Earlier this month, I packed away my mother and my eight year-old son for three weeks to Dubai as I wanted to be home alone. My mother and I co-parent my child and I am often caught between having to be a daughter, a mother, a caregiver and myself.
It was the ‘myself’ bit that I wanted to steal from my life and this was as good a time as any. My sister and my closest friend live in Dubai and they were happy to host the twosome, who came back nourished and rejuvenated, as much I was, in their absence.
There were eye rolls. Figurative ones of course.
“But you just traveled to Italy like a month ago!”
“Will he manage?”
“Three weeks! Has he stayed without you for that long?”
People didn’t say it, but I heard it nonetheless. It’s not that I needed the kid out of my way because I didn’t know what to do with him. The two of us have done plenty of nothing in the past few years during the holidays.
What I needed was to get his mother out my way, so that I could be with me.
It was easy to legitimize this aloneness. I had committed to an impossible deadline and the only way I could make it happen was to not have anything come in my way. No child-related decisions. No giving instructions in triplicate. No “what do we cook today?”. No random logistics to compute or things to co-ordinate, plan, or execute. No listening or speaking (the best bit for me!). No domesticity.
There were smaller rewards. Not getting derailed every time I paused to look at a sunrise. Having a whole mug of tea uninterrupted. Being able to make things about me. What do I feel like eating for breakfast? When do I want to take a nap? Do I really feel like talking today?
I led the student life that I had never led as a student, which included, among other things – eating podi rice or stuffing leftover pasta in my sandwich and grilling it. It was yumm, by the way.
I like being alone. I like cooking for one. I love a table for one.
I got a lot done too, and it was not all about work.
One of the things that goes out of the window when you become a mother is the luxury of solitude. A fair bit of it had already gone out when I married a man who sulked when I told him I don’t do “I miss yous”; I had programmed myself to fake it. Solitude, therefore, on the rare occasion that it came my way, did seem like a luxury. It was always measured. It was often stealthy.The father of my child got plenty of it though. All it took was a ‘smoke break’ or an X Box controller.
There were several times in the early stages of motherhood when I would dream of waking up single – when there was no baby who really needed me, when I had no one to answer to, when I could take myself out for a movie or a dinner and not have to explain. Or just drive around in my car, listening to the radio because that was my truly alone space.
Perhaps my intense need for solitude and inability to orchestrate the cosmetic togetherness that seemed necessary for my marriage paved the way to my single momhood, and for that, I am grateful. That I was able to recognize the signs and run, while I was still a good enough mom to my child and still enough in love with myself to want to claim me back.
The single mom thing therefore suited my personality really well. In my mind, I was always single and now, I was a mom too. I didn’t have to fake collaboration anymore because I didn’t think it worked in the first place.
If it’s tough for mothers to hold onto their solitariness, it is even harder for a single mother. But sadder than the loss of solitude is the loss of anonymity. If you have to get away and leave the child in the hands of another caregiver, it better be a thing. And it had better be work, for the most part. Whenever I entered a room, the mother entered before me; when I left a room, the mother left before me. It’s a thing.
I knew all that I needed was some quiet time to heal. May be I would have got it if I had asked for it, but I never did. And even when I got it, I filled it with something, and it usually involved people. Yes, there are work trips. Getaways. But they don’t always qualify, because they are about other people too.
I know that when I go long enough without claiming solitude, I feel disconnected from myself and everything around me. But this time, I didn’t want to lose myself in the hills or the seaside or a foreign country.
I wanted to find myself in my own home. There’s something truly special about being alone in your own home. Not a hotel room. Not a flight. Not an Air BnB. Not a friend’s home. Just that same space you nurtured every corner of, but never found the time or the luxury to savor.
I finally asked for it.
I got it.
Growing up poor as one of three children in a family that never put a premium on solitude, I didn’t realize what I was missing. But I found myself travelling alone in my twenties, when it was not even a thing. I had moved to a working women’s hostel and it was the first time I had a room to myself. Unlike what others said, I slept very well, had good dreams, and no, I didn’t miss home. I often watched plays and movies alone. There were friends who didn’t get it, and thought I was odd. But I thought to never want to be alone – that was odd, almost unhealthy.
When my son was away, I didn’t send “I miss you” texts and voice messages and neither did he. I didn’t call every day to check on him. In fact, I didn’t call at all. Every time I would receive an update or some photos on WhatsApp, I would smile at the realization that I did something right. For the both of us.
Among other things, I found time to grieve. I hadn’t grieved my failed marriage, the two cats I lost in the last year, my numb disconnectedness with the autopilot world around me, the part of me that was lost in the constant winging of things – work, life, money, motherhood.
Grief is a luxury. It needs time. Space. Grief can’t be collaborative.
I clearly hadn’t timetabled grief in my schedule. It will happen, I told myself.
When Re returned, he had learned origami, Sudoku, how to shampoo his hair and other things. He also had a plan. “Mamma, did you know that Emirates has an unaccompanied minor thing, where I can travel alone to Dubai and it’s really cool! I hope you won’t feel bad?”
“Why would I feel bad? It’s the best news of my life!”
“Really? I can’t believe it.”
I can’t believe it either. The rest of my life has begun!
(If you’d like a print of more water colors like the one above, Vidya Gopal does a whole range of them and you can reach her on Instagram @spink_bottle)