by Eva-Lynn Jagoe
The younger stands in his underwear, his tongue contorting the way it always has when he concentrates. He paints one of the keys with the blue nail polish, the other with the green. The little crease in his lower belly leaves a pink imprint of a line when he straightens up. As I lie on my bed and gaze at him, I think also of his older brother’s belly, so long and skinny that there is no wrinkle when he leans over, a permanent washboard. I used to tickle him when he walked by without a shirt on, and he would falsetto shriek. Now he towers over me when he comes home from university, but I still stroke his neck when he’s sitting next to me, or touch his fingers as they rest on the table.
Even though the younger is marking the key to his father’s apartment to differentiate it from mine, I don’t believe he’ll go. He’ll eat cereal and play video games. He’ll realize that it’s late and that he needs my help with French and that he should just go to his dad’s tomorrow. He hasn’t gone for two months, though it’s only a streetcar ride away. With the older, I had let it slide—let the months go by, too needy of his company and too angry at my disorganized ex to facilitate their visits. But now with the younger I push the visits, and text both father and son days in advance to try to coordinate them. Because I want time alone, or time for me and my partner. Because I know that my son and his dad love spending time together, though neither is very good at making the effort. Because I no longer want to prove a point about my ex’s incompetence, and now just want him to be in their lives.
When I had my first child, I imposed upon him my insecurity and anxiety; I demanded the kind of perfect behaviour that would affirm me as the perfect mother. He is a gifted child, in Alice Miller’s sense of it. Why do we all read that book and identify with the child, whose own experiences and feelings are denied because of the mother’s emotional insecurity? Miller, after all, is actually sympathetic to the mother, whose narcissistic wound is so deep that she cannot help but put her child in a role that is unfair. Not only did I need the older to be a model child, but even more than that, I wanted him to be my partner, my confidante. And so he was, a serious responsible boy, a little adult always attentive to my moods and to his little brother’s needs. When his dad and I split up, he worried about us. He cared for us. He tried to make sure that we didn’t feel lonely.
That separation began four years ago. Even after we realized that we could no longer be married, my husband and I spent the entire summer and fall living together, drinking coffee in the early morning sun of the backyard and talking about the past and the future. After so many years of crisis and passion and volatility, we were calm and hopeless, full of a quiet despair and dull terror. The boys adapted, as children will, to us sleeping in separate rooms, though I was sure the younger sensed what was happening. He would come home from a friend’s house and say, “I’m glad our family is not like his. If you ever get divorced I’ll kill you.” Guilt and fear knotted my stomach; it made me feel nothing was worth wrecking his life like that. I would have stayed stuck, mired in panic, if my shrink had not suggested that maybe my son was not talking only about the marriage, but also about a split within me, the one that made me think that everything in my life was an either/or; either be the devoted perfect mother in the perfect family, or be the woman who sought escape from the chaos and confrontations of home in long work hours, in socializing, and in flirting. As if my son was actually saying, “how divorced you are within yourself is killing you.” It was. I felt myself to be dying as I struggled to maintain the stark division between what I didn’t want to know—that a family could fall apart, that motherhood could fail as a category of being—and what I fantasized could still be true about me as an adult, as a wife, as a mother.
One July weekend, the four of us went to another family’s farm. They were similar to us. The wife was the breadwinner, the husband a writer, the children our kids’ ages. But she was angrier maybe, and more trapped. When she drank she became cruel and disparaging about her partner’s failings in front of their children. He laughed louder and got drunker to cover up her stream of abuse. My husband and I cringed to hear them, and were grateful for our gentleness towards each other, even though we were just pretending to still be married. On Sunday, as we packed the kids and the dog into the car, they smiled a congenial farewell, standing in front of the farmhouse, the sun setting. I was hit with a sickening pang of envy for this vision of what I no longer had: a happy nuclear family, biological parents standing next to each other with their offspring held close under protective arms. There are two images, then, of that family—the wretched couple bound by duty, financial constraint, habit, and dysfunctional repetition, and the beautiful lucky family in their rural idyll. A parallax, only one in focus at a time, the second negated by the force of the first; an optical illusion in which one disappears just as the other comes into view.
