Time for Liam’s nap. He wants to keep working. He’s always working, it’s how he plays. His passion for housework is reminiscent of my late grandma if she had at some point morphed into a Swiffer-bearing drill sergeant. He gardens with determination, he mops with conviction, he peels the carrots he had my dad buy just for him all over the living room floor, he vacuums the carpet and mows the lawn with a wooden toy rifle he doesn’t know yet is supposed to emulate a killing machine.
I haven’t been a good mother. Working till past midnight most nights, unable to get up at six sharp when my son wakes and doesn’t just demand action, but (now: NEW!) also employs the most sadistic trick in the board book to shake me up, the least favorite of all children (here) with tenacious mothers (I guess that’s my son in this case): the taking away of the covers. Move over, biting and hair-pulling! This takes the carrot cake we had to make yesterday, see above.
He picks up on my presence when I get to bed, brain still pumping adrenaline; he rolls all the way over to my side in his sleep to stay adhered to me for the remainder of the night. Exhaustion from the day and night before — and before that—usually does me in then, no matter how cramped the position. Some nights I am touched out and imploding even before I manage to fall asleep.
Vivid dreams for over a week: Elevators flying through space. Me as the Minotaur in a modern Labyrinth: a shopping mall. Large, circular elevators plummeting through hotels the size of countries. My son stuck, naked and bleeding at the top of an elevator, croaking for Mama. Losing him in the woods for the first time, heart dying in my throat. Driving a car to Nuremberg (why?) on a superhighway without a license or knowing how to drive. Witnessing world destruction via drone-helicopter-missiles from a futuristic purple tower sitting by a golden elevator.
In an ideal situation, I would take at least an hour alone after waking just to digest what happened while I slept. Quiet, coffee, a journal.
The past few nights, I wake up to that dreaded, familiar, shaken-soda-can feeling of powerless, exhausted rage.
He gets it all. He starts crying the second I feel the emotion take over my body. I have never hit him, and I’d like to say I never would — but I have felt the impulse. The worst I resort to before breaking down and bawling into a pillow is flinging him to the other side of the bed. GET AWAY FROM ME. I need space. I need two minutes to myself. I need space. Please let me lie here for three seconds. Please. PLEASE.
LEAVE. ME. ALONE.
He begins crying about everything when I request he come upstairs with me for his nap. Disaster strikes. When he’s tired, he’s done. He needs to get horizontal before the fatigue hits. He needs a lot of rest, more than he thinks, and I still — after twice-daily practice for over a year — screw up the timing to let him wind down before he’s over-tired way too often.
Nothing is right. I’m paralyzed, save the massaging of my temples; too many thoughts — the dread, the guilt, the impatience — colliding into each other. His restlessness wants to work, do, work, do, but he can’t stop sobbing, and this is the moment a realization knocks me over like a baseball bat to the noggin — the aggravated annoyance I have been holding on to for several minutes is plain stupid; he requires all the tenderness I can muster right now —
And I switch. It’s what you do when your kid needs you, you just do, there’s nothing else; you flick your ego to OFF.
Something else hits me. I need to write about this. Everything I’ve been thinking about for three years, it seems, comes back to this, this coping with the utter impossibility of being a mother — the hopeless, amazing, daily spectacle of being the only person directly responsible for this beautiful, unearthly fragile, impossibly resilient human being, my child. Yes, coping is all it is. Every day. And the thoughts surrounding it everything I have to give.
But then, she arrives: Her Royal Majesty, Guilt MXVII.
There is nothing I could do or be to replace what a father would be for my son. One that is present at least; doing his part, emotionally available and self-aware at best.
And there it is again: guilt. Guilt that I’m making anything about his father at all. That I’m not capable of being his everything. That I want to work more than I want to do this mothering thing.
Guilt about thinking of writing this piece — the omnipresent hope of it catapulting me into writer fame ogling me from the side (why would I even want it? Stupid ego.) — that I’m conceiving right here and now, while he’s exhausted and needs me to be here and play along until he’s safely drifted off to his own flickering dreamland.
Guilt that I’m most irredeemably human.
It’s evening now. I’m by myself; everything is simple again.
I was 24 when I got pregnant. My boyfriend didn’t “like condoms”. I didn’t have the backbone to draw a line — of course, or this story wouldn’t exist. Either use a condom or don’t sleep with me. Simple, surely. I didn’t want to take the pill, never had in my life, but I was willing to consider it for this guy. In the meantime, he pulled out. I used a cycle tracking app to give off the impression that I knew what I was doing.
The moment before he got me pregnant burned with clarity even then. I was in his bed. He was lying on his back, arms crossed behind his head. He asked me if I was sure it was safe today. I mumbled something like, “Yeah, pretty sure, yeah, positive. Here, let me check again.” I kneeled, took my phone and checked the app. Cycle day number 19, incidentally also March 19th, well past ovulation.
(I would later find out that this was my lunar ovulation day — a phenomenon that has been described as “Well, it shouldn’t have happened, makes no logical sense at all, yet here we are!” Obviously, this is a quote from my then-about-to-be-ex-gynecologist, showing me my son’s beating heart at 4 weeks.)
“So? Is it safe? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
I felt a prick of throat-and-gut-twisting melancholy. I knew this feeling so well at the time, I couldn’t detect the difference between it and my baseline state of being.
So I went on with it.
Guilt. The pedal point of my life, everything I was, gravitating into its familiarity. I knew I was slipping again, every enlightened bone in my body barking at me to do the right thing, just get the fucking birth control. But this was the first person to listen to my innermost thoughts and feelings and, instead of shrugging and saying you’re weird, tell me he’d been waiting for me his whole life. (Well, he did say you’re weird, but other times, and with the understanding that he was, too — almost, at least — so it was okay.)
I knew I should have said: No. I don’t think this is safe. Let’s get condoms first. You either like me enough to use them, or we can’t be together.
I knew it was a two-way street. I knew he should have handled the situation differently as well.
I knew he should have said: Hey, you don’t look like you’re sure about this. I’m not comfortable sleeping with you unless we’re on the same page here. I don’t want a child, so if this method isn’t safe, let’s wait to have sex today until we have condoms.
But — I knew.
I “knew” this guy was the one for me. He felt like home, even though home felt like shit so, so often. His unbelievable laziness. His kind, adoring, softened face when he looked at me. How I did everything for him. How he thanked me profusely, guiltily, every time. How he never got up from his chair when he said he would. How he beckoned me to sit with him for another minute.
I spent what felt like the entire three months we were together before our little eensy pregnancy fiasco just… waiting. To listen to this song. To wait for this other guy I constantly told him I didn’t like spending time with. To see this video. To smoke this cigarette. To chill for a minute. To do his hair.
But every tiny thing he did for me made me fall in love a little deeper. An awkwardly, but sweetly decorated ice cream sundae sitting at my station at work. The second time I came to his apartment to find him having all but taken the whole thing apart, vacuum cleaner in hand, panting. A love note in my uniform.
In those moments, something inside me felt like a sliver of graphite floating towards the most powerful magnet in the world.
I wanted to call it fate.
But it was guilt.
Monday night, just before closing time at work. I was coming back from a cigarette break with colleagues, about to take the stairs down two at a time as we did — and I had a moment. An I’m-gonna-pass-out-if-I-don’t-sit-down-for-a-moment-moment.
A test. The surreality of walking over to the pharmacy on Tuesday morning, requesting a pregnancy test, please. Talking to the lady at the counter. “This one is accurate within two days of when your period should have come. Is it overdue yet?”
“Yes, very. Thank you.” Giving her a genuine smile.
I smiled a lot at the time. I can only imagine how I did it now. So social, so friendly. It was the daily pot and the being around people every day, all day. You get used to it, you play a part, you soak up the pleasantries and give them back, twelve-fold. People love you for it. You become your mask and you see yourself the way everyone interacts with you.
Then, you come home and smoke one, two, three joints until you pass out. Spending time in your head your only fear; you: your only antagonist.
Streberbarbie — nerd barbie — a classmate called me. I never felt so praised and put down simultaneously before, and ever again. The epitome of Cool Girl. It made me queasy.
I had never felt so out of place in my skin, despite it being the first period in my life throughout which I sincerely liked mirrors.
Sometimes, I think about mistakes as the concepts they are. I think about how I used to believe them to be things I absolutely must cease doing under all circumstances at some (foreseeable!) point in time.
Isn’t that what creates the possibility of making these mistakes over and over again in the first place? Why do I keep making certain, stupid, preventable mistakes again and again when I know on a cognitive level that I should not, but I do, because that’s the nature of the thing, it’s a mistake, you didn’t mean to do it but you did, it wasn’t your intent, your conscious decision to do it, the outcome it duly created notwithstanding, or else you wouldn’t have done it?
But — what if repeating the mistake over and over isn’t supposed to lead to not making the mistake anymore, but towards understanding that there is no such thing as a mistake? If anything, they are markers, things that must happen in order for other things to happen; glimpses into the world of tiny miracles that must be dressed up as shit — even literally — to fulfill their function as gatekeepers to higher, unknown, goods.
We cling with such urgency to this ideal, this self-imposed obligation to get over it — at least I did — that at some point, everything is a mistake. After all, attempting to force something out of your life will usually guarantee its continued presence. Hence, what if making mistakes is about realizing there will never come a time in which I am mistake-free, and perhaps this particular mistake may never, ever leave me? So what can I do?
I can accustom myself with it. I can become familiar with the mistake, I can befriend it and welcome it like pizza when it arrives — a forebear of a small to large Nice Thing That Shall Happen Sometime, Anytime.
If I want to, that is. Because it is, of course, a choice.
I can also cling with force to the belief, like religion, that there must come a time when I will commit irreparable sins the likes of absent-mindedly knocking over my freshly brewed coffee no more, HOW DARE YOU BE ABSENT-MINDED EVEN ONCE, LADY? You just don’t do things like that, you do not. No, I shan’t let out a brief burst of anger when my son does the same. No, no, won’t do it, it’s no good, don’t you see what you’re teaching him?
I will never again forget to pay a bill on time.
A dusty bathroom is forever a thing of the past.
I will no longer feel the rage build while the child laughs through my delusory attempts to just get him to do as I say, or else… what?
What will I do? What will happen? I don’t punish him. I will not “discipline” my child. I will not layer on the heinousness of purposely bending his behavior — and by extension, his being — for my hurting ego’s sake, to the emotional violence I am already inflicting on him when I’m overextended and overstimulated and unable to contain my frustration at my own incompleteness.
Because even then, I know this. I know there are no consequences for his supposedly unruly actions, in the end there can only be love. Because his actions are not “bad behavior”, there is no such thing, just as there are no mistakes.
Usually, this is the moment my anger evaporates and I start crying and hug him tightly and apologize for my Emotional Human outburst.
