Hope Chest is a personal essay podcast written mother-to-daughter. Listen to every episode at Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.
Below is the text for Episode 7: Something Borrowed, Overdue. Listen along here.
It is not that I believe it would be easier if I were the one preparing to marry. On the contrary. It would not be easier — not for me and especially not for you. If I had prioritized romantic partnership with the intent to move a man into the idea of home I’ve spent the first eight years of your life defining, I would have also needed to become a tightrope walker, an artful mediator, a sentient balance beam. It would not just have been a negotiation of new love, but also an implosion of the family dynamic it has taken us all this time to build and an intricate assembly of a life unlike any you’ve known.
I know this because I’ve been through it. My mother married for the first time when I was 10, just two years older than you are now. Because I was always with her, because even if she would’ve preferred to share custody with my father, she couldn’t have, distance and a lack of either parent’s deep desire to do so being significant barriers, I was, by necessity, a part of my mother’s courtship process.
This was only true if the relationship was serious. I spent most summers away from her, bouncing between family homes a few hundred miles north of where we lived in Baltimore. She did her casual dating during those dog days. By the time I returned for school, all evidence of any men had usually been cleared.
But the man she would eventually marry was someone I saw twice a week, school-year-round. He was at Wednesday night bible study and Sunday morning service. Sometimes he arrived in uniform, fresh off a patrol shift. The other kids in children’s church thought his squad car was cool. The boys paid particular attention to his holstered pistol. I hadn’t registered any of those details about him. Before he started dating my mother, he was just one of the many men who ushered or preached or otherwise served at our church. I suppose I distinguished him best by his heavy Jamaican accent; I didn’t know anyone else from Jamaica then, and they way he spoke, so distinct at times from the way I did, always tended to catch my attention.
Then they became an item and during the mere six months they dated, I accompanied them on the occasional outing. They’d buy me ice cream and I tagged along on their nighttime strolls. I’d fall asleep across the backseat of his car as they took drives along winding suburban roads. I didn’t mind it at all. I was 10 with limited experience interacting with husbands or fathers; I would not have known enough about them to mind. I just wanted my mother to be happy and, from what I’d observed and overheard, I assumed that if she married, she would be.
I had no way of knowing how drastically the cadences of my home life would shift when she did.
Any parent’s marriage to someone new marks an era of change for the child. But it is the custodial parent’s marriage that has more immediate implications. Overnight, my mother’s home had been infiltrated, the House of Brown — one woman, one girl — became the House of Brown-Higgins, headed up by a man who expected both women and girls to submit to his supposedly superior leadership. I was suddenly the resident of a home where at least one room was always off-limits, where I could no longer walk around in varying states of undress, where a pistol was now kept in a closet, where rules that were never well-explained to begin with were swiftly enforced, where the environment was a bit too restrictive for comfort.
That the shift felt so drastic to me was not entirely his fault. A mother and child left to their own devices long enough forge bonds that are nearly impenetrable, even for a biological father. How much harder, then, must it be for a stepfather, especially if no one involved in the family has the emotional toolkit necessary to be intentional about including him?
I wasn’t always miserable while my mother was married. My stepfather wasn’t cruel to me. He wasn’t even often unkind. He was just a foreign entity infringing on my friendship with my mother, forcing her to declare her allegiance during any conflict, and accusing us of conspiring to exclude or usurp him, if she ever took what he considered to be my side. He remained that way for the 11 years that he lived with us.
When he left he did so after months of failure to pay the mortgage. Eight weeks after I graduated from college, my mother received the first letter of foreclosure.
The only marriage I’ve ever inhabited was theirs. As a member of their household, I saw and overheard and internalized the entire arc of their union. And it was, by far, the most bewildering experience of my childhood. Their relationship dissolved the year I turned 21. I have been in no hurry to replicate or to attempt to improve upon it in any partnership of my own. Even now, a full 18 years later, finding a husband holds no particular appeal to me.
It can all shift too fast.
