I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.
On the first day of sixth grade, I entered the school cafeteria for lunch. It was huge, noisy, and smelled like early-puberty sweat and sour milk. The kids were talking, all of them, and I knew they didn’t want me. All the evidence of this was generated by my own guts, which hunched and lurched under their burden of shame. I went to the library and read books during my lunch period for most of my 3 years in middle school.
Later, a girl with a lumpy blonde ponytail and electric blue eyeshadow said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Nobody even likes you so why do you bother?” I knew she was right.
Of the raw materials from which loneliness may be built, shame is the most robust. It is the bedrock foundation on which a lifetime of loneliness is best erected. My structure of loneliness was large and strong, a carefully tended prison. I sought evidence to justify its continued existence and rarely left it.
When I was grown, but barely, I met a man. He said he would have me, as a favor. My job would be to tend the shame, to use it to make myself worthy of him. My gratitude for his occasional visits to my isolated world would help me deserve him.
In quick succession came two babies, howling and burning with the rarest human perfection and they seemed to me like a new breed, something different on planet earth, people of flesh, yes, but also of starlight and the night desert and mystery.
The man, entranced, looked into the small, dimpled face of our first child and asked, “Do you think our parents felt like this about us?” The question startled me, made me question all my carefully maintained assumptions about myself and my place in this world.
Alas, a moment of clarity, however piercing, is rarely enough to change the course of an emotional life, so I parented from the place of shame-grown loneliness that was the only home I knew.
My babies were so magnificent, do you see? A mistake of the universe, to give these small, fleshy bits of perfection to a mother so unworthy, a cosmic gaffe that dazzled me with my great good fortune and terrified me because I knew I would ruin them. I would be the person who exploded The Pieta or shredded The Starry Night.
From this emotional place, I mothered those children. I washed their diapers and hung them on a line to dry and kissed them and fed them oatmeal from a yellow plastic spoon. I loved them loved them loved them.
Except…do you know this about shame? It makes life into playacting and my love for my children was as real as mountains and gravity, but I was shaky in the middle of myself. Worse than shaky; I was ephemeral and not quite real. I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.
When the man who said he would have me as a favor began to hate our lives together, he said I will take these babies. No judge would let someone like you keep children! I’ll take them and you will never see them! And I cried and cried because of course, of course he would have them. Of course anyone could see I should not be their mother. Of course I was not worthy.
Except everyone has limits, even one as demoralized as I was. Unable to act in any meaningful way on my own behalf, I began to wish for a solid reason to leave the man who said he would have me as a favor. I prayed he would cheat or hit so I could propel myself out and away.
The man and I danced around each other during the final year we were married, each hoping the other would leave, each waiting for the other to offer a good enough excuse to move on. If I cast my mind back to the feelings of that dark, strange time, they are filled with fear for our children, and fear of being away from them. I was afraid he would take them away from me, even though I knew he couldn’t. All fear, a black and red haze of dread, and the ever-present loneliness and self-loathing. The inside of my head was filled with a relentless drumbeat of How could I? How could I have children with this man? How could I be so selfish as to want out? How dare I?
How does a mind change? How do feelings, well entrenched and carefully tended over a lifetime, transform? I can only guess. Maybe God whispered in my ear. Maybe my anger grew until it was strong enough to out-shout my shame. Maybe I began to believe in some tiny corner of myself that I was born with all the innate value with which my perfect children were born. Maybe all three.
Or maybe none of those. Maybe I just got sick to death of being treated like crap. Whatever the reason, when he came to me on the final day and shouted, “I don’t love you. You disgust me! I’m leaving,” I said, “Fine. Go.”
The next day, I was putting clean sheets away in the drawer in the hall. My kids were playing in some unorganized way, jumping and giggling and horsing around, and I was knocked back by an understanding. I never have to let anyone treat me like that again. I am done with that. I sat down hard on the floor of the hall between the kids’ bedrooms and started to cry. The children were there, worried. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Do you have a ya ya? Where’s your ya ya? I’ll kiss it for you!” chattered my son while my daughter kissed my face and brought me tissues.
“Happy tears!” I said. “Sometimes grown ups are weird and they cry when they’re happy. Isn’t that funny?” They agreed that it was very funny, and we laughed, and we sang a song, and when we got up off the floor I put my wedding ring in a box and never looked at it again.
Photo by Scott Boruchov