And that in itself may be the key to stop making these “mistakes”.
Skip over the drama, rush to the end: your humanness. Love. The irony.
I realize I have always been an all-or-nothing person, and that I may always stay this way:
- Completely restrictive diet to the point of fasting for a month straight (twice. I did that twice. I am a lunatic.) — or not giving a rat’s whiskers about what I put in my body.
- Raging workaholic, working till three, four in the morning, forgetting to eat, hydrate, even smoke the cigarette burning to wisps of paper and tobacco in my hand — or lying around on the couch all day, every day, for weeks.
- Emo social butterfly queen — or the quietest, socially phobic wall-dandelion you never noticed.
- I want to say everything I can or nothing at all.
- I like to read one book all day, or I can’t find the focus.
- I need (needneedneed) structure, routines and strict schedules, but there are phases, weeks — months — when it feels imperative to have nothing specific to do and let the day bring me what it will.
So there’s that. And, guess what? In all cases, I feel guilty for simply existing in this state, any which way the pendulum swings.
As I permit myself to let go of believing that to write and publish at all, I must craft articles, the structured kind, with subheadings, with lists and quotes from academic journals — I can see that maybe, I just need to express my ideas the way they are in my head: in one or two sentences… or a ten-thousand-word-essay.
This brings me back to guilt yet again: When I’m not writing at all, I’m here, now, in this moment. But when I’m writing, I am always writing. 24/7 in the story, even in my dreams. There’s no other way. Right now, I’ve been at it for four days straight and it may take another three.
The circle turns: were it not for my son, I wouldn’t be writing this story; it wouldn’t exist. Alas (wipes brow theatrically), my mind, I have now accepted, is capable of focusing on one task only, and when it’s about the writing, it’s all about the writing, and it tests our relationship. I want nothing more than to write all day, no sleep, nofoodjustwrite. It’s not even a “want”, it’s physical. Need. But then the child. And the child is the answer, my savior, the circumstance of him here and needing attention and emotional availability keeps the ball rolling, baits the addiction by holding it at distance always, gifts my mind essential off-time, even if somewhat passive, else I would have burned myself out within two days. So it’s perfect, really, that it happens in bursts like this; when I’m done, it’s over and I’m back for him.
And I wonder: does this translate to mothering itself? Is it this all-or-nothing vibration that somehow repels all significant help from people that should be giving it — him; all the pre-schools in my area? Am I doomed to doing it all alone until I can fully surrender to the reality that, yes, I truly cannot be everything for this being I made in my body?
Except I have been doing it all alone — going on three years now.
So what now?
Is it, actually, all just about me?
Yesterday, my son wanted to listen to a German birthday song I used to love when I was a little kid. Used to: with time, ‘like’ shrunk into disdain turned into nausea; hardly surprising given the undivided attention from various members of my family and others I was “burdened” with during its aural presence on the annual shame-on-you-for-not-emoting-exuberantly-fest that was my birthday. Thankfully, I’ve begun embracing my desire for total isolation with ever-progressing delight; thus, part of the trauma may have lifted all on its own.
So I started dancing, if only for him. The way I may have as a child. Prancing about the room in zero synch with the kiddy synth. My son couldn’t sit down fast enough to tear off slippers and socks; apparently one had to be barefoot to dance and run around in circles with me.
Not a single person in my life judges me less than he does. Even if I won the adult non-judgment Olympics, there would be so much judgment left in me still that I could not measure up to the level of acceptance he has for me, for himself, for everyone.
He is my acceptance teacher. There will never be a better time to learn to practice true acceptance than now. As he gets older, people will infect him with their judgment-based communication. I definitely will, kids in kindergarten and at school will, other parents, strangers on the bus, my grandma. Nobody is exempt.
The best I can do for him is to let his non-judgment grow in me. I want to hold it in place for him, its fluidity reaching into every nook of our interactions as he grows. So he’ll get to keep it a little longer, at the very least when he’s with me.
As I dance with him, the guilt is gone.
He’s happy most of the time, I truly believe (read: I hope I hope I hope pleasepleasepleeeease).
And if that’s his baseline, the times I’m too lazy or tired or strung out to be there fully kept to a minimum, that’s more than most kids his age have ever had.
The kid’s dad says he needs his life to be in order so he can do his part.
I believe it, but I also call bullshit. Yes, he has a job now — but yes, there were a couple of months last year when he did not have a job and still found no time to visit, also, what about me, do I have a choice other than to just do —
All the excuses and rationalizations in my head, every attempt at putting this phenomenon into perspective, they all amount to:
I cannot control another’s behavior.
Influence, maybe, a smidge. But make happen as my mind sees fit — never.
Herein lies the guilt of single mothering:
I am innocent.
I am complicit.
I want the best for my child, but I botched the first way to make sure that could be achieved: ensuring his father would be one.
But he is also the perfect father; he is his father. So there is no better biological father for him, or else this would be another child, another life, another everything. Another story.
Mothering is the backdrop. Really, this piece is about what I have yet to say aloud that all but birthed itself as I birthed my personal inferno in a room full of people I have even now never seen, viewing all of me in my most open, naked moment.
The emptiness afterward; the detachment with which my brain was barely seeing the baby was so stunning I couldn’t articulate its severity, not even its mere presence, for months.
After the guilt of unprotected sex, this is still the most prevalent:
I did not instantly feel that unearthly motherlove, the one they all fawn on about to forget their own trauma. The baby is healthy, that’s what counts.
