Why solitude is a mother’s best friend

Water color by Vidya Gopal

Water color by Vidya Gopal

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) 

Advertisements

Being married to my mother

GUEST POST:

BY ZARA CHOWDHARY

My son’s parents ended their marriage two years ago.

One day his father was there, the next he’d moved out. And suddenly, the scared little child had a cat too depressed to get out from under his bed, and a mother too broken to get off the couch. The boy ached for company, for things to just go back to ‘normal’ as his four year-old memory last remembered it.

And then one day, his grandmother arrived at their door – with a fresh haircut, a spring in her step and a super-sized grin that’s hard to miss. She was everything his slowly crumbling household needed. She spoke in absurd languages that made us laugh even when no one felt like it, she cleaned out the unattended organisms from the fridge, replaced all three forgotten multigrain bread loaves with three kinds of seasonal fruit, threw out the wrinkled packs of frozen fries and packed in fresh meats in separate bags, she put bleach in his uniforms, oil in my scalp, and threatened us if we forgot to turn on the lights around maghrib (our evening prayer time) saying ‘The angels won’t come in’!

Slowly and simply, the smells, the sounds, the sights of one person we’d been used to for five years, were replaced by the noise, the madness, the super-loud, body-jiggling laughter of this other person whom we’d otherwise only seen during the holidays.

And that’s the thing about people when they become habits. It’s important when replacing alcohol or cigarettes (or any other analogy that works for you), to choose a healthier option in its place. Our oats-loving, Abba-singing, paintbrush-wielding Nanoo was better for our well-being than any new pets, friendly neighbours or (God-forbid!) rebound boyfriends could have been!

I’d seen my mother do this so many times in her life: walk into an empty house, set up the kitchen, whip up a meal, fashion sofas out of metal trunks, fill the balconies (and bathrooms!) with plants and make it a home —  all in a matter of hours. I watched her as a 29-year old with the same awe I had at ten, efficiently piecing my life together and putting it safely back in my hands for me.

People in my ever-shrinking social circle kept pointing out, how lucky I was to have my mum around to ‘support’ me. But I don’t think it hit me until I finally got off that couch (thanks to her threatening to throw away or burn my pajamas), found a new job and came back home from my first full day at work.

I opened the door and stepped in at six in the evening, the house was all lit up like we’d become used to by now. The scared four year old now a more confident and chirpy five year old came hurtling out of the room and torpedoed into my navel, the cat lay belly-up and smiling at the fan, and there mum sat at the dining table, art material piled up in a heap, my spare room officially converted to her studio, a new business plan swirling in her head — and I knew. This was mum telling me in not so many words: ‘I’m not here to just support you. You can never crash on me like that again. Looks like you’re doing better now. So I’m going to do what I need to do to keep that spring in my step. And we’ll both be doing the supporting from here on.’ I paused for one second wondering if I should say something about the paint likely to stain my chair covers. But instead I scooped my son up, plonked on the sofa, and started to tell them the story of my first day back in the world. Cheesy as it sounds, it did feel like the angels had finally come home and brought with them a partner for me, someone I’d never thought I’d be living with as I turned 30.

My son now has two parents living with him again, there are two individuals playing tag between what they want for themselves and what they know their family deserves. If you ever heard us squabbling over closet space and what to watch on Netflix, you’d think there was a couple living together here. And some days how we both wish we could have it any other way but this interdependence. Yet it’s been nothing short of amazing being married to my mother this way for the last two and a half years. It has taught me what marriage is supposed to look like. There are the occasional expectations that go unmet and some sulking happens with both parties. There are days when nobody wants to have to care about what’s for dinner. There are days of feeling frustrated and taken for granted, but usually some ice-cream or a drive to town or a movie date when the child visits his dad can sort those out. We take turns playing good cop-bad cop because no one parent should ever have to be just the one. We try to never sleep over a fight. Hugs and cuddles are a daily prescription, though the cat son usually claws his way out of those.

It’s a household that depends on honesty more than anything else — it requires being harsh enough to tell each other when we’ve lain long enough on that couch and need to get off our asses or be nagged to death. It’s a house that acknowledges the two little boys and the two grown women in it, and that no job is too big or too small or too ‘girly’. It’s a home where you will always find food, laughter and lessons in how to give before taking. And it’s a place that will, hopefully, always remind my son of what family is supposed to look like, no matter what marriage it is built on.