Now that I’m divorced it hurts to not have the other parent there to laugh at the children’s jokes or tease them about how fat their little bellies were when they were babies. To not confer with him about failing marks or notes about bad behaviour or increased drug use. But it hurts in much the same ways that it hurt when I was married, since it was always an idea of what marriage and parenting were supposed to be, and the reality fell short. I felt alone in the hard work of parenting, making decisions about routines and disciplines to which no one would adhere. He laughed at their jokes, but I was usually so aggrieved and guilty about our failures that I didn’t attend to the children enough to really hear what they were saying or to remember something that had happened the week before. So he enjoyed, and I cajoled.
I moved out of the house into an apartment and had the kids there on alternating weeks. I kept it tidy, we watched movies and read books and the boys had friends over and wrestled the dog and each other on the couch. One afternoon their dad, with his manic loud energy and large presence, came over and ended up staying for an hour. With this jovial but intrusive irruption into our space, I had a strong image of a line, a shiny thread, which stretched from me to each of my boys. While he was there, it was as if he was sitting on it, right in the middle, heavily weighing it down. I hadn’t known until then how much space he took up, how crowded out I felt by his clamour for attention from me and from them. I also hadn’t been able to see how much the fantasy of the nuclear family had weighed all of us down, making our connections to each other so fraught and anxious, each trying to perform the role that we felt was prescribed to us: father, mother, older son, younger son. The second my ex left, I felt the line go taut again, radiating out from me towards the two boys, true and straight. Since that moment, I have not lost sight of that thread, quivering and shining translucently in the light. This is not a metaphor for the life-giving blood-engorged umbilical cord that of course bound me to my children from their inception. It is the line that emerged for me when I began to make daily choices to be with them, to accept the role of mother despite all the possibilities for failure inherent in that role.
Last night I couldn’t sleep, and when I got up I saw that the younger’s light was still on. Even though he’s too old for bedtime stories, I went into his room and read him Hansel and Gretel. After the children follow the white pebbles home to the parents who have tried to abandon them, the wife insists they take them deeper into the woods again, and the father accedes, because, according to the Philip Pullman edition I was reading from, “if you’ve given in once, you have to give in ever after.” “That’s not true,” my son interrupted. It took me a long time to know what he knows: just because you’ve given in once doesn’t mean you need to keep doing it. Reading that familiar story this time around, I find the father’s actions heartbreaking. He doesn’t hold his children close but rather abandons them. Not because he doesn’t love them, but because, I now see, he is split, not only between the conflicting demands of a lover and children, but also between the fantasy of himself as parental provider and the reality of all four of them starving under his roof. That fantasy allows only for a dichotomy. He is either the good father who feeds his children or the bad father who abandons them. So, when his wife insists that they get rid of the children, maybe he chooses the illusion of being in love, just the two of them free of the constraints of family and dependency.
I know that despair of not being able to be what you think others want or need you to be. For years I tried to escape into the public success of work, or into infatuations, because a man’s flattery and excitement and attention was such a necessary antidote to the sickening feeling I had at home of not being good enough. What the fairytale father and I both gave into, over and over, is the belief that we had to choose one of the parallax images: fantasy family or the realities of our shortcomings. I like to imagine that when the father’s children return after their narrow escape from the witch’s candy house, they have learned something about how he is just like them, someone who can be taken in by a false promise of plenty and ease. And that the three of them will live together in their little house, knowing that their life is imperfect and their traditional family is broken but that they can still connect with each other in an environment that holds them safe and close.
In my first year of single life, I joined a choir. The boys came to the concert, the older prodding the younger to tell me they were proud of me. Things have changed now. I am involved with a man who is my equal, and the three of them came to the Mother’s Day concert. The older recorded it on his phone and played it for me after, gleeful about his and his brother’s whispered commentary of groans and asides like “this sucks,” and “fuck that shit.” Both of them told me how cheesy it was and how bored they had been and how they didn’t want to ever come to another one. It was up to my boyfriend to be supportive about it, as it should be. I’m their mother and my task is to be there for them as much as I can, to provide them a space that feels safe enough for them to come and go. They can always find their way back to me by following that thread, which the three of us maintain—together.
Eva-Lynn Jagoe is a professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. She is currently writing a book tentatively entitled “Don’t Take it Personally.”
Image by: Elizabeth Schowalter
“On Becoming an Imperfect Mother” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015)