NO, YOU FOOL, I wanted to cry even then — it is not — what will you do when I fail to process the actual Hades I just spent hours in and drop into depression, perhaps psychosis? Are you going to be his mother then?
Sometimes I still believe I’m not actually there yet.
On June 18th of this year, I found out that I’m autistic. Always been. What a shock — here I was, just having begun The Learning Of How To Be In The World and kinda loving it, now they tell me: we — the world and I — weren’t meant to be a great fit all along? Not even a good fit. Not even a fit, period.
So what the fuck do I do now? Rejoice!?
When it rains, it pours, and Oh, how it poured when I was through with the obligatory two-month non-stop backpedal into everything autistic I could find, an initiation into autistic-ness, so to speak, one that, as I have seen, is quite ubiquitous in that other world I never knew was my home planet, the one where it’s absolutely, positively perfect to love staying home to work on sunny days.
Only now have I had a chance to let myself see the world through this lens, now I’m a mother, now I know why to live and be happy (not FOR my child; because and regardless of and through and with), now I’ve realized what I was missing.
What was I before? Unfit for life? Yes, that.
Slow with the easiest things, too fast and arrogant to get anywhere with the interesting ones. Lazy in all social settings, hardworking only in the kitchen and on books. What’s wrong with her, why doesn’t she have friends? I do, actually — a lot! — they’re just not people, lol. Why doesn’t she do stuff? Come out of your shell, let’s see you move!
I didn’t know I was already doing all I could. I should have stayed put on the sidelines, defying all unspoken social rules and regulations.
If the guilt of mothering is the backdrop, the guilt of existing as an autistic person is the stage.
The guilt of being non-verbal in public … or what was called “very shy” back then, when it’s better to just talk, for heaven’s sake.
The guilt of not liking dresses. You can’t stand people looking at you like you’re a girl. At three years old, you know. You can sense how they look at you differently. You don’t like it. You decide you don’t like dresses.
The guilt of not liking tickling and roughhousing. Just because you’re a girl, your brother would complain. You still feel too violated and exhausted from both your father and brother disrespecting your stop! the first, second, and fourth times to reply. They finally relented when you started crying from the actual pain the tickling is causing. It’s not because I’m a girl, you want to say, eternally hurt, with bitter emphasis on girl. I can’t stand being touched.
The guilt of knowing that you can, you could, you want to improve your drawing skills and having the gall to say it out loud when people are just trying to compliment you, jeez.
The guilt of being so quiet in class, you’re being very difficult, you know that? It’s impossible to grade you when you don’t say anything! So your teacher takes the opportunity to just complain about that on your report card.
The guilt of sitting in the dark, thinking, twirling your hair furiously, unable to break out of the cycle that is thinking about not doing, about thinking itself, about being unable to break free.
The guilt of lying about knowing a band everyone else knows. The guilt of still not knowing how sex works.
The guilt of being ashamed of existing. Weird, walking dictionary, super-brain — it’s not a compliment, you know. The guilt of always looking for an excuse to stay home, even if you have to manifest stomach pains. The guilt of being terrified of scary movies and having nightmares for years. The guilt of not finishing all of your art projects.
The guilt of eating all the leftover pasta.
The guilt of knowing you should speak up, failing every time, something blocks you, the words can’t come out and you just wish you knew how everyone else does it.
The guilt of staying home to design books instead of spending all day in school.
The guilt of quitting, again.
The guilt of not knowing what to do, and only sort of knowing what you don’t want, and being stuck there for years.
The guilt of a stranger sliding his hand up your skirt on the train home and you doing nothing about it, sitting there being worthless, letting it happen until you get off at your stop.
The guilt of working in a professional kitchen at four months pregnant — “Oi! You never work anymore, all you do is eat, eat, eat!”. Hiding your little belly under your apron, not telling anyone, everyone knowing regardless. The guilt of being the pregnant lady that is getting fat now.
The guilt of slipping into muteness again. The guilt of wanting him to be there for you when you need him, without having to plead.
The guilt of taking the scarf around his neck and pulling because your body tells you there’s no other way to make him understand.
The guilt of pure survival mode. Of not being outraged because you’re busy being tired. Of letting people tell you how it should be — not like this — then making it your number one focus. Exhaustion turning to wrath, each feeding the other.
The guilt of not being able to just end it. The guilt of having known for a while. The guilt of being terrified of the fairy tale ending.
The guilt of being everything, doing everything, not leaving him any room to live up to your expectations.
The guilt of wanting him gone. The guilt of wanting him to stay forever. The guilt of thinking he may be the one and you ruined everything. The guilt of knowing he isn’t and you wasted months of both of your lives by being scared of everything.
The guilt of wanting the fairy tale ending, knowing that chance is gone forever.
Is it you? Is it about your mother? Am I stuffing myself into that space again? Am I trying to be everything again, even though I have all but given up on you?
It’s been a while since I told myself to accept that I will never be able to make you, demand of you, even delicately ask you do your part; you have to do it for your own sake — no, your son’s. I’m still working on that, every time the subject of you comes up. Here’s something: if it’s good for him, it’s good for me, vice versa, and everything in between. And you, by the way. You’re part of it, too. We’re all in symbiosis, for better or worse.
Is it about your father, your subconscious manipulating your every move, thought, feeling, so you can stay on those pleasant grounds of his emotional non-presence? Is it about me and my father? Is it about my need to prove to the world that I am the only person in charge of anything in my life, now ours, my son’s and mine? Do I need the satisfaction of being able to say I did it all myself? Is this about me?
