. We take turns sharing parental anxieties and work stress. We confess to screaming at our girls in public and losing our house keys who-knows-where.

When I’m having a hard day, I know that I can call them: They are the two women in the world who always seem to get what I’m talking about. Is it because they’re Jewish? I say yes.

“I lost it this morning when Mae wanted to change her outfit for the third time and we were late,” I said recently. “I screamed and spent the rest of the day feeling terrible.”

Siobhan put her hand on my shoulder. I breathed in her lavender scent.

“Please absolve me,” I said to my friends. They always do.

When you’re a single mom, a clan of close Jewish friends like mine is much more than a nice distraction. It’s the key to survival.

Sure, we swap kids if one of us has to run an errand. But it’s more than that. We call each other or email almost every day. This isn’t Gymboree or a baby-sitting co-op. Nor is it a makeshift single mom’s group; these women are my partners in a way.

Arden recently sent me a note that said, “I’m so lucky that my girl has you all as part of her family.”

She got it exactly right.

We are a special Jewish clan, unconventional perhaps, but a clan nonetheless.

Rachel Sarah’s book, “Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World” (Avalon/Seal Press) is due out this fall. She can be contacted at [email protected] .