My mother lived with a man for 11 years but it took fewer than 11 months for the life she’d built as his wife to unravel. I was as entangled in the rapidly loosening threads as I’d been in the ties that bound. This is the nature of being an only daughter, and it can be as difficult to negotiate as being anyone’s mother, though few people ever admit it.
I am telling you this because it remains to be seen whether you will be a wife or a mother, but you were born a daughter. It is the role you are likely to embody the longest. I would not have you ignorant of its obligations.
I got to know your father amid the dissolution of my mother’s marriage. We’d been dating nearly three months when the foreclosure notice arrived. Six months later, my mother and I were one night away from eviction, with a half-packed house around us and no home ahead, awaiting us.
You cannot determine compatibility in crisis. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. This may sound counterintuitive, for it would seem that it is only through hardship that you learn who will stand alongside you and help you stay your course. But that is only true if you have also experienced joy. It is only true if you’ve found at least your early love unfettered. Otherwise, you can never be certain if your relationship is built on romance or rescue, on dates or on desperation.
I’d known your father less than a year when he carried my family’s mattresses on his back. I was embarrassed about their stains. He helped us pack. I was ashamed that he had to. Under the cover of night, we hauled, wholesale, the contents of closets and cabinets and corners to curbs in other families’ housing complexes. I cried and he pretended not to notice, pretended that racing the clock to beat the county sheriff to morning was normal.
I think that was the night I first allowed myself to consider him a partner. I think that’s when I knew I would yield a long stretch of years to loving him — too long a stretch, on the strength of this one selfless gesture. But whenever I felt unsteady after that, whenever I doubted the viability of our relationship, the memory of that night resuscitated it.
There are only so many times you can revive what it would be more merciful to euthanize. This is what always scared me about marriage — that it would mean a lifetime of clapping the paddles together and willing what’s left of my energy into a partner whose heart has stopped pounding for me.
It is your father who is preparing to marry. In many ways, this is easier. In a few key ways, it is not.
When this was all still hypothetical, before you were born and then in the years afterward when your father and I were still single, I had a clear vision of how I wanted our coparenting dynamic to expand, whenever new partners would need to be folded into it.
Try as I might — and I did try, though not urgently or with ardor; your father did, too, though not very compellingly — I could not imagine the two of us marrying. This was true before you. It remained so after. We only get along well when we are not responsible for one another. And marriage is nothing if not the assumption of responsibility for lives other than your own.
It always stood to reason that one or both of us would bring someone new into your family. I used to imagine that when day came, we would approach the prospect communally, the lot of us frolicking in some incense soaked fusion of familial bliss — symbiosis of the type that can only be attained when hurt is forgotten and grace reigns supreme. I modeled that fantasy on the only family I know of who seems to have mastered it: the Kravitz-Bonet-Momoas.
When I was your age, there was a real live pixie who played a role on a popular television show, one of the few in the 1980s with an all-Black cast. Here name was Lisa Bonet, and a host of little Black girls thought she was impossibly cool, too cool to be entirely human. She must’ve been, in addition to Jewish and Black, part-faerie, half-elf, and entirely ethereal. Everything about her was both eccentric and accessible. Her hair and her clothes and the languid, wistful way her words rolled out of her in a cadence akin to song: it all felt experimental and otherworldly. But her choices, both onscreen and off, were what tethered her to earth. Choices like marrying a rock star, bearing his child, shirking the shackles of stardom in the wake of it, and divorcing him all in a matter of a few years. The legend of Lenny and Lisa appealed to me so as an adolescent. I devoured all interviews I could find about how they shared custody, rebuilt their relationship as friends, and parents after their breakup, and willed themselves beyond the halting awkwardness of moving on. They learned the dance, apart, together.
Years later, when Lisa Bonet remarried and bore two more children with another inordinately gorgeous celebrity, Jason Momoa, Lisa, Lenny, and their daughter Zoe simply widened the family circle and left it unbroken. Both Lisa and Jason had been raised by single mothers. Zoe had been raised by intermittently single parents. They’d all found, in this careful configuration of modern family, a recipe for remaining whole.
