True motivations

Guilt.

I have a lot of it.

It sets in every time my son goes off to his dad’s house. I didn’t do enough with the time I had. I wasn’t kind enough, certain enough, thoughtful enough, engaging enough. I wasn’t good enough. And now he’s gone. A mini grief every time he walks out the door. If only things had been different, so we didn’t have to be apart for more than a day. So I had more chances to be better; so I didn’t have to face this vacuum that I pour all my regret into. If only he hadn’t been ripped from me for half of every week since he was only a year old; back when I was still his whole world, and letting him go felt so viscerally like failing him. How could I let his dad take him from my arms like that, just to put him in childcare? How could I be so weak? How couldn’t I fight for him? I have to make it up to him and I’m running out of time.

It’s a bit sobering to realise that script has been going on somewhere in the background and I’m only just really looking at it now. I knew it was there, but I didn’t look at it. Seeing it laid out on my digital page like this makes it so clear that it is but another iteration of old, worn beliefs. How easily I can now trace its provenance.

But, regardless of its pedigree, it’s stopping me from sleeping.

During lockdown, we had our own Golden Age – my son was with me for five whole days of the week. Everything was better. We slept well, we ate well, we went to the toilet on time, we had a great routine and we were joyful. The swirl of chaos it felt like we had been living in settled and we built a steady life. But, eventually, his dad wanted to return to an even split. I didn’t like it. Makaloo didn’t like it. He protested, he cried, and he begged to sleep in my bed in case he had ‘the dream where I wake up in daddy’s house’. I can probably count the times he’s made it a full night in his own bed since on one hand. And I can’t sleep well with him next to me, so highly attuned I am to every movement he makes; so keenly attentive to any potential call to action. I’ve tried every sleep aid I can get my hands on, but nothing chills me out enough to make it more than a couple of hours.

Yet I can’t bring myself to evict him. Because letting him sleep there, snoring, sleep-talking, sprawling onto me, sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night or whimpering gently before he rolls over; waking up at 4AM and declaring he needs to lie on top of me…it eases my guilt. And it’s impossibly fucking adorable. There are so many things I feel like I’ve been deprived of the ability to give him, but I can give him this, so I do. To my own detriment.

I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. I argue with myself over it routinely; there are good reasons to advocate for both positions. But understanding and acknowledging my true motivations is integral to making an informed decision. So I’ll keep digging until I find a place to stand that feels solid.

Nola

Motherhood, for me, was a calling that revealed itself in early adulthood. Prior to that, I was somewhat ambivalent to the idea, primarily because I doubted my ability to be a good mother. That didn’t stop me from constructing a very specific fantasy of living on a smallholding in Grizedale in the Lake District, with my two sons Jacoby and Delano (father pending), but I was very distinctly disconnected from any concept of what it would mean to be a mother.

When I was twenty-three, however, my perspective jumped quite suddenly when I had a strange dream. It was all blackness, and out of the blackness stepped an old man. He handed me a baby girl, told me her name was Nola, and said “remember, she’s not yours.” And then I woke up. It felt important, and I found myself reflecting on its meaning for a long time after it ended; on what it is to be a parent and raise a child; on what preconceptions I had been carrying with me in my life thus far; on what would happen if (or maybe when) Nola was made manifest; on how parenthood now seemed inevitable for me.

A few weeks later, I fell pregnant. I wasn’t using birth control but I was tracking my cycle and should have been a good week away from ovulating. There was a moment during sex that I suddenly knew, but I told myself I was crazy until a little pink line corroborated my story. It was Nola. The world was magical.

The first flush of joy, however, gave way to a sort of desperate depression after not too long. I wasn’t ready to give a child what they deserved. My partner wasn’t ready to give a child what they deserved. At about eight weeks, I felt my connection to Nola waning, completely outside of my control. I felt her slipping away. I blamed the depression I couldn’t snap myself out of, and the fact that my relationship had declined to the point we were sleeping in separate bedrooms. But I couldn’t shake the sad suspicion that it was over. At twelve weeks it was confirmed I had miscarried, although my body refused to give up on being pregnant.

I had failed. I had failed her. I wasn’t good enough to be a parent.

One day, though, I would be good enough. One day, I would be ready to give a child what they deserved. I had to be. And this was, for whatever reason, part of the journey to get there.

I won’t comment on whether that was a healthy meaning to take from the experience; it was simply the one I took.

Three years later, my body, my mind, my soul were insisting it was time to have a child. To the extent that, a few times, despite the fact I hadn’t had sex in probably a year, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d peed on a stick and it told me I was pregnant.

Then I met someone. Someone who liked the moon that my cycle had now synced up with. Things got a little bit reckless from there.

The adventure of tragedy

I can’t stand it when I see children ripped away from their parents, or parents forced to leave their children behind for their safety. At that point in the story I just weep unconsolably now. It never used to be like that – it used to just feel like part of the adventure. Before I was a parent, I didn’t really get what the big deal was, honestly.

And maybe this was a simple maturation process, or a reward of the rite of passage that is parenthood, but I can’t help suspect there is something else at play. Because I have always maintained a rather unhealthy distance from the concept of family. I have looked upon others’ close familial relationships with bemused curiosity and an uncomfortable tinge of envy. I never had a parent that felt like a safe space; like plain and simple sanctuary; like unconditional love. I’d never known that, so I had no concept of what it would be like to lose it. And I hadn’t considered that that’s what those moments in the story represented – the tragic loss of true love.

I’m a good mother. I’m validating and responsive and highly attuned to my son. I am joyful to be blessed with this role, and I know he feels it. I am enthusiastic, I’m quick to admit error, I respect him as the whole person he is and protect him as the precious growing being that he is. I have done my best to earn the honour of being a safe space for him – a sanctuary of unconditional love.

And so I am terrified of messing it all up by doing what humans inevitably do. I’m scared of dying and leaving him behind.

I was watching Aquaman when it hit me that it’s so much more painful to have and to lose that kind of thing, than to never have known it at all. I don’t know why it took Aquaman for that realisation to descend, but there we are. I feel a responsibility, having gained my son’s trust, having nurtured his open heart, having made him vulnerable to me. Because that makes me a potential source of great pain to him, and a lot of the ways I could hurt him are outside of my control.

But the thing is, I didn’t really start living until I felt what it was like to love and lose. To give myself over completely, to trust in someone else, and to have that sanctuary stripped away. So maybe I was right all along. Maybe it is just part of the adventure.