When my daughter and I moved to Montreal 8 years ago, she was just over a year old. I hadn’t lived here in over 10 years, and I knew only 2 people in the entire city. I was 21 when I left, and I was coming back as a recently separated single mother.
I was so freshly separated that when I discovered my ex-husband’s suit had been mistakenly packed with my things, I believed it was a sign that we would reconcile. I used to slide myself into it and pretend his arms were wrapped around me. Truly the worst of times, for me.
Those early days as a new mother in a new-ish city were overwhelming for us both. For weeks after we moved, A. took her Lambie everywhere - the stuffed animal she usually reserved for bedtime was her constant companion. And for those first few weeks, she was my Lambie.
The first time her father came to fetch her so she could spend a weekend with him in Ottawa, I felt like I’d lost a limb. I cried like a baby. Or the lost mother of one. I had no idea what to do with myself, and barely a clue as to who I was without her. So I signed up for the crazy hip hop class I used to take when I was 17, and danced my Saturday mornings away.
Slowly I tried to make Montreal mine. I forced myself to attend events at which I knew almost no one, just to connect and meet people. The hardest was the Kids for Kids ball where I knew only the brother of one of my best friends - and not well. Everybody knew each other - it was right out of one of those bad prom scenes from a 90s flick.
I’d spent the previous 10 years in 3 different countries, so my friends were everywhere but there that night. But I stayed, I smiled, I danced, I bumped into old acquaintances, and I made sure not to impose myself on anyone too long. That night vaccinated me against being afraid to put myself into alien situations. It was my social Ironman, and just as painful.
A.’s neediness was my burden and my salvation - it anchored me to myself. I signed us up for playgroups, for music classes during which I would sit in a circle with other mothers and sing songs, for swimming classes in the dead of winter. Anything to stay busy: these activities were as much for me as they were for her. And I’m still friends with the gorgeous Anny who I met in that singing circle, and the wonderful women I met in playgroup, in the basement of the Westmount Baptist church. They still tease me about the time I showed up at playgroup with a raging hangover from a dinner party the night before, and spent most of the morning not socializing with my friends, but vomiting in the men’s bathroom, while my child sat sweetly singing something about the wheels on the bus.
The weeks of crushing sadness eventually let in a day or two of I’m ok, and then those ok days started to link one to another. Slowly I made friends who cared for A. and I as though they’d known us for years, and we needed that care so badly. And once in a while I felt so high with stomach-flipping-joy that I’d wonder if I was normal.
Now the grief rushed in less often, but always at unexpected moments. At the cottage, after we’d spent a week splashing in the sun by the lake with my girlfriends and their kids. The moment their husbands would show up to join their wives and kids for the weekend, the kids would run squealing to jump in their father’s arms, and my friends’ focus would shift to their families. A. had nobody to run to, and I felt like someone had hit me in the heart with a canoe paddle. We’d retreat to the cottage, my stomach curdled with sadness.
This happened at the park, it happened at the ski hill - the places where families do things together, where parents cheer their children on, where they live the public moments that glue their memories together. One glimpse of a father pushing his daughter on a swing, and I’d want to throw up with sadness.
It’s taken me years not to be punched in the heart by the togetherness of families, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I left the family cocoon that is Westmount, but it happened again yesterday, when I took A. skiing. I’d forgotten how it felt to be surrounded by dads helping their kids get up after they fell flat on their faces, sharing the carrying, cheering, dragging that is the real skiing-with-kids experience, with their spouses.
It’s still just us, me and A. But it was a beautiful, fun day and I refuse to stop doing what we love just because it hurts a little. We’ve been through worse.
Driving home from school today: “Mum, whenever you give me advice it only works at first, and then it disappears into nothing after a few minutes”.
So much for trying to give her advice on how to deal with a young twit named J. who today told her she was “special needs” because her parents are divorced.
And tonight, as I tucked her into bed:
“Oh mum, you are so beautiful inside, you just need to let it out of it’s cage!”
So much for watching Life of Pi before bed.
In 10 days my daughter will turn 10. It’s just a pairing of even numbers, tidy and symmetrical…10 and 10. But it feels huge.
10 years and ten days ago, we lived in Dublin, I was married, and although I knew I was about to experience something that would change my body, my marriage and my life as I knew them, I couldn’t wait.
