Suppose every year is a pearl. We add the year to the slowly unspooling thread that is our lives. The strand looks like nothing you’d find under glass, nothing worthy of sale or display. The strand has no uniformity and little discernible beauty. Most of the pearls are pebbled or bulbous, gritty or oddly marbled, misshapen, under-formed. Cracked.
Then you live a pristine year, one in which you do not experience unimaginable loss or a betrayal deep enough to stagger you, one mercifully devoid of grief and plentiful in unanticipated joy. You receive an opportunity much greater than the one you pined for during the pebble year, and you stumble upon the love you prayed for during the year you cracked. None of the tears that milked up the marbled year appear during this one. And before long, 12 delicious months have passed. They yield you a pearl that emerges spectacularly whole. It is spherical and opaline, as pearls are intended to be. And you cannot help but twirl it endlessly between your fingers until you can feel the heat that such methodical friction generates. This pearl could cause momentum, other pristine years to follow. Whatever you did right could become a replicable formula. You could be entering an entire decade of such faultless years, uniformly gorgeous enough to display under glass, worthy of protecting with lock and key.
Or you could find yourself flailing mere months into the formation of the next pearl. You could feel every necessary irritant acutely. You will empathize with the oyster and finally understand the world. You’ve been holding it all this time, after all, cradling it in your palm, piercing and prying and wresting free what it holds for you each year. The world has opened itself to you so achingly and you have taken from it, hungrily, since you were born. Now that you can comprehend the pain you must inflict, and not only endure, to add every year to your life, the oyster itself is much harder to hold.
The world is a writhing thing. It is harder to handle.
I have learned a lot in the past 18 months. 2016 was the year of the pristine pearl. 2017 and 2018, at least till now, have been harder to hold. Both have contained moments at which my grasp of the world came close to slipping. I have learned more in this fidgety discomfort than I did in the year of plenty. But the toll that learning has exacted is silence.
The page, expecting as always to be filled with lovely sentiments about the rewards of mothering, even under inopportune circumstances — and perhaps, especially because of them — must remain blank for awhile.
* * * *
For the last year and a half, after seven years of insisting that I was fine parenting a child without much hands-on help from her dad, pretending that I was fine with the contribution he did make, because, perhaps, it was the best he could do, I finally confessed the con. I was never okay; I’d just had a lot to prove. He’d walked away from our relationship on the same day we found out I was carrying his child then decided that he wanted to “co-parent,” first from 3,000 miles away and a few years later, once a week (or so) from an hour away. It seemed important for me to do everything he was opting not to do, competently enough to make him feel like he wasn’t missed. It didn’t occur to me that he’d respond to that by starting a different family with someone else. I thought he’d respond by making himself indispensable.
It was temporarily unfathomable that he’d be capable of buying a home, proposing marriage, and family-planning with someone else, when getting him to tell me when he’s about to pick our kid up, in further advance than two hours of arrival seemed too taxing a request. But it wasn’t just possible. It was easy.
In the end, I think that’s what drove me to confess that I had never entirely given up on him. Though too few of our years had been happy ones, there were 16 of them in all. We’d met at 21, had a child at 30. We were 37 then. It was too long a time to let pass as though none of it had mattered. It had all mattered, and I’d been too proud to admit it.
You do not, after all, admit to someone who abandoned you that you should’ve accepted his apologies earlier. You do not say to the person who does too little parenting that you would rather him do too little with you than watch him do more, with someone else. You do not admit how much it kills you that there are now several people in this world whose only frame of reference for your daughter’s family are him and a woman you have only seen once.
I now know firsthand how humiliating all of that is to say, even if it must be said, even when it changes nothing.
Love is not what you profess in the interest of self-preservation. Love is not what settles at the bottom of desperation.
Love is letting go. More specifically: Love is letting go of everything that he was not, for you, so that he can be everything he has become, with someone else, for your daughter.
Do not be fooled, however: as obvious and inevitable as that may sound: the process of achieving it is artless.
It has taken me longer than other women to let go of who I was before becoming a parent. Some impulse knitted deep within stubbornly twists against what motherhood demands. There is much that I’ve grown to love, but I have never fully settled into the sacrifice of it. Though more radical moms than I will tell you that you do not need to sacrifice too much of yourself to mother, I have, unfortunately, not found that to be so. The truth of that assertion would depend on how adaptable you are to begin with — wouldn’t it? — on how easily you could fold family into who you already were or how thoroughly it would upend your former sense of yourself?
Your mothering mileage may vary.
More than boogers and bowels and homework battles and public tantrums, more than sleeplessness or clinginess, more than random emissions of gas or liquid, more than eight years of daily tears over trifles for which she rarely offers timely explanation, more than fears about an adolescent future spent contentiously, it’s the idea that I have to relinquish my right to rage, quiet my recurring resentment, and pretend that my innate impulsiveness simply ceased to exist when I became a parent that bothers me most of all.
