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

On single parenting and how two is not always better than one

So, why haven’t you written about single parenting yet, asked a reader. I didn’t really have an answer to that, except the fact that I write mostly about what I know, and I don’t think I know entirely what single parenting is all about. Because technically, I am not a single parent. This means that I have a spouse on paper, and he does pitch into the financial aspects of parenting, but for the most part, I feel like I’m parenting solo.

I once wrote that I was practically a single parent in one of my columns, and got a rather acerbic email from someone who was one and who told me I had no right to accord myself that status until I was actually one. She was right. But that got me thinking. What made me different? Just a technicality?

We all know what a tedium collaborative parenting can be, although I do know a few people who are winging it. But they are still exceptions. We have seen our parents at cross-wires when raising us. We don’t have to do the same thing to our children. Very often, two-parent households are a sham, a window display for what actually is single parenting.

Okay, pull back those daggers.

Of course raising children alone is tough, but sometimes it may be psychologically tougher in a two-parent household. I often see couples with children at malls, brunches, movie halls and holiday resorts, resentfully going through the motions of parenting while staring at their screens or avoiding eye contact with each other. And I wonder: how exactly do children benefit from this? When I see couples arguing at airports, restaurants, fitting rooms, toy and bookshops over trivial things escalating to big things, I wonder: is it worth it to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’?. When I look at my own friend circle and see robotic marriages and equally robotic kids, I know the togetherness is plastic, because even their shiny happy selfies look unreal. Because life is not Instagram.

It’s better for the children, they say, and stick around, silently killing each other and their children, every single day. When they talk to single parents, they are often looking for stories of behaviour disorders, psychological breakdowns and other lurid details in the subtext, trying to console themselves they are glad they ‘stuck it out”. But they are often disappointed to find out that the kids are alright.

Children need to see you as whole, and not just a part of a dysfunctional parental unit, which is what happens in most ‘normal’ households, and that’s perhaps why single parenting is more harmonious. Once freed of the ‘spouse’ tag, fathers and mothers have more room to be themselves and hence, better parents. Being married often comes in the way of being a good parent, because the person you married is also the person who questions and contests every parenting decision, big or small. Or whose point of view (however polar it is to yours) has to be factored in, because that makes for a good partnership. Sometimes, being a single parent might just be the thing that makes you like the person you married a wee bit more. I find that once you get past the financial implications of it, single parenting may actually be more efficient. I also know the D word is not to be taken lightly, but in today’s world where single parenting is more the norm than the exception, it might just help to say some things out loud:

  1. That doing something alone may actually be easier than constantly arguing about who does what, and then making sure the said person does it.
  2. That making the rules without having to go through the charade of having someone “on the same page” can be liberating.
  3. That unilateral choices do more good than harm in the long run.
  4. That having someone always undermining your authority is neither good for you, nor the children, in the long run.
  5. That divorce may actually be the thing that sets you free to parent solo and bring back the focus on what is important.
  6. That there is a certain distilled quality to the way single parents bring up their kids, and it comes from being able to pick your battles.
  7. That most mothers are single. They just don’t know it.

A few years ago, I read an article in Slate that said, among other things, that single mothers raise better children. While I am not qualified to comment on that, I can say without generalizing that more often than not, whenever I have met a child who is empathetic, observant, willing to take responsibility, is kind or generous— it is from a single parent household. I am sure these qualities come from a place of consciousness that frugality or a lack of abundance seems to initiate. They also seem to have come from learning to appreciate what they have and realising that not all that is a ‘must-have’ needs to be had.

While a lot has been said and researched on children from ‘broken homes’ or the rising ‘single mother syndrome” , there are almost no reports or studies that quantify the damage of ‘staying together for the children’. That perhaps explains the hypocrisy of a society which believes that dual family units (read marriage) are the platinum standard for parenting. Yes, we have all been raised to believe that two is better than one, but it might be worthwhile to ask some relevant questions.

If I have to explain it in mathematical terms, let me redefine the clichéd, “Two is better than one” by saying, “Single is more than half of a parenting pair”. Because coupledom always comes with a huge dose of parental compromise at every stage. ‘Your’ way and ‘my’ way sometimes takes a lifetime to be ‘our’ way and not everyone has a lifetime.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 10th August, 2015)