Raising a child is never easy, but for one person to function as both mother and father is the toughest job of all. In the past decade the number of single parents in the U.S. has doubled to more than 20 million. Few of them escape the financial and emotional struggles inherent in bringing up a child alone. One such single parent is actress Beth Howland, 38, now in her fifth season as the kooky waitress Vera on TV’s Alice. She has single-handedly raised her daughter, Holly, since her separation from actor Michael J. Pollard 16 years ago. Howland, the only child of a strict Boston Catholic family, married Pollard when she was a 19-year-old Broadway dancer in Bye, Bye, Birdie and he was one of the leads. Three years later, as his career began to flourish as C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde, Beth walked out “It was nothing he ever did. It was just that I had no self-esteem,” she remembers. “I had to get a way to find out who I was.” Struggling to make her career work, Beth set about the frustrating task of rearing her daughter. This fall, as Holly, now 17, left home for the first time to enter New York University, Beth discussed with PEOPLE’s Barbara Rowes the problems and rewards of single parenthood.
If I’d known how hard it was going to be out there alone, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it. Holly and I moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan that was a real dump, but it was ours. Even then Michael was only a fleeting figure in our lives. I hadn’t asked for alimony because the whole purpose of moving out was to prove I could take care of myself. But there were times when I walked through the streets wondering what my abiding desire to be my own woman was going to do to my 2-year-old daughter. She was painfully shy. She hid under tables; she hid in closets. I believed that the two things I could give her were love and education. But I could no more afford private school than a Rolls-Royce. In a good year, I made may be $7,000; private schools were around $2,500 then. I don’t know how I did it, but I would have begged, borrowed and stolen to come up with that tuition. I walked Holly to school the first day, and she had the same clothes, books, pencils and papers as the other children.
I didn’t want my independence to deprive her. But every time there was a parents’ day at school I felt I was depriving her. And when there was a father-daughter dance at her high school, I was concerned about her feeling left out. I felt guilt and selfishness and all those wasted emotions, which are self-indulgent because they give nothing to your child.
We had about six tight years when Holly grew up on tuna; I can make tuna almost any way. I cried a lot and found the cheapest apartments I could. I auditioned for anything that would keep the food on the table for Holly and me. If I made $135 a week, I would spend about one-third of it on babysitters. I’d never heard of day-care centers then, or at least any for mothers who had to work at night. Unemployed actors and dancers were the best babysitters. Sometimes we’d become like little families.
Thank God I had one of the healthiest kids ever born. I lived in fear that she would need braces. She’s never had a cavity. If she did get a cold, that was the hardest time for me because I’d have to go to work. I couldn’t stay home and hold the hand of my child. My friends would help. I don’t think I could have made it without them.
My parents helped out too, with tuition, and they took Holly on vacations and bought her clothes, so she always looked good. I wore the same sweater and pants for six years. Holly had to bear a burden, too. When she came home from school, and I couldn’t be there, she’d have to let herself into the apartment. She would see me crying because I just couldn’t get jobs. It worried her. I’m so sorry that at the age of 6 or 7 she had to tell me that it was going to be okay. But Holly never complained.
When I met Margie Gray, she was engaged to [Fiddler on the Roof lyricist] Sheldon Harnick. She was a divorced actress with a young daughter, so she’d already raised a child by herself. She was support for me at a time when I didn’t know anybody else who had gone through my situation. She kept telling me I could do it. I had thought maybe it would be better to send Holly up to Boston to live with my mother, but Margie said that the most important thing was to keep Holly with me.
I was auditioning for acting parts and working as Sheldon’s secretary when I got a role in Company. It was a great show, and I had a great part. It was also the most money I’d ever made, $300 a week. Holly was 8 then, and I’d kept her away from the theater up to that point. But she liked to hang out backstage, so I started to take her with me every Saturday. When she was 9, I played Company in London. That’s when we really started sharing. She was older by then and came to the theater a lot. I had my dressing rooms stocked full of coloring books and crayons.
After we moved back to New York, I got a call to go to L.A. to do a Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was a wonderful experience and my first television episode. We decided to move there. That was a mistake. It was lonely there for both of us. We used to go to the supermarket at night just to see other people. We got into cooking and that was fun. But we became reclusive and depended on each other a lot. When you become so close, it’s hard to assert authority. But I guess I did, because Holly tells me I’m very strict compared to other mothers.
Dating was never a problem. I didn’t go out a lot and every once in a while I was sorry for myself. When Holly was young, I certainly was not above self-pity.
In 1975 I did the pilot for Alice. I still don’t believe the success of the series. Holly always came to the tapings, and we watched the show together on Sundays. I noticed that my fan mail bothered her. She was feeling a little rejected in the beginning over the attention I was giving to the letters. And she didn’t particularly like the idea of me playing a flake like Vera. She’s a teenager and I’m her stability. So it was hard for her to watch me playing that kind of character.
There was never a question she wouldn’t go to college. NYU was my least favorite choice because it’s so far away. But it was her first choice, and I want her to have this time for herself. In June we went to her high school graduation. I cried for weeks before, but during the ceremony I didn’t cry at all. I just kept looking at her sitting up there. I didn’t ever think we could do it. But we did, on our own and together.