Is this about my shadow? Is it about me, the need to recognize, see, accept my own flakiness? I do it too, after all — I leave people on “read”. I don’t respond for months, sometimes years. I don’t do it on purpose, the words just won’t come out when I think they should. So I leave these people hanging for a while, but I respond eventually. I’m not proud of it; on the other hand, carrying conversations over throughout time and space like a Louis Vuitton suitcase you’re only bringing with you everywhere because it cost so much is exhausting. Is it this?
Is it depression? Is it over-extension? Is it your own guilt? Have you recognized that you should have used a condom when I asked you to? Do you see now how you pressured me to be here, but magically non-fertile at twenty-four, how I wanted to be everything for you, how I violated my boundaries again and again to be your Cool Girl?
Is it about obligation? Just the concept. Because every single one of those, you shirk, if they’re not directly related to your livelihood. I know: nobody showed you how to just give for giving’s sake. To be there for others for the warm and fuzzy inside. We have enough shit to deal with, they should stay in their own lane! How well I can imagine both your parents saying it. I’m sorry about this, truly, that you were never afforded the joy and privilege of giving more than you need to, of getting more in return than you would have thought to ask for.
But really? No, this is about me. It’s always been about me.
Because it all falls back on me.
Do you know what it’s like to explain to him that his father is, well, you don’t know when he’ll be back? Only when he asks, of course, which hardly happens anymore, have you thought about that? Do you know what it’s like to realize that, and to ponder it — your child hardly asks for his father? Because he already knows he’ll never be there when he’s supposed to. He already knows he’ll never answer the phone when he wants to talk to him.
When I suppress the urge to slap in your face the flat-out unfairness of it all —
Is it me, rising to expectations that aren’t there? The ones telling me not to alienate you yet again with my selfish desire to make things right for all of us —
Have you noticed what an easy cop-out you use for weeks, months at a time?
When I want to tell you how great it sounds: Actually, I’m not feeling so well today, maybe let’s do tomorrow instead.
Yeah. Yeah, I do that too. Not.
Here’s my eternal dilemma: That’s great. I’m serious. I am glad and proud and all kinds of things that you have the courage to say that and stick to it. That you know your limits.
But you “knowing your limits” costs us dearly, your son and me both. When you’re not here, you’re not here. Fine. I’ll live. I got this far, I’ll make it another day.
But when you say you’re coming and don’t? Do you have any idea what an internal shitstorm you are setting loose?
Where is my cop-out? When I need to get some work done? When I have to make an important phone call without a toddler playing swipe the phone?
When am I allowed to take the whole day just for myself? No work, no chores, no obligations, just me and a book. Actually, fuck that. Me and work. I just want to work for a whole day, no interruptions.
When the kid is sick, requiring round the clock care and loving attention, and I’m wiped for weeks afterward just from not having any left to give myself for that short time?
When I have food poisoning and it’s so bad that I can hardly sit without falling over, this is what dying must be like; I’m so weak I can hardly lift the knife to butter the kid’s bread and seriously reminisce about the times I still mixed weed with alcohol — this is so much worse…?
Where is my right to say I’m not feeling so well today, when I all I need is physical space to myself for five minutes, if only so I won’t combust all over my child yet again?
When I need a nap because I didn’t sleep at all because my son was having violent dreams all night? When I would just like to eat without being interrupted? When I want to take a shit all by my fucking self?
When I’m about to reach my emotional, physical, anything-really-limit? When I’m long past it already?
When I wake up with a foot in my face, the toddler laughing as I simultaneously wrestle to gain consciousness, fend off the dream still swirling somewhere in between, tell him NO I DO NOT WANT YOUR FOOT IN MY FACE OR YOUR TEETH IN MY ARM OR YOUR HANDS PULLING MY HAIR, NONE OF IT, I WANT NONE OF IT, I WANT TO LIE HERE ALONE AND GATHER MYSELF FOR THE DAY — but with care, because he is sensitive and a child, but he’s not having it, he wants to get up and play and work and read and brush his teeth (now you do?? NOW??) and well no you don’t I really can’t right now I need to rest for a mi — and he’s hitting and stroking and pulling and you spent the entire night with your arm wrapped around his tiny shoulders awkwardly and JUST ONE MINUTE WITH ONLY MYSELF IN THIS BED UNDER THESE COVERS, nope, nope, nope, he’s pulling the covers off and I just can’t anymore, I need to be heard and you know what is most horrible about mornings like these?
Roaring for both of us.
I feel the strain on my throat for the rest of the day.
I feel the excruciating — even for me, living with it most days, forgiving myself ruthlessly — guilt of having lashed out at my child right at the beginning of our day, still in bed, knowing full well what I am showing him at that moment. I feel the shame of seeing the root cause, the obviousness behind my son’s behavior right now, powerless to change it: needing two parents but having only one; when one is out, another should exist to leap forth from beneath the covers in these moments of tatendrang.
I feel the exhaustion of the mental and emotional tug of war from those minutes and the hours of missed sleep, the rage building yet again, me at its mercy, the dread when I register it, the pain that takes over when it’s too late, the kid has touched me one time too many in my torment, my inner three-year-old screaming as everything in her rushes to defend herself against the attacker… I feel the biting regret, the bitterness of knowing that were you around: a) my son would have a father, and b) I might have two days a week to sleep by myself, I might not “need” to do this to my son and myself, but who am I kidding? This, all of this, is just a product of working too late, I could simply go to sleep earlier and everything would be fine and dandy and I would never have a malicious thought about you not bearing any responsibility.
