Before life’s unexpected twists left me staring down the barrel of single motherhood, I had never wanted children. As a young college student, I had dreams about becoming a doctor in a windswept refugee camp in Somalia or jetting around the globe helping women in poverty start small businesses – anything except settling down with a house and a husband and a couple of ankle-biters howling for milk.
Then I met my future husband. He was vibrant and fun, a man who radiated joy and appreciated life’s small pleasures more than anyone I’d ever known. When he first asked me to marry him, I refused because I still feared settling down to a normal life rather than pursuing my fantasy of a more interesting one. But when he made it clear that the choice was marriage or losing the man I loved, we tied the knot in a small ceremony in the backyard of my parents’ home. In those first few years of marriage, at my husband’s insistence, we did all the things I had sworn I’d never do. We moved to a house in the suburbs. We bought a luxury car. But I drew the line at children.
Refusing to have children wasn’t easy. Whenever my husband saw a baby, he’d melt into a puddle of incomprehensible goo. Batty-lashed and putty-lipped, he’d turn to me with eyes that begged, Pleeeeease! After five years, the pleading turned to threats. Faced once again with the prospect of losing him, I agreed to try.
For the record, pregnancy blows and labor is soul-crushing. But the worst disappointment came after my daughter was born. As the nurse placed the newborn baby on my chest, I held my breath, anticipating the moment that parents talk about, the one where the clouds part and angels sing and your heart fills with the greatest joy humankind has ever known. Instead, I felt bewildered at the wet, cone-headed creature jerking in my arms.
This is it? I thought. This is supposed to be the happiest moment of my life?
It would, unfortunately, turn out to be the happiest moment for a while. Over the next few weeks, as life dissolved into a blur of sleep deprivation, mustard poop, and bloody nipples, I sank deeper into despair. The baby’s constant demands for feeding and attention left me suffocated. Many mornings I cried, dreading the moment when she would awake, the pain of the sharp little jaw and sandpaper tongue, the endless, repetitive caretaker tasks which I performed with the vacant stare of the undead.
As I struggled with what was likely post partum depression, my husband grappled with different demons. Around the baby, he cooