Published on May 14th, 2019 | by Debbie Weingarten1
The Hardest Part: The Void of Inner Life
Recently, I walked alone through the freezing rain until I found a streetside bar that served both coffee and alcohol. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I ordered an Irish coffee, and then I perched on a wooden barstool for hours, looking out at the unfamiliar street. Time seemed to unspool in a particularly infinite way.
Having tagged along on a work trip with my partner, there was nothing I needed to do. I was caught up on work, and there were no demands of the mothering sort—no appointments to make, homework to supervise, or umpteenth snack requests. The Irish coffee warmed my tongue. The fevered pitch of cash-strapped, single motherhood abated. I could hear myself think.
Motherhood has been my soundtrack for a decade, like some bizarre white noise machine, its dial turned to “chaos.” Of course, within the chaos exists a deep well of love for my children, but there is also a recession of another sort. For all the chatter about which car seats are best, or how to wear your baby while grocery shopping, or how to find mom friends, there is very little communicated about the loss of a parent’s inner life—how the universe will shrink to a row of pearl-like baby toes, or the round mouth of a toddler screaming for a certain sippy cup. How everything will be cleaved into before and after, but in the world of after, your own dreams and thoughts will shrink back like winter trees.
After has been relentless. After has seen me through a divorce and a career change. After has seen me broke and raising two children on my own. I forget what I used to do or think about. The various hobbies sit neglected on the shelf, the books go unread, the spontaneity erased by a practical slog of caretaking: school pick-ups, nap times, boxed macaroni and cheese. Even my body has become utilitarian. My belly button, a play thing. My hair, a rope to pull. My neck, gone stiff from years of night nursing. I have been rolled out like dough, and now I feel tired and empty; just an outer mother, the skin of an animal.
I admit to secret wishes: to lay star-fished in my bed, alone, in a sleep so deep that I drool all over the pillow; to decide spontaneously to see a matinee; a new era when my children will put on their shoes without complaint. This year, after two solid months of elementary school illnesses, I am close to breaking. I text my neighbor, who has three kids of her own: I feel like quitting. Running into the hills.
Take me with you!! she texts back.
After a decade of parenting, I know that the enemy to my inner life is not my children. It is a country that does not support poor and middle class families through basic policies such as family leave and universal healthcare. It is an economic system that does not value care-taking as a legitimate role, that has us clamoring to figure out how to pay for daycare and get enough to eat. While I happen to be a low-income single mother, I know plenty of partnered, middle class parents who are struggling, too.
If I were an economist, I imagine I could pour over a jumble of numbers and calculate the opportunity costs of such a system. But I want a formula that calculates the broad harm to our society when millions of young parents are not only floundering on the brink of financial ruin, but are robbed of our inner lives. If we had the time and opportunity to dream and think deeply, who could we be? What could we do?
When my children were infants, and I stood on the doorstep of sleep deprivation-induced madness, I would tell them stories, tiny snippets of memory, whatever rose to the top of my scrambled brain. I told them about the time my friends and I put on 1980s prom dresses from the thrift store and went midnight sledding in a cow pasture, and how later that spring, I lay in that same field with a hundred other people and watched a meteor shower. I told them about the night I rode home from the bar on my bike, beneath a brilliant white moon, and saw three adult javelinas trying to operate the automatic door to the library.
Sometimes my babies would look up at me with their wide globe eyes, and I would think, Nobody has ever looked at me this deeply. I was desperate to be known as more than a weepy, spit-up-covered person who hadn’t washed her hair in days. And eventually, I was so incredibly bored that I imagined us carrying on conversations together, in something resembling magical realism.
Javelina at the library? they would exclaim. You’re kidding.
I’m completely serious, I would say. And the only witnesses were me and that big old moon.
Outside the coffee bar in Flagstaff, the rain became snow. People hurried past on the sidewalk in a colorful blur of winter coats. It was shocking not to have something to do. I people-watched. I worked on a long-neglected essay. I thought deeply about my relationship, and about my writing career. I read part of a book I’d been carrying around in my purse for months.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I desperately missed my kids.