This morning at 5:40 AM my daughter, in the next room, began crying, as she always does but not usually this early; and I lurched out of bed to see what was going on. She requested milk in her sippy cup, and when I told her that it was still time to sleep, not eat, she insisted, “I hungry!” So I got the milk, gave it to her, and flung myself back into my bed, in anger that I could not express toward my child. I can barely remember a single day in the past 3 years when I have been able to wake up on my own, when I wanted to, instead of being interrupted out of sleep.
The dining room in my apartment is a room that is never used. It holds a little piece of my grandparents’ house, where I spent so much happy time as a child, in the form of their 50’s wooden table, chairs, sideboard, and jelly cabinet. Large, red-toned portraits of them, taken in the early 1980s, rest high up on the walls looking down at me so often—I feel—in disappointment that I have no innate abilities (or maybe willingness) to create a warm and nurturing home; to keep a relationship, a marriage, a contract, a pleasant demeanor…erect a Christmas tree, host dinners, enjoy being a member of the larger social structure. How did I get this way? Is this how I am supposed to be? Is there some model for “bohemian, neurotic, introvert parent” that is missing in our culture? Do these labels absolve anything—just because I know I have these qualities, what do I do?
And so, the picture of my high school acquaintance kneeling in a streambed with her four children and muscular husband awakened old debates in me and a yearning for that word “family,” which is so fraught that it is impossible to feel positively about it and impossible to live without what it represents.
The division I feel inside continues in my life, in which I am dating someone who, though he has a daughter, too (older than mine), does not want to be involved with my child, at least at present, or to see me as a mom. He prefers that we get together outside of our domestic situations, current and former. So while our exes babysit, he picks me up in his sporty car like I am a teenager, and we progress from restaurant, to bar, to bed, to a brief iced-coffee session in the morning, then back to our separate obligations. This world we inhabit is about romance, leisure—illusion. Because how can these things be real when they ignore huge parts of our experience and identities? And yet, what single mom would not want such a break from the rigors and disappointments of life? A chance to enjoy globes of red wine, animated discussion about art and relationships, spontaneous time together; and avoid mundane conversations about dry cleaning or potty training?
On one of our first dates, he and I went to a wilderness preserve in another part of the state. It was just before spring had begun, and the irises he was hoping to show me hadn’t bloomed yet. Instead, there were all these waving, brassy stalks where, in a month or less, the flowers would surely appear. They were dry like husks. They resembled wheat, nourishment, but also gave an impression of decay. It was a windy day, and there was something displacingly eternal—I know of no better adjectives for this—about the sound the wind made blowing these parched golden things around. It was a dry, old moan-hiss that said, the world has been here forever, and this life is just an accretion of perceptions arranged in time, not necessarily wedded to anything stable…look deeply into anything and it will blow away.
It was a second or third date. We held hands, or his arm was around me, as bundled in our coats we walked and sat and listened in the quiet, far from highways. I don’t know what he was thinking, but on top of the thrill of feeling his body in contact with mine, that newness, I felt a detached weariness, like we were each just collections of particles experiencing other collections of particles, forming them into stories and feelings. Were we really even there at all? I imagined how months before we met, that sound had been there, with only the small life—insect, fish, mold—subsisting in that mute place to witness it; and it would be there in the utter blackness that night after we left, when people in the cities and towns nearby were fashioning certainties of their plans and happiness.
Irises at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve