Illustration: Trevor Fraley

On January 1, a fault line was forming in the pit of me. For days, I could feel the ground stretching there, small tremors signaling something big soon. After four days and three pushes, I cracked open, and then there was Theo. Eight fast-breathing fragile pounds of him.

The liminal space that exists for weeks after giving birth is at once unique and universal. It’s lonesome and communal. Sleepy and vigilant. Mobilized and couch-bound. Tender. Tender like a kind and gentle touch, and tender like sensitive to that touch, like vulnerable, like the volatile pulp of a broken tooth.

The whole year has been that way for me. A balancing act between two kinds of tender. A struggle every day to find a way to be both. To be an angry wound in a threatening world and to be the designated kisser of boo-boos, a soft place to land for the people who depend on me.

Three weeks ago, Theo began to walk. It seemed to come with ease and out of thin air, like it just hadn’t occurred to him before, and that once it did, it was settled. I almost missed it. We were at an indoor play space when it happened, and I had initially wanted to stay behind, to have my husband handle them there. I wanted to stay behind because I didn’t want to be touched that day. I had decided that my lap was an off-limits space, that my arms could do no holding. I became extremely defensive of my body; I felt like any and all sensation might be too much to take.

I’d spent the weekend engaging the sexual assault–laden news cycle, and at the end of it all, I was consumed by a palpable anger. I could feel fury sit front and center in my chest like a dense metal ball. I was infected by it, inflamed, a tender nerve. And the only way I could think to protect myself from further damage was to shut down completely. No intake. No output. Isolation.

It was tenderness, a deep and persistent aching, that told my husband that I no longer wanted to go with him and the boys. And it was tenderness, a soft urge to nurture, that put my coat on when my two-year-old looked back through the open doorway and called out, “Mommy comin’?”

Whatever filters that have sustained me by sifting have been busted at the seams this year. The levies of my mind have broken. Now everything comes barreling through before I get the opportunity to determine what I can and cannot take. What fills me and depletes me. What makes the day difficult and what makes it worth it. My watchman has abandoned his post. My gates are wide open or sealed now. Everything comes waltzing through or everything must be shut out entirely.

There is no way to be available to my children and closed to the world. My children are of this world, and so I must take the world in, too. That means there is no way to be open to my sons without being open to pain, without being exposed, vulnerable to damage.

And so, as tender as I felt, as pulsing the pain beneath the bruise, I went with them to the indoor playground. I got Theo’s first steps on film. I was there to receive his first victorious collapse, to lift him up after his first inevitable tumble. This is not to highlight the fact that I put my desire for solitude aside (all moms need rest), but that I pried myself open for my sons despite an urge to be closed.

In a relentless era of dropping shoes, of bolted doors, of compartmentalized minds, don’t I owe it to my sons (and myself) to be a wide-open field? To be a place of peace with no limits but the warm weight of the sky? To raise these Black boys in the world that I want for them (in spite of the world that we’re in), I must embody that world, become it, and surround them in it. I am tasked with conjuring a safe haven in an unsafe climate.

When I became a mother, I learned a secret that all parents know. I became acutely aware that there’s a third way to deal with a threat, beyond fighting, beyond fleeing. It’s a method for intangible monsters, unknowable enemies, inevitable risks. It’s to find a way to learn to live beside them. To coexist with an awareness of doom. To be a gazelle lapping up water amid lions. To be open to attack in order to be open to what nourishes.

That’s what it is to be tender. To be foolish and brave. Staunch and saccharine. The year 2017 taught me that all good and certain things are impermanent, that comfort is not security, that all mechanisms can crash, that abundance might just mean a larger chasm left in its wake. But every day, I wake up tender anyway. I wake up soft and sick with worry. I wake up swelling with a love shrouded in inescapable aching.

I am a mother of Black boys in Trump’s dystopian America. We went and picked out a Christmas tree anyway. We trimmed and watered it, adorned it in lights and baubles. On the wall we hung stockings monogrammed with our respective first initials. My husband lifted our son to the treetop to place a glittering star. “I can feel myself making a memory,” I said, while inhaling the scent of the branches. I embraced the tender moment. I let it in.