Except then, I would have around two hours to work every day, and where would that leave us?
But, oh, the joy. The joy of mothering, what about that?
Out — of — this — world.
I only noticed a few short months ago. In so many ways, you have gifted me life by not being here.
There was the time I had a full autistic meltdown in town. Head spinning, nausea, hyperventilating, unable to speak, walk, stand. I asked you to come and help us get home, I was so far gone. You were there (this was during one of three week-long spells you were always available), you listened to me spew randomness out of my mind’s tornado, you bought me coconut water and blueberries per my request.
You were impatient and uncomfortable; the energy was too familiar, I recognized it from long before: the way you would silently will me to get it together, look more like a person. My emotional laboring invisible, you brushing away that my simple act of leaving the house to go and do and comply with your idea of being a couple — doing everything together — was more than enough for me in that awful, glorious, forever panic-inducing state of being a newborn mother.
After the episode, you were gone for weeks, and this was one of the times I knew you knew that I knew that you were now actively avoiding me; this was your four-week holiday. I was still reeling from the aftermath, the depletion that followed the episode, the guilt of being so helpless when alone with my child for days on end, completely at the mercy of my sensory sensitivity.
But what began then, for me, was indescribable. I realized which idea of parenting I had been letting you see: hardship. It was so hard, and nothing but. All of it, every minute of every day. Work. And we both know how you feel about that.
I began an experiment.
What might happen if I let myself be and do with my kid exactly what I needed to be there — without twice-weekly nervous breakdowns!?
I let myself stay home all day when I wanted to: almost every day. I let myself sleep in as long as I was permitted by the two-and-a-half-year-old. I let myself do what I want as long as he was happy. I let myself bake and cook and not bake and not cook as I pleased. I played with him. I drew pictures, him telling me what to draw, five kitchens in a row, six, seven, now a washer and dryer and a carton of eggs. Perplexed and agape at finding myself overcoming crippling perfectionism, sincerely liking the works of art that just seemed to happen in the process.
I let myself be, in short, who I am. Completely, fully.
We listen to music. We sit on the couch for hours, flicking through playlists, occasionally getting up for a rapturous five-minute dance. Training my patience, succeeding most days, on others walking away in exasperation at Liam requesting, “Different music! Liam music!” for the six-hundredth time in a row. Sometimes, we spend entire afternoons with The Happy Organ on repeat. And thanks to all the jazz he seems to love, I discovered the song playing on repeat in the background for days while I’m writing this.
I let my son be, I’m learning to see and listen and hold him instead of working towards his bedtime all the while he’s awake.
It is everything I have been missing. It is actual, true bliss.
And — beware: a truth; not a whiff of sarcasm:
I could not have done it with you in my life.
This is not to say it isn’t still hard.
It is exhausting. There are still mornings like recounted before, the day beginning with shocking myself with the intensity of wrath simple touch in the wrong moment still provokes in me, without my being able to do anything about it. There are other days when I seem good on the surface but still can’t lift a finger to interact with the child the way he needs me to.
But mostly, it’s the good kind of tired. A good, full day of playing, of cooking with music and eating well, of gardening and shopping and working on my words during nap time, of cleaning and washing and organizing and reading an eight-page book about fire engines six times and stroking his head and giving happy kisses and realizing then: you did all of this in one day without getting angry even once, adapting to your child’s adorable whims with a grace and agility that you are flabbergasted by.
Yes, it is good. It is always good once the initial shock, anger, pain, sadness of you breaking your word again has subsided.
Yes, I am growing. This impossible task overwhelming me so completely in the beginning has catalyzed a transformation I have been seeing this entire time, but only began embracing from that point forward —
The one where I decided to just have fun with the mothering already. To have fun, period.
One of the crucial, if superficial, reasons I had for a baby, against aborting and continuing with my life As If It Had Never Happened — I always wanted to be a young mother, if it were to happen, and this was the chance. I wanted to be as close to my inner kid as possible with my kid, for my kid. I’ve grasped by now, though, that age is hardly the defining factor in feeling young. In fact, it’s taken me getting older to feel the way I envisioned it then.
At 25, I was a mess, so set in my inability to cope with adulthood that I was also stuck in thinking “like an adult.”
But now, three years later, I can feel it.
Hardly eighteen, though ten years past, feels like tomorrow still. Amazed every day I don’t have to go to school. Happily slurping coffee, mixing dough for bread and putting on the Beatles at eight in the morning. And that — shedding the stinging layers of judgment, of professional-level worrying, of thinking and analyzing myself into being all those concepts one must have mastered to be a Deserving Person™ was only possible when I wasn’t occupied with organizing our life with you in it.
Do you know what the hardest work is?
The one you do on yourself. This is the privilege and the most difficult of hard things in parenting: you must be willing to re-parent yourself in the process.
You radiate everything you are onto your child; he soaks it all up. When he sees a discrepancy between the way you present yourself and what he feels, he will correct himself to suit you.
All it amounts to in the end is love. He loves me, and he needs my love more than anything else in the world. So if I can be love, there’s nothing more I can say or do to be who he needs. This is so hard. Try it. Try loving yourself and all this guilt and emotional reactivity unconditionally. Not for your son, for yourself. But for your son. But for yourself. But for your son??
