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My dad left before I was old enough to develop enduring memories of a time when he was regularly present. There was no grand exit, no cutting of cords, only the pronounced absence of any fastening in the first place—like being born into an antigravity simulation. When a parent abandons you, when you are left behind, you are unbound by nature’s necessary tethers. Impossibilities crack open, codes break, traditions collapse. It is an undermining of everything that everything else stands on.
What does a child do in the absence of any ordinary framework? What happens to a child when interpersonal systems dissipate before ever being internalized? From the moment my feet first flailed for a foundation that wasn’t fixed, I was acutely aware of my position as an unanchored being. Held to no one by any cord that could not be clipped.
I learned to question everything, to question the unquestionable. I began my interrogations at paternal love and proceeded to all manners of love and relationship — friendly, familial, romantic, godly. I put no faith in any authority and grew skeptical of all forms of order. I doubted everything I was told and everything I told others in false confidence. Doubt became my friend, insecurity my closest companion. Certainty seemed less safe than the unknown.
A home can be made of not being somebody’s sacred thing. You can get comfortable in the chasm where a bond should be. You can spread out in that void, stretch as far as possible in any direction, and still touch and be touched by nothing. Emptiness can be a safe place, an absence of threat, a shelter from love, closeness, trust, faith.
I learned to occupy that distance masterfully. When in relationships, I performed a kind of controlled vulnerability, one that offered up inconsequential morsels of personal information that could accumulate and masquerade as intimacy. I placed plexiglass between my soul and anyone who loved me. I let people look (with an obscured view), but they could not touch. Our concepts of survival are informed by whatever we’re taught living looks like. My mechanisms did what they were employed to do in situations where the only way I knew to live felt threatened. They gave me the divide I needed to feel safe.
Even in my marriage, I maintained the habit of distancing. We wed quickly, deeply compelled to be together, but like faulty and confused magnets, we vacillated between inseparable attraction and seeming foreign to one another. My husband was a stationary fixture in the vast space I occupied, and I could swim through it, come as close as two people can get — connect, even — and then propel myself off him in a flurry, swim away, detach at will. This pull-push-pull pattern was another tactic I learned to deploy. The only kind of bond I could muster was one where I was able to regularly test my ability to endure its absence, like I was preparing myself in small intervals for being left all over again.
And then, as abruptly as I had been left, I was conjoined. Some solitary seed embedded itself into my flesh, sunk its roots in. Twenty-two years of an untethered existence, and just like that — I was attached to someone. And after nine months of connection, when the cord was cut, an invisible tether took its place. I named my first son after a unit for measuring the distance between points. I named him for exactly how far away something is, exactly how far we’re willing to travel to get back to something we love, to be near to it, to shorten the gap. I named him Miles, because he was the first person to fill the canyon I kept around me.
If being an abandoned child is like drifting in antigravity, being a mother is like having the tiny hand of god wrap around your pinkie finger and yank you down to the floor. You marvel at this new way of being in the world, at the wonder of taking measured steps on land. But you realize concurrently that experiencing gravity means adhering to its laws, that the full weight of the atmosphere must press down on you. It’s the kind of pressure that makes it hard to keep your head on. But mothers don’t get to have their heads in the clouds, their bodies free-floating in space. Mothers must be anchors, even uprooted mothers, with no praxis for holding small worlds together.
On Tuesdays, I feel like a pendulum. A glinting blade swinging between feeling blessed beyond measure and fearfully overwhelmed by the unjust irony of it all. Every day, equipped with no proper system for binding ties, I wake up tasked with the responsibility of teaching my children how to be close to someone. Even when I’m feeling like a sharp metal blade, the only pendulum our bond enables me to be is some makeshift warrior gripping a swinging vine, my children clinging tightly to me. Every moment, I must decide how to get us through the thick forest of a day, with my glitching inner compass and a personal map that lands me constantly back at square one.
Mothering has rendered all of my old mechanisms faulty. The tools I employed to create safety in distance do not work for building security in closeness. And because love (for me) is tangled in loss, the love I feel for my children terrifies me. It comes coupled with varying panics. Panic that they will get sick, panic that they will be taken from me, panic that they will face Black-boy-specific horrors. But the most personal panic—the only one where I can control the outcome—is the panic that I will fail at teaching them to securely love and be loved. It’s panic that I am a broken person who will make them like me, that they will inherit the same evasive love that I did.
A mother’s love is upheld in our society as the pillar of love itself. It’s supposed to be a pure love, a perfect love, one that comes naturally and in pristine condition, unmarred by the impulse to dissociate, to recoil, to shut down, freeze, fight, or flee. Mothers are supposed to be tepid mountains, not dormant volcanoes, boiling beneath the earth of themselves. It’s a love meant to protect all those within its borders, not invoke uncertainty in the protector. But my emotions are outlaws in society’s systems. They don’t automatically adapt to the role. I learned a damaging kind of love, and I have had to construct a way to express a love that nourishes from scratch.
It is my life’s mission to give my sons more than my conditioning. It’s hard work. Twenty-five years later than most people, I am learning to feel safe in love so that I can be safe in love. My therapist and I are repopulating my utility belt, disposing of and replacing tools that dismantle rather than build. It’s extraordinarily uncomfortable, and some days I feel more exposed nerve than mother, but this culling and reseeding is the most important act of mothering I will ever execute. My father taught me how to exist in absentia, and my sons teach me the miracle of showing up, of being present.
In this way, they saved my life. Wanting to be here for them has forced me to be here for myself, to stop self-destructing. I’m learning to approach myself and others from a place of softness and not destructive hypervigilance. I’m a better wife, a better friend, a kinder stranger. I’m practicing being grounded for the first time and forging a foundation for myself. And each day, my children answer the question of my brokenness by allowing me instead to be brave for us, to gather my fragmented pieces and bring us together. Each day, they teach me to be tethered to them. To love and be open to love. To hold on.
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