When I was a little girl, I’d visit my grandmother in Connecticut, and do nothing but read. I remember that we’d stop at the public library right after I arrived and I’d take out the maximum number of books allowed - 10 - and read them everywhere.
And then I found this. I remember it so well. I made a dollhouse in a drawer, cutting up postcards to make a fake fireplace, creating tables out of jewelry boxes, aluminum foil as a mirror. I played with it for hours, crouched over the desk it lived in, and my grand mother has kept it for the past 30 years. It’s like opening a drawer into my childhood.
I don’t even recognize myself - I don’t like making anything, or rather, I’m not patient enough for crafts. Where did this patient, creative little girl go?
And then one day this past winter I came home with new boots. They came in a large box, which my daughter asked to keep. She sat down and started cutting up magazines to decorate the wall, making carpet out of tissue.
She made a dollhouse. In a box.
There I am.
My daughter is away at her father’s for two weeks. This is good. I need some me time, some time to be a selfish human, do what I want to when I want to. Try to be bored. And I found this - something I had written during my mother-daughter “honeymoon” in Costa Rica.
During this trip, I was reminded of what I didn’t realize I (sometimes) felt:
…that you are not just my responsibility, my gorgeous to-do list, my hopes and fears embodied…
You are also someone entirely separate from me - a person to discover.
A girl who thinks, hums, raps, laughs. And you look so much like me these days…
…that in some way, I am rediscovering myself. It’s disconcerting. And wonderful. Scary too.
It’s not easy to bring you up (almost) alone. You’re a lot of person, a big human. It’s overwhelming sometimes.
Being your mother is the best kind of challenge…onward we go, and upward we grow, my little one.
- Guess how many boys at school like me Mama?
- How many?
- How do you know they like you?
- Because they’re really mean! And when boys are mean, it means they like you.
"The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you’re particularly good at the violin or math, for God’s sake don’t let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you’re good at stuff they’ll force you to do it forever. You’ll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing “The Music of the Night” for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. Or you’ll be the fat, 40-ish accountant doing taxes for the people who spent their school days copping a feel and learning how to roll a good joint."
- the bloody fabulous A.A.Gill on how school ruins our children. I love him, I love British humour, I love irreverence. Read it and cackle, whether you’re a parent or not.
This morning the parking attendant near my office stopped me as I was paying. He’s moody, so I never know if he’s going to smile or growl at me.
"I admire you", he said.
"Why is that?", I asked.
"You have a child and you are alone", he answered.
Way to start the day.
(I know he meant well, but the only pity I want is free babysitting. And more vacation time. And free wine. And a chef service at home. And a housekeeper. That’s all. )
The other night as we were getting ready to go out to dinner, my 9-year old daughter walked out of the bathroom with black smudged around one eye:
- Are you wearing eyeliner?, I asked.
- What’s on your eyes?
Then she asked which one of my tops she could borrow and wear to dinner.
Here she is, trying to tie my sarong the way she has seen me wear it. She’s still young enough to have to stand on the bed to see herself in the mirror, but I can see it…the beginning of a grace that hints at what she will be - a woman - instead of what she is now: a young girl.
We travel to leave our lives behind. We buy tickets and board planes to places we hope will tear us from our daily routines. We shed layers of clothing, insert ourselves into cultures we know nothing about, and wait to feel different.
The language we use to describe our lives says it all: we “get through it”, we “survive” our hard weeks, we “make it” to the weekend. When did this become an endurance game?
I booked this vacation mainly to spend time with my daughter before she sprouts into confirmed pre-teendom, but also because we both needed a break from work, from schedules, from winter.
We have a good life. It’s just that my mind is wrapped around it so tightly that I forget that there can be a sunset like this one happening somewhere in the world at the same time as I’m scraping 3 inches of ice off my windshield.
Today as I finished my last surf, I realized that being away has allowed me to escape not just my daily routine, but myself - the me I have to be to meet the demands of my life.
I travel to leave my self behind.
I can feel my body relax, but it’s my mind I’m releasing from a rictus of shoulds, coulds, hows, whys and whens. Because if I don’t let this careful balancing act go every once in a while, I fear I may actually get stuck being…the woman I spend much of my life being.
Leaving her behind is the ultimate luxury. And so is realizing that this side of me is alive and well.