SPOILERS: Mary F. Pols's memoir starts out with a one-night stand, but winds up being as much a meditation on her family of origin as the one she creates with a most unlikely mate. At 39, she has wanted a child, but hasn't done much to move that process along. When she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she doesn't question keeping the baby, but does question who she wound up procreating with: Matt, an unemployed guy ten years her junior with roommates, a messy apartment, and little ambition. Though she's hot for him and continues to be throughout her pregnancy, reconciling his role in her life is something that doesn't stop even after she gives birth to her son Dolan (a family name).
Pols's pregnancy and birth story are the backbone of this book, but equally as important is her large family, which is in flux as each of her parents go on the decline as her pregnancy progresses. Pols weaves in memories of her parents as well as her sense that she is not living up to what they'd expected of her. But what Pols learns again and again is not to underestimate those around her, whether it's her father's acceptance of her unwed and single state (and of Matt as the father of his grandson) as well as Matt's ability to rise up to his role as father.
When Pols finds out Matt had been cheating on her toward the end of her pregnancy, it's one of the rawest parts of the book, one where both people seem "right" as well as "wrong." Pols is understandably angry ("'Was this mercy f---ing?" I asked. "Taking care of the pregnant woman's needs? You felt nothing at all?'") but it's clear that Matt has been upfront with her from the start. Their tumultuous push-pull relationship is a struggle especially once they become parents.
Does this book have a happy ending? Yes, and no. In fact, the latter chapters, dealing with the deaths of Pols's parents, are intense, and (sorry to spoil it) but there is no wedding or a traditional happily ever after. But I think the lesson of the book is that one's vision of "Happily Ever After" cannot stay fixed in stone, especially when it comes to childrearing. Pols was forced to rearrange and update and transform her vision, to embrace both her child's father and the people she lost even as she gained her son. "He makes me so happy I can hardly stand it," Pols writes of her son, after he's snuggled up to her and said, "I'm petting you." That's not to say that Pols started out bitter and cynical and wound up smiling and maternal, but rather the potential to love so unconditionally was brought out by her dealings with Matt and feelings for her son, and reflected back at her in the ways she and her siblings coped with her parents' deaths.
Pols also speaks to the gap she felt between her peers who were already mothers and the path she chose as a movie critic. Her abortion at 21 left her feeling that "I'd failed as a daughter and I'd failed as the mother of the child I could have had."
Ultimately, Pols speaks to a story greater than her own. Through her co-parenting arrangement, she is remaking what we mean when we think of the "single mother," while being honest about the challenges as well as positives of such a setup. She gives hope to those who either never really thought about having kids, or couldn't seem to get it together to do so, and while she's not urging her readers to go off and get knocked up in a one-night stands, this isn't just a "make lemonade out of lemons" endurance. The central question of the book's title can never truly be answered, and perhaps a little of each are what made for the "best mistake" of Pols's life.