Like a book with missing pages
Like a story incomplete
Like a painting left unfinished
It feels like not enough to eat.
– Little Conversations, Concrete Blonde
I’m acutely aware of time sailing by at breakneck speed these days. Even when, in theory, it should feel like trying to drain the last of the honey jar now that the world is on shut-down and off-kilter and I can’t even sense seasons passing without stopping to think what month we’re in.
I’m nearing fifty. My daughter is almost six and where I feel like I was just cradling her in one arm only weeks ago, I pick her up now and her legs dangle gangly over my arms and I struggle to curve her to my body as I rock her side to side and call her, in a sing-songy voice, my baby.
My love for her can feel like something larger than our planet – robust and breathing and all encompassing.
There are days where I want to go back to being pregnant. Before the divide. When all she needed was me and my blood and bone and I could hold her inside of me: safe and suspended and cocooned in a world that had all she needed to survive. Not even air was a necessity.
Just my pulse sending her everything that sustained her.
My mother loved me. Immensely.
She had an incredibly hard time showing it.
Having a meaningful conversation with her could sometimes seem so obviously painful that you might jump ship halfway in and change the subject, just to see her shoulders release slightly and the tight pull of her eyes loosen.
When I was three she left my father with no money and no security net and built a world for us to be safe and stable in . . . she never put anything before her children and worked and worked to keep making more and more possible for not only me but the brother and sister she gave me after marrying the wonderful man who raised me.
And yet. It took being an adult to be able to reconcile what I knew about her loving me with what it felt like to be raised by her.
Growing up, sometimes she actually said, Do we really need to talk about this?
Mostly, you just sensed her discomfort. You could feel it in her clipped words. You could see it in the way her lips tensed or her shoulders raised up a little as she took a quiet intake of breath.
One time, in one of the toughest eras in our relationship when I was twenty-four, she said exactly this: If you don’t stop right now you are going to talk your way right out of this family.
And I did. Talk my way out. For more than five years.
Somehow. Some way. I still came out as someone who talks through everything. (Who many will say talks too much, but hey, whatever).
By some miracle, I never gave up on talk, on connection. On the deeply sacred belief that with words and connection and understanding, we can save all of us from loneliness. And pain.
At least some of it.
I believe in understanding and talking and bridging the gap . . . so much so that I spent at least five years too long in an abusive relationship because I thought that there is nothing you can’t talk through.
There are. Some things. That can’t be talked out or fixed with connection.
But not much.
Almost nothing is out of that reach, in fact. I still believe. Despite having been literally sick from trying too long and too hard on something unsaveable.
I live for my daughter’s questions. For her to let me get a glimpse of how her mind is working. How it solves problems. How it makes sense of the world.
To navigate the confusion that is her parental situation. Try so hard to make sense of one parent being called a liar when she sees the truth every day.
Tonight she got out of bed and came to my room. Perhaps a stall tactic. But also she was working out conversations that had happened with her dad and her brother and her dad’s girlfriend during her visitation this weekend.
Her story was convoluted. And her question obscured. It was about something the girlfriend said. But really she was trying to make sense about something her brother said.
It had to do with toucans and zoos and computers and a memory her brother has of something that never happened. And the girlfriend said your brother doesn’t really like zoos.
But my daughter, like me, having been around longer than this woman, knew it was about more than that. Something very different.
I asked her what was confusing. What did she think. I offered a little perspective about what always happens when either of them disagrees with dad and how her brother acts when he’s really frustrated by something like that.
About how hard it is for him sometimes to process that all in the moment.
She offered a five year old’s interpretation that was, actually, wise beyond her years (which often breaks my heart as much as it gives me hope since it comes from having seen too much already about the ways adults can be untrustworthy).
After we talked about it all – maybe five minutes in total – she said, that makes more sense now.
I didn’t tell her anything really. I just listened and asked her questions and, at one point, shared one observation about situations that are hard for her brother.
She worked it out. By talking it through. With me.
There’s a lot of bullshit talk about cherishing every moment that can make moms (& dads) feel bad about getting stressed out or counting the minutes until bedtime so they can sigh and sit and, for the first time all day, think only of themselves. I’m not about that propaganda. Especially right now when juggling it all means something different than it did six months ago.
But I do cherish every single one of the moments like tonight.
I fell asleep comforted by the walk she did into my room. By her crawling up onto the edge of the bed and facing me and those words out of her mouth: mama, something just doesn’t make sense to me right now.
Her face open and not scared at all that I will shut her down. That I will tell her that it’s past bedtime and she shouldn’t be up (which is, factually, true)
I don’t care if anyone thinks I am coddling. Or that she’s tricking me into not being in bed for just a few more minutes.
I hold sacred every time she comes to me and opens up.
Having a father who fills her head with all kinds of adult things (untrue things) means she’s always processing after she gets home from a visit.
Often, she comes to me with an out of context question 24-48 hours after the visit. The issue incubating and percolating in her mind until she can find words for what she doesn’t understand.
And so she asks me.
This is always how I know what he’s said to her.
It’s why he accuses me of interrogating her.
I won’t. Because it’s the worst thing to do to her.
And even if I wanted to, I don’t need to.
She comes to me. And he can’t imagine how or why in order to know that it’s true.
But it is. And it fills me with hope and joy and pride in a way you could have never convinced me of when I was pregnant.
If you had asked me, as I felt her jostle in my belly, what I would look forward to the most, there’s no way that helping her find her own way through the confusion of this situation would be anywhere on the list.
All children need safe places. They need people who will listen and not call them too sensitive or dramatic or shut them down and tell them there are other things to worry about.
They need people who won’t shut them down because they themselves are still broken and can’t handle the way their child’s pain can cause their own to ache and throb.
Every child needs a person to hear them. To listen.
Children like my child – who have a parent who confuses and obfuscates and rewrites history as it’s happening – they need this even more.
The space, the ability, the room, to work it all out. To ask the questions, to tell the stories, to not be told the answers but be led through discussion into learning how to find the answers. To not be ensnared further into the drama of adults but just allowed to be a child in confusion, in the midst of learning, of feeling.
These conversations – this trust and openness and room to think things through – is their only hope for a life not ruled by deception and disorder.
A lifeline. The only rope that will tether them safely to the coast until they learn how to craft their own watertight vessel and acquire the muscle memory required to paddle rhythmically back to shore when the seas get too rough.
That five minute conversation is my biggest parenting achievement this week.
So small. So simple.
So very complex.
As soon as she walked out of my room to tuck herself back into bed, I imagined my mother’s responses to this scenario.
There would have been the same amount of love in the room. The very same.
But none of the same dialogue. None of the words and comfort.
I would have been on my own to sift out the important stuff. To decide if I was to blame for my parents’ inadequacies or not. Talking would really be just thinking, even if I tried to go to her, and I still struggle to move outside of my head on some of these things, because, in those moments, I was my own mother.
I may have failed my daughter in who I gave her as a father or what I understood to be her family when I willed her into existence, but I will not fail her by shutting down her pathway up and out of the confusion.
Her almost magical way to make sense of the world. Her birthright to be heard and understood and acknowledged.
The miraculous way we can connect with each other and make sense of our worlds. So that she can keep doing that for years to come.
So this isn’t the particular wound she has to work to heal when she grows up.
I am a mother. So I fail a lot.
I can pause and listen and help her find the stones to step on that lead her to the right place. Whatever that place is for her.
However many stones it takes.
Yes, baby, let’s talk that through. What are you thinking?