This is is the life I have wanted for you: an unconventional closeness born of trial and error; parents who are constantly forgiving themselves and each other; a life beyond the quotidian.
We will not become like the Kravitz-Bonet-Momoas. As parents, our temperaments don’t lend themselves to it. If it is up to me alone to reach for this, I am not sure we will grasp it. Though I can support what your father is doing, because we were once something to each other that seemed predicated not as much on love as on on survival, and you must always root for the person who emerges from trauma, less haunted, I still have the hardest time admitting to myself that I want to spend my life with anyone other than you. It is hard because I am not sure I really do want that. It scares me. You cannot commune with a couple who’s mustered the courage to love anew when you are still contending with your cowardice.
The part of myself that allows for romantic love is the part I have least developed. It’s the only area of my life where I have not been fully committed to growth. To the extent that marriage is one of my desires, it is not one I am willing to give voice. I am too proud to set my intentions on anything I am not certain I can have, anything I do not trust myself to handle. But in the small of heart, in the hollows, there is at least a tiny curiosity about what kind of wife I would be and what kind of husband I might someday attract. Would we survive each other? Would the family dynamic already evolving then simply expand to include him? Would the lot of us leave the country together? Would we toast on the ship deck at dusk then retreat to our cabins, trading off caretaking of all of our kids on alternating nights? What would it mean to open our separate silos and let all the love we’ve pile high inside them pour out in the clearing?
These questions are not kept in a roomy place. They remain in the hollows. Perhaps I will explore them for you later, when I have grown slightly braver. Until then, I am mostly content to remain alone, at least for now. I have known enough of togetherness, of forcing forward a failing concept of family, to know that I find it more exhausting than exhilarating. I only want the love the rises. I have only known the love that causes me to fall.
I do not believe you will inherit such aversion to marriage. I do not believe you will know so intimately the kind of love pulls you under. I am hopeful you will have your father and his fiancee to thank for that.
I do not know how I will spend the day that your father gets married. It is not a day to which I’ve devoted much imagination. Now that it is imminent, I suppose I should. He says that he will pick you up the night before, so I imagine that you will be part of the full experience. I imagine that you will be happy. The woman you have come to know as a caring, encouraging friend will now become your stepmother. You have had ample time to adjust to this and, for you, this has been my only wish: a seamless transition from having a single, dating father to having a married one. I have done work around supporting this transition: the work, mostly, of conversation.
We have talked so much about what stepparenting means. We have whispered about what to expect of a wedding. I have fielded a forest of whys. To do so, I had to refocus my gaze, away from the trees.
Until recently, I still possessed a slip of bark your father had given me on our first Valentine’s Day together. I’d asked him to carve our names into a tree. And when the day arrived, he brought me the actual tree: a sawed bit of branch about four inches wide and one inch thick. On the flat of its surface, he’d soldered our names, a small plus sign between them.
In those early years, he tried hardest on holidays. It was as though the gift, if properly chosen and presented with the right sort of flair, would carry the work of relationship-building we’d failed at the rest of the year.
I do not remember much of anything I ever gave him. They were boring, forgettable gifts: clothing, electronics, store credits. He was far better at gifts than I. I tried to be thoughtful in other ways. I tried to be honest.
When you are with someone for several years and live as transient a life as I, there is always some vestige of a past left to unearth. It crops up in your grandmother’s spare room closet; the side pocket of a bag in your rented storage unit; the dustier, unopened boxes, kept behind the ones out of which you live, the ones left neglected until you finally find time to rifle through and discover there is nothing there you need to salvage.
I had gotten rid of almost everything: old diaries we’d co-written our tiny handwriting inked on adjacent pages, photo strips produced behind the curtains of booths at any number of malls, crescent moon earrings whittled of wood. Whenever I’ve come across anything from the period of years your father and I spent as a couple, I purge it. The tree bark was harder to part with. But even it has been misplaced now.
Even sentimental value should depreciate, in situations like ours.
This seems the most appropriate wedding gift: to long for nothing, to let go of everything.