These were all traits I could keep in check as an only child. There had always been room to express them; I could do so in moderation. But a mother who is always in the presence of her child does not have room to rage; it sets too poor an example. It alienates the child. A mother who receives anything from the father of her child cannot admit frustration with the many things she does not receive; it appears too ungrateful. It alienates the father of the child. A mother cannot extemporaneously purchase a single plane ticket to an international destination — because she can only afford one and it’s too good a flash deal to pass up. There is no one who will watch her child when she is away and she should not expect anyone to do so.
I am not an unselfish person. That is what being unable to write anything decent in the past year and a half has taught me. I am mean when I feel most creatively unfulfilled. I turn feral when I feel abandoned. And under either circumstance, spending time in my company is ill-advised.
My daughter does not seem to mind this. I am quick to apologize to most people, but I reconcile with her fastest of all. When I can help it, I do not create cause for such reconciliation. I attune myself to a frequency where annoyances rarely find purchase. I seem most patient with all of it, then. I seem like the picture of calm.
Because none of this actually matters, does it? Not if we’re honest with ourselves. Not really.
* * * *
My aunt, the clinical therapist, tells me quite often that parents need only be adequate. A child does not need nearly as much to thrive as we insist children do. And some will not fare well, no matter how much effort their parents exert. Anguish is baked into all existence; everyone bears their share and the distribution of shares isn’t fair.
As true as I imagine this must be, a mother must already feel adequate to be comforted by it. I only feel adequate on the odd days, and even on some of those, I am skeptical.
My daughter does not seem to mind this, either, though she has reached a stage, at nearly 8, when she confuses my getting upset with her with me disliking her as a person.
“I thought you liked me,” she’ll say. Or worse, when she’s teary, “I thought you loved me.”
“You were happy this morning,” she’ll accuse. “You hugged me then.”
“I’ll hug you now,” I might respond. “But you still need to do what I’ve asked.”
She knows that I love her. It’s obvious. But she knows that I’m ill-tempered, too. Mercurial and silent and sad. And she does not yet understand how many things we are allowed to feel at once. Her eight little pearls are like baby teeth, all small and white, all falling, so far, onto her life’s strand, just as they should be.
Still, she wants touchstones of affirmation: Of course, I love you. I’m not mad at you; I just need you to stop interrupting me and raising your voice when I’m telling you something. There is no one I like more than you. But please get off of me now. I need a little space to breathe.
I knew I would not be the type of mother for whom sacrifice would be easy. I would never have confessed it before my daughter was born — I am not sure I even realized it then — but I have always been my own favorite person. Before I became a parent, I could let anyone go, if I needed to; I had me. Motherhood rendered me unrecognizable to myself for awhile. It was a long performance for which the curtain never went down and there was always a need both for improvisation and improvement.
I’ve been thrown a few curves I could not account for, in the past year and a half. It forced me to cancel the show. The curtain wasn’t just down; for awhile it was a shroud. I am no longer someone who wants to prove anything to anyone else, not in parenting or any other area of my life. I am simply committed to better understanding who I have become. I do not want to offer her to anyone else, not as a writer or a woman or a mother, until I have a better handle on who she is. I am more unsteady on my feet these days. And because unlike my daughter, I did not grow up believing I could ask the people around me, “Do you like me?” without fearing or disbelieving the answer, I understand why she so often needs to hear it these days. She needn’t worry. Now, she’s my favorite person.
Do I like me? is the more challenging question.
I wrote all of this because I was worried.
One week from today, my daughter and I will be at a writing residency in Putnam County, NY. I need to warm up in advance of the journey. As much as I’ve longed for and dreamed about having a full week to write without feeling any guilt over leaving my daughter behind in order to attain it, I’m nervous about how productive I’ll be. I’ve been trying not to put much pressure on output, but I want to maximize the time (especially since a number of people contributed to my last-minute crowdfunding campaign to make it easier for us to get there. I want to be a worthy investment).
It has not been the most emotionally healthy time in my post-parenting life and by extension, it’s been the least creatively productive time in my post-parenting life. I’ve found it difficult to muster the will to write or the belief that anyone wants to read about this (or anything else on which I have an opinion. I’ve also found it difficult to develop cogent opinions, as in case you haven’t noticed, the country is in more intense shambles than usual). I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time now, and living it is even less interesting than writing about it. Fortunately, I’ll be working on a novel draft and Hope Chest stuff while I’m there.
I’m not presumptuous enough to expect that anything I post anywhere will resonate with anyone else. But I am always hopeful that something will, with someone. Life is hard. No matter how difficult yours is, no one else’s is enviable. Protect your own pearls. They’re priceless.