How to Mother

It was July tenth, two days before my thirty-ninth birthday. The ferry eased into the dock and my lover and I joined the other island tourists, laden with gear. Broad-tongued ferns greeted us, framing the winding path to the campsite.

The beach was pristine. The dunes hugged golden grasses to their hips. A child anchored herself to a patch of damp sand. Her single yellow bucket sparkled. In the blaze of yellow, an unwanted thought took over: I will not tuck my children into sleep every night. It was the first summer my kids were away with their father for a month.

My feet sank into the ground. I would miss some of their growing up; there would be parts of me they wouldn’t know. The sun glared overhead. What would they shed about who they were this summer? What would we need to relearn about each other? What if they preferred their father’s love to mine? Questions attacked me like a swarm of mosquitos to bare flesh. The warm ocean took my body. The yearning for them grew as the waves rocked me hard.

* * *

When I met my soon to be ex-husband, I’d been outwardly queer for three years. He was wearing mermaid blue toenail polish and cooking kale and I convinced myself I could be in a relationship with a man like him. No sooner had I said yes to the idea and I was pregnant.

I didn’t use the word mother; I was my children’s parent. My ex was the maternal one. When the swarms of family and community descended upon us after my first son was born, I offered him up to everyone else and realized six months later how uncertain he felt in my arms. He reached for me but I rarely rocked him. This was how I’d learned to parent. After all, my own mother had balanced three kids, multiple jobs, and home responsibilities–she rarely moved outside of a schedule of cook, clean, laundry. Repeat.

At my second child’s birth, I immediately took him onto me and let him feel the rise and fall of my breath, my touch. I cradled him for fifteen whole minutes before family flooded in.

“Isn’t this the best time of your life?” I faked a smile. I felt a tug. The truth was, I didn’t know how to mother.

* * *

Throughout my own childhood, my mother led a secret life. However, I picked up on bits and pieces. Her concern in the phone receiver at night, worried about the bills. How she pushed us into the house when my drunk father wailed in the front yard. She took care of us, she loved us but I never knew her. This is how I had learned to mother.

* * *

The next day, my lover and I camped a little further into the jungle. Our only relief from the stinging bites of the quarter-sized mosquitoes was the ocean. The waters were cool and the beach empty. We swam naked. Soothing water kissed away the swollen welts.

* * *

My divorce was brutal. We decided to split the time with the kids; everything would be one half of what it used to be.

* * *

On the taupe beach, foam shells lingered where the ocean’s waves once crested. I had wanted to be here without my kids; however, I’d never missed them more. I was the one who suggested we each have a month solo with them and one apart from them. In my search for space away from them had I sacrificed the bonds between us? I had been pushing them through the same schedule I grew up inside of, cook, clean, laundry. Repeat. In many ways I had been hiding from myself and from them all their lives. I dragged myself from the ocean’s pull. The sand burned my feet. My naked body dried in moments.

* * *

I awoke before dawn. I was thirty-nine. We hiked back to the dock along the shore to avoid mosquitoes. The sunrise was a rose quartz hymn across the sky. Three wild horses nibbled at the dunes. I stopped to take in the scene, my youngest loves horses, my oldest loves the sunrise.

At the dock, tree limbs dipped low around me in an embrace. I thought I’d come here for escape but discovered instead, I wanted closeness.

On the ferry, my body fell against the hardness of the boat’s cabin. The sun was gentle and a pod of dolphins weaved alongside us as the captain navigated calm waters. The ocean rocked my body with a low hum, a lullaby. I decided, I will let my children know me, the messy parts and the contradictions, the softness and fierceness of my heart. This is how I will mother.