grieving what we couldn’t do

Good morning this morning. Here where I am, there are three candles flickering in their glass jars, and the rush of traffic has begun to pick up on the highway a few blocks away; sounds like the tide coming in. The birds are still sleeping, like the puppy. What are the morning sounds where you are?

I am sorry to have been so absent from this space of late. Yes, I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my sister’s new baby. And when not there, with her, being functional in some way, I’ve been– well, crying, mostly. This has been a surprise. I knew that my sister giving birth would be enormously powerful and even triggering, given our history. I didn’t know it would tear open wounds of my own that I thought had long healed.

It’s been hard for me to write during this time; the stuff I’m trying to find words for is big and complicated and layered, and has to do with, among other things, my own loss of a child 12 years ago, and my relationship with parenthood, with mothering in particular. It took me almost a week after my sister’s child was born before I sat down with a notebook to attempt to write anything at all.

Let me not convey the impression that I’m not ecstatic about this small one who’s come into my sister’s life, her husband’s life, my life… my wordlessness has a lot to do with not being able to figure out how to articulate just how amazing is his very existence. Where did he come from? How can he be? My little sister is an amazing mother. She is patient and generous, she is worried and anxious, and she is wholly in love with this new being she finds suddenly outside of her body and cradled in her arms.

I don’t want to be anything other than happy right now. I don’t want to be envious or wrapped up in my own loss. I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that maybe I could have done this work of mothering after all. That maybe, if I hadn’t had to spend two decades trying to heal, I could have done something more with this life.

When my ex-wife got pregnant, I had been away from the man who’d brainwashed and abused me for seven years; I didn’t understand why I wasn’t all better. She was capable of being a functional adult — why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I show up better for this part of our lives together?

When I was in my 20s, I did not believe that I could or was meant to mother. I was afraid of harming a child, of being a harm to a child just by the very fact of my presence. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed spending time with kids or that kids enjoyed spending time with me or that I had no interest in hurting a child or that I hadn’t hurt any of the children I’d spent time with. I was afraid afraid afraid. Afraid I couldn’t show up for them, the way my parents turned out not to be able to show up for their kids. Afraid I wasn’t healed enough to be nurturing or spacious with a child. Afraid I was too selfish or narcissistic (as my stepfather had told me) to be a parent. Afraid my stepfather would make good on his threats to claim and violate any children in my life. Afraid I would never write again if I had a baby because I had no boundaries and few skills or tools.

And then there was a baby, an almost-baby. But he did not live. And I have been grieving him all over again this weeks.

What’s reaching out in me are the parts of myself that might have had a chance to flourish if not for being crushed by the heavy rock of my stepfather’s violence. I have spent the last 20 years chipping away at that enormous stone, and after all these years, I’m finding little bits of things still alive — withered and broken, but alive: oh, look, maybe, for all my self-protective storytelling, I really did want to be a mother. I could have been one, and I might have been good at that work, even in the face of all the negative messages I got about women who nourished and nurtured.

I keep imagining maybe I’ve done the bulk of my healing and then, wham, I hit into a brand new vein of loss and shame and grief, and I’m thick in recovery work all over again. Maybe it will always be this way.

What I am feeling these days is joy, yes — and also regret, and sorrow. And anger. I am angry that my big accomplishment in this lifetime is survival; that I have spent my whole adult life not building a family, not building a career or retirement or security, not writing books, not putting down roots anywhere, but instead simply trying to survive and heal from what was done to me when I was a teenager. This is my big work: staying alive in the aftermath. And today I am angry that this has been my life’s work, my magnum opus. I miss what could have been. I miss it in the insides of my arms, against my neck, in the places where my own child’s breath might have been, if I had been healed or functional enough to try again after that baby died.

It is not fair, how much work we have to do to keep going. It’s not fair that we have to devote time and attention to healing that we otherwise might have turned to creative projects or family or work or community change work or something, anything, else. It’s good and important and necessary work we do every time we choose again to persist in our healing.  And, I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wish I could have spent that energy on something else.

Today I will spend the day with a woman and man (my sister and her love) who survived long enough and worked hard enough to find their way to the place of enormous risk and love that is parenthood. And I will be with this small new human, just 10 days old, who only just learning what it means to have a body, to be in this lifetime. I will keep on learning with him.

(No particular prompt today: write as you are feeling drawn to write, ok? Find your way to some words. Thank you for the space you have made for your own healing, and the way you held on to the oldest dreams in you that persist in spite of the violences you’ve had to endure. Thank you for surviving, and for learning to do more than survive.)


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