5.3
November 25, 2013

Girl Gone: the Aftermath of Mothering. ~ Amy Beth Barnes

Relephant reads:

The Good Mother.

The Love Between a Mother & Daughter Is Forever.

Stop Worrying About Your Kids.

I’m standing in line at the grocery store listening to the young woman behind me chat on the phone.

Her tone is a razor wire of accommodating tension. “It’s in the driveway totally out of gas… mhmm. Yes, I know… thanks. Yeah, I love you, too….‘Bye Mom.”

And then comes the sound, kind of a snorty “Kuh.” Without seeing her face, I can clearly sense her eyes rolling back in her head with loathsome dismissal.

In that instant I know her story. I tell it to myself as I load shopping bags into my exhausted eight-seater mommy mobile. She must be a freshman at the local university, she is broke and that was her mother on the phone, wherever she is, maybe in Southern California.

The mom falls to pieces at the sight of that empty bedroom. So she sends money in an attempt to remain essential to her daughter’s life. I know this, because of the watermelon of sadness wedged between my heart and my belly button, in the wake of my own daughter leaving six weeks ago.

She’s gone. And I mean gone.

She’s got her back to me and she’s running into the brilliant sunrise of her life with middle finger fully erect.

I think of tenderly gathering her blonde hair into thin ponytails and securing them with matching glittery rubber bands. I think of the bubble baths, the beach walks, the warm milk and the bedtime stories. Then, I think of the screaming, the door slamming, the emergency room visits, the calls to the sheriff and the sound of her car flying up our dirt road ten minutes after curfew.

It’s like I’ve woken up under a coffee table, the morning after a party. I’ve lost my footing, and am wondering where my bra is. I stand and pat myself down to see if everything is still in place after the whirlwind of raising Lucy Jane.

My son said to me the other day, “If you could go back and do it again, would you?” I said yes. His eyes widened, “Really? You’d do all of those years again?”

I thought about all of those years, the grocery lists and dirty dishes. The shit, the vomit, the sleepless nights. Yes. I would do it again. But differently. Maybe I would keep my distance. I wouldn’t try so hard. I wouldn’t worry so much. I’d maybe worry a little bit more about me.

The moment Lucy Jane was born I was jolted into the passion and ache of motherhood. I was sunk. Consumed. Hooked. I loved her more than anything. I bought organic baby food and cloth diapers. I chose the stuffed animal with just the right facial expression and nap to its fur. I bought her the prettiest prom dress in the store.

Where do I put all of that devotion now? Do I get another cat? Maybe a small dog?

I take comfort in my two teenage sons still living at home. But Lucy Jane’s leaving changed everything. I look at the boys differently now. I’m slightly suspicious. They saw what just happened here. I distance myself, but at the same time I want to clobber them with an anguished love; to hold them here forever.

But they will leave, just like their sister did. That’s their job.

Six months ago, Lucy’s departure didn’t feel possible. We went through the motions of college tours and applications, but it didn’t sink in that she would ever actually live in a different zip code. And here I stand in the quiet aftermath of her exit, feeling like somebody came along and punched me.

When I made the choice to be a mother I had no idea what I was getting into. Which doesn’t seem entirely fair. Because with the joy of mothering comes an awful lot of pain. For instance, does it ever feel okay to not see your daughter for three months, six months, a year? I guess it must, but while I wait for this to feel normal, I get the sense that I’ve been tricked. Like how a Big Mac never looks as good as it does on TV.

As this all sinks in, I’ll just keep on making oatmeal for my adolescent hangers-on, until, they too, tie their shoes and pack their bags and find their way out the door.

And then what? Holy shit. Just a few more years and my nest is well and truly empty.

I want to be a good mother but suddenly I’m fighting a wild urge to race out the door myself, to discover where my life went, hoping all of the possibilities might still be there for me, the same as they were when I was 24, not 44.

I picked up a copy of Bust magazine yesterday and was struck by the writing and art and ambition held in those pages. I couldn’t sleep last night because of it.

Did I give my chance away to knowing the precise location of the Bob the Builder Band-Aids on the cat room shelf? To playing Barbies on the floor and hot glue gunning poster boards at midnight?

I’m grasping for my bootstraps. I want to pull them up, snap the elastic firm against my shoulders and move forward, but they are sprawled at my feet, tangled and worn. I don’t know where I’m going, anyway. In a panic, I Google graduate schools and fire off article pitches to the local paper.

I’m desperate to redefine myself, and can’t help but measure the years I have left to accomplish all that I dreamed of as a little girl.

“You are grieving,” a friend said recently. “Give yourself time to grieve.” Maybe it wouldn’t feel so much like grieving if Lucy Jane would just let me in a little. Make me a small part of her new life.

But there’s no time to talk. She’s overwhelmed. It’s midterm week. She won’t be home till Christmas. She’s on the floor with a fever and tonsillitis and can’t make it downstairs to do her laundry. She’s staying up till five a.m. She’s eating tortilla chips for breakfast and, look, there’s a picture of her wasted on Facebook.

I visit and she’s pale and exhausted. There’s a place for her in my hotel room bed, but she wants to go home. Home now is not with her mother. Home is a dorm room with fairy lights and photos pinned to the wall and friends whose names I don’t know, knocking at her door. It is her own kettle. Her own sink. Her own life.

Not mine.

Mine is sitting here in my big cold house with the cat snoring on my desk. Mine is finding my own way. I’m a middle- aged woman now. My beautiful, feisty daughter is grown and gone. I’m no longer the young mother who bakes cupcakes for the school carnival, or bags up party favors in dollar store cellophane or hunches with scoop in hand while ice cream drips down my forearms asking, “Chocolate or vanilla?” my peripheral vision teeming with children who clamber for the slice of cake with the most icing.

I guess maybe I don’t want to do those years again. I want to find out what happens next. It feels like I gave the last piece of cake to the girl with the blonde ponytails.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s one out there waiting just for me, loaded up with a thick wavy slab of icing.

Like elephant family on Facebook.

Editor: Renée Picard

{photo: Amy Barnes at Flickr}

Amy Beth Barnes

Read 47 Comments and Reply