Just do it.
This is what I think about.
How much has my child already bent himself to be “right” by me and my insecurities? What has he already suppressed to show me only the sides I am able to love right now? Will I ever know? Can I ever undo the damage I’m doing every day just by existing alongside him?
You know? Do you do this work?
You said you’d come; you didn’t. You didn’t even bother to tell me. I was left waiting, hoping, battling the mounting knowledge that this would be one of those times again. Those times when I dared get my hopes up and smile, only to be left waiting for a miracle that wasn’t supposed to be, again, that I had seen not coming, telling myself to have faith anyway. Those times when I’d be right in my apprehension to tell the child about it, when I’d also realize what it says about my real hopes, when I’d furiously battle the old habit of not hoping to avoid the supposedly inevitable hurt.
I’m dizzy just remembering all the thoughts and hopes and beliefs I am forced to hold simultaneously in those moments. Positive, negative, neutral. My stomach hurts for days afterward.
This time, instead of pushing away the anger and bitterness and frustration and convincing myself I shouldn’t have expected anything, this is so 2018, I should have learned to shrug this off this eons ago, I compose a short rant on my phone. Then, I decide to do it properly and move the words over here.
But I don’t give it to you.
Because it’s not for you. It’s for me, it’s only for me by now.
I let my fingers soak up the words. I let myself embody them. Because really, what does it matter?
I circle back every time: Maybe this is just how it is.
Maybe I’m supposed to just take this thing and do it all and bear the weight and fight and become stronger every day, and you’re supposed to be… wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
Maybe it is how it should be.
That gorgeous, nonsensical clarity, every time the fog of what to do about the dad lifts. When I yet again see it:
It just is.
You are doing you, and while you do, I am here, we are doing what we do, I do me, and it’s beautiful.
The way my life soars when you’re gone. The weight flies away on its own. I don’t need it. I don’t need you.
But what about Liam? This is the crux.
What the fuck about your son? How is it humanly possible to say, well, I’m not feeling all too well to see my son today — when I’ve told you so many times, when even your mother has made it abundantly clear, what I do, what she did every single fucking day? How does that guilt not spur you into action?
I do this every day. I am here every night. I get over it, I get over myself. I give everything, and he knows it.
Where are you?
How can you know what you are and aren’t missing if you’re not here?
I’m sure this is heavy in your mind. Positive, even, that it’s at the forefront of your guilt. Because the short hours you take for yourself never fail to rouse that regretful, yearning look within you. I can see it, I’ve always seen the truth in your eyes, even when you were calling me all kinds of names and spitting in my face.
But do you know where the real magic is? In the mundane, of course. It’s so special, I’m speechless several times a day.
When I get up to work after he’s fallen asleep, I know the gratitude I feel in this one moment is enough to radiate it for the rest of the day.
Those moments I’m gathering myself to correct him as he’s getting another tool to make a mess somewhere, but then realize he’s trying to help in the sweetest way I could not have imagined because I am that hardened by the all-encompassing belief that children are mean-spirited gnomes that make messes for the hell of bothering me.
When he’s about to fall asleep but needs to kiss my forehead one more time, pulling my face towards him as if he’s the one doing the parenting.
The way he still wants to be carried like a baby down the stairs, how he wraps his legs around my waist like he did at ten months.
When he wants to take care of me when I’m down, even though, you know, he’s two and I’m his mom, but those concepts don’t exist for him, and I frantically tell him no, you’re the kid, you’re not supposed to do that, I’m going to be fine — just let me lie here for a minute. And he says OK! and climbs onto my belly, giggling through my feeble protests.
When my mind is too preoccupied with work to see him and his real needs, sternly ruling that bedtime will be now, it’s late, over his whining to make a cave! Make a cave! No, make a cave!! — I pretend to be patient, but, exasperated, stand by my word until he starts crying in such a heartbreaking way, I realize my shortcut is, again, an unnecessary and painful detour, as I take him onto my lap and pull the covers over our heads to form the cave and see, while I hold him everywhere I can, as tightly as possible without squeezing, that for whatever reason, he just needs to be here with me right now; make a cave expressing his need for closeness.
And after five minutes of being held and catching his breath between sobs, he turns and says, okay, I want to lie down now.
And my heart is close to bursting. He is everything.
Even when I try to lessen the load, I am shouldering more.
What follows rather painfully in thinking these thoughts through is how inherently selfish they are. Well, of course — there’s the guilt. That’s what this piece is about. I’m writing about me and my guilt.
Yes, what about Liam, I write, and immediately make it about what I do, instead of about who he is.
My favorite scene in As Good As It Gets serves as the movie’s eponym. Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall storms out of his therapist’s office into the waiting room. He pauses, looks around and says, to nobody in particular, “What if this is as good as it gets!?”
I was ugly-crying tears of happy throughout the entire movie, but at this point, my stomach lurched with joy because I knew:
From that point on, Mr. Udall’s life will keep getting better.
Incidentally, it’s what I’ve been telling myself from the moment Liam’s father wasn’t around anymore. That was my As Good As It Gets moment. From an outside perspective, the lowest of lows of my life:
- New Mom
- Living At Home With Dad
- Taking Money From The Government
- No Childcare
- No Job
- No Prospect Of A Job
- No Degree
- No Future
At the time, this was all I saw in myself.
But that day set free so much energy I didn’t even know was being monopolized by our co-dependency, it would only be a matter of time until the circumstances changed to match my new freedom.
You know what? You know that it all doesn’t matter?
Your son has a great home. His grandpa is around to play and go shopping and go on outings to the car wash and look at pictures of “Lotland” (toddler-speak for Scotland) for hours. His grandma is close and takes him home with her and they work and play and dance together.
He’s OK. He doesn’t know it any other way. He will be a fine and emotionally healthy adult, I’m positive. My career is moving out of hibernation, thanks to my working on it steadily, daily, every chance I got since you’ve been gone from our life.
When people say they don’t know how I do it — well, I don’t either, other than:
I do it. I take a lot of notes, I stay up too late pondering and reading and writing my soul back to health. I don’t know it any other way.
I once expressed my admiration and deep respect to a mother of twins at the playground. (It was hard; see The Autism; but I needed to, so I got over it and sweated profusely for hours afterward) I had just watched as she changed two pairs of baby shoes, set her daughter over by the slide to play with sand and helped her son climb to the top. I saw her checking on both kids with complete trust that the other would be doing just fine when she couldn’t see or hear it, managing their frustrations, almost dancing back and forth with a lightness that stunned me so hard I felt like a blundering idiot — who was I to complain even sometimes about doing all of that with only one kid?
But here’s what she said to me:
“Well, I don’t know it any other way. I just do it.”
So here it is: I’m grateful.
Everything that has happened, everything you did, every time you didn’t show, has led to this. I’m here, writing this, getting it out of my system, applying myself the way I always yearned to, because of you. I am fucking glad.
Because yes, oh, how I’ve grown. Oh my God, have I grown, and my first impulse is to say I wouldn’t recognize myself, but that’s not it; before I was a single mother there was all this judgment and hardship and melancholy clouding every thought passing through my mind, I didn’t see how what I called “knowing myself” was just identifying with my suffering, my judgement, my knowing-how-it-is.
Seeing myself clearly — at all, even — is a process, always, but I’m getting closer than ever. I observe the transformation of my inner narrative moment by moment. I feel lighter every day.
And when I say “because of you,” well.
No. Because of me.
I took this chance.
I wanted this kid when it appeared, seemingly out of air.
You stood by, angry at me, at the world, at the unfairness of how your demands for what I do with my body were — thankfully — invalid.
But I did it. I said yes.
I knowingly sprang into the apparent abyss that was being pregnant smack in the middle of chef training.
I did the work, I took it upon me. I made this happen.
I made hard choices. I had tough conversations. I showed up for my kid, prodding back my ego thousands of times a day.
I analyzed parenting books. I scanned and devoured everything I could find on money, on business, on psychology and trauma and spirituality and all the shit in between. I inhaled the entirety of the Human Design system and studied people’s emotional lives. I got more done in the three hours I had to myself daily than the 24 of my previous life. I vomited the junk churning endlessly in my head into journals, I dug tunnels into my subconscious, I meditated for hours at a time. I ran and did push-ups and squats and yoga, I speed-walked with a stroller full of groceries every day. I accepted my inability to function as they say I should in a loud, bright, social world. I faced my lifelong fear of dentists. I got over my pride, the indignity of living with my father at now 28 and saw it as the rational, mature living situation that it is, for me, for us, for now.
And then… I decided to have fun. My kind of fun. I started designing books again. I worked with more intensity than ever. I began trusting myself and my process in earnest.
I let myself have bad days and enjoyed them for what they were: time to rest. I started baking for joy, not likes. I jumped from project A to project B and back and then to project C; I spoke to myself with kindness and understanding instead of spiritually bypassing myself with every wrong thought.
I actively listened for my gut’s rightness, not my mind’s perfectionism.
I trusted and trusted and stopped trying to change.
I did it, and the stars aligned.
“What do you really want now?”
“I don’t know. I want to make cookbooks… I think I want a child.”
I see a woman, her back turned. A boy, around three years old, light blonde hair, holding her hand. Crossing a busy street in the middle of the day. Turmstraße, Berlin.
“You do?? Who’s gonna be the father?”
“I don’t know.”
My eyes well up. I have no idea where the image came from. I have no idea why those words just dropped out of my mouth. But it seems obvious now. The longing is unbearable.
“Alright, then. You’ll see. When do you want this to happen at the latest?”
I have no idea, what’s realistic?
“What’s happening then? You’ll be pregnant or the baby will be born?”
“The baby will be born.”
“Wow, that’s pretty soon.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.”
“Well, you have to be sure.”
“OK, alright. Yes, I’m sure. I want a child.”
“Wow. OK. Well, I’m rooting for you!”
My breath stops in anticipation.
It’s orientation day one. I haven’t been this nervous since that time I sat in front of a room of ten well-known professors and other faculty members for my entrance exam at art school.
My heels are already killing my feet, my skirt hitching up, my tights probably have a couple of runs by now. My best friend came with me, she drops me off in front of the hotel’s back entrance. A smattering of people way younger than me dressed in similar inexpertly chosen office attire are gathered. I force a smile.
A small woman with bad makeup and an artificial smile appears and beckons us to come inside, through grand sliding doors, up two flights of stairs that look lost in the vast, empty atrium.
Lush, regal patterned carpet blankets the floor. We enter a conference room containing a single long oaken table lined by equally massive chairs and a whiteboard by the window. My spot is almost at the front. Little boys of barely eighteen to my left and right.
Across from me sits a tall blonde dude with large lips. He looks weird. His gaze is piercing.
He’s the only one I can’t decide not to like.