Rowdy Mermaid Surf Chronicles 3: Confessions of a Selkie Mother
Every morning I splash cold water on my eyes, then check the tides on my phone. I make a fresh cup of black tea, goat milk and honey before the sun rises, and sip out to the deck while my son sleeps peacefully in my bed.
I dream of the dark sea.
My son is 6 now. He can run as fast as me.
I remember breast-feeding him at 3 o’clock in the morning, how intimate it was, to hold him to my body, his urgent need, tiny fingers clenched, and my anxiety about whether I could possibly sustain the life of this little human being.
And I remember how boring it was. Night after night. Dare I admit? The tedium of the feedings for a child who adamantly refused the bottle. He drank slowly, savoring each drop as I lay awake, reading something, or just thinking of the other mothers around the world, awake as I was, and just as alone and exhausted.
I loved being chained to this tiny suckling creature who needed me constantly, with his sweet coos and his ear-splitting screams. And it terrified me. His identity eclipsed me. His dependence on me became the sum of my every moment.
Who was I again?
I vaguely remembered a me, somewhere, back in the luxury of time to eat sitting down.
I gained 70 pounds when I was pregnant with him. By time I was due, I weighed more than his father. I went up four dress sizes. Then down four again. Three wardrobes in two years. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower. I cried during The Muppet Movie. Overnight the blonde strands at my crown turned grey. My breasts ballooned into bras that could hold cantaloupes.
I thought mothers were so beautiful. All of them but me. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by gorgeous young mothers with tiny waists in stainless Lululemon and flawless makeup, holding cheerful plump babies that cooed and clucked and fluttered their lashes like the long wings of butterflies.
Then there was me, my hair in a topknot for centuries, dragging something I’d forgotten to pick up; some blanket, some cold breakfast flake lodged in a fold in my dress, some necessary survival instrument that needed to be properly washed three days ago hanging precariously. Not to mention my child, afflicted with acid reflux, screaming like I was murdering him hour after hour until the medicine kicked in.
I was an embarrassment to the ease of motherhood. I was bad advertising for the whole human race, really.
I felt like a side show act.
Other women I’d met while pregnant watched my body morph and made unsolicited comments like, “Wow, we had no idea you were thin.”
Wow, I had no idea anyone — much less strangers- thought I was fat.
All I knew was I lost myself along the way.
Is this what it means to be a mother? To shed your identity so completely that a new self can be born from those robes to nourish the bodies and dreams of others?
I was a single mom. An act akin to attempting to scale Everest in bunnyslippers.
How could I have known?
Cleaning the toilet would become an act of self redemption. A moment to myself, with — not yet my own thoughts- but at least the opportunity to have any should actual thoughts decide to remember my brain’s address.
I shuffled into yoga class and left early.
I wanted nothing to do with any more bodily fluids. Especially if not my own.
I watched Oprah. I worked, and worked and worked, and ate and ate and ate, and fed and fed and fed the baby.
Then did it again.
When I learned to surf at age 40, one of the magnificent surprises was that an hour in the water would replenish me so that I could return to my parental obligations refreshed.
I ached for an hour in the waves. Even to paddle out on a flat day.
The feel of the water against my skin.
When my son was small, I would slide into my wetsuit like a taut dark skin, lay my chest on the wax on my board, slip into the waves and become someone else:
Inside her skin I was someone else entirely, aware of the surface and the underneath, the cold water, and the energy inside it. The triumph of waves caught, the terror of rogue sets blowing in. It filled me.
And I was happy.
This transformation was not appreciated by my son, however.
How could he know that he would see me disappear from the shoreline… and ever return to him?
He threw himself on the ground, and screamed for me.
I laughed, and swung him up in my arms. “I’ll be back so soon. So soon, little one.”
He did not believe me. He hated that he had to share his mother with this human ocean creature disappearing from his side like a selkie, a woman who hung her wetsuit like a skin in the bathroom to dry, and slipped into it when the moon influenced the tides and the swells to claim her body to the sea.
“Only do not forget, if I wake up crying
it’s only because in my dream I’m a lost child
hunting through the leaves of the night for your hands….”
-Pablo Neruda (100 Love Sonnets)
His tantrums reached new heights; inconsolable heights.
He did not want to share his mother with the cold, dark sea full of creatures with tails that churn in the phosphorescent plankton and swallow each other whole.
His dark blue eyes pleaded with unutterable questions:
Why would his loving mother abandon him again and again for this incomprehensible danger?
Why was his mother’s hobby the cold moonlit waters of therianthropy? Why not knitting? Or coloring books?
Great blobs of tears plopped from his eyes onto my shoulder, stains of his disappointment. Seawater tears.
“Mamaaaaa! Don’t leave me!” He anchored his body to my waist, wrapping his legs around mine like an octopus.
I promised him: I always come back.
I always come back.
I still promise him.
“Once a Selkie finds its skin again, neither chains of steel nor chains of love can keep her from the sea.”― The Secret of Roan Inish
The years have changed my son and I.
My wetsuit stays the same size now, and my breasts are predictably small again, which makes for paddling ease.
It is my child now who outgrows scuffed sneakers, tiny cargo shorts, cotton shirts I can barely fit my fist into. His socks are the size of mine now.
One day he will look me in the eyes.
One day he will gaze down on me.
The adorable little toddler with his bobbling head disappeared and grew a long and slender neck, broad shoulders, and I can still lift him to swing him around, but just barely.
“See how the osprey holds herself aloft in mid-air? She’s an expert hunter,” I tell him, “All mothers are.”
You can sense the osprey’s hunger, even ten meters above the water , every feather sharpened against the wind, claws tensing to spear the unsuspecting bass that circles at our feet.
The beach is endlessly entertaining, and we never bring out our phones. I saw a great white shark this summer, her dorsal fin cutting through the shore break. Dolphin pods are frequent visitors. As are curious seals and sea lions.
But all the same, summer after summer went by, drifting into the slanted autumn light, and my son refused the beckoning sea. He always stopped at the edge of the water, trepidatious. Alert.
“Good,” I would tell him. “That is your body’s intelligence. The sea is dangerous. You will know when you are ready.”
This July, a new glint appeared in his eyes when he saw the bigger kids laughing on their boogie boards in the white water.
“I’m ready,” he said. “To surf.”
We got him his own selkie skin.
Just like mine.
A board, just like mine, but softer.
My coach, Christian at Progressive Surf Academy, took him out for a lesson the first time, and stood over him protectively as he learned to pop up.
Pride blossomed in my heart.
That is my son.
He is regular foot, and will spend his surf years hunting rights.
I take him to the water now, and he hurls himself into the waves, intrepid, howling with joy.
It occurs to me that one day we will paddle out silently together to watch the sunset, board beside board. We will share this sacred ritual, this unspeakable language, this joy, this adventure.
My son will know his mother is a surfer. He came from a uterus, messy, imperfect, but blessed by waves, and the mysteries of the moon.
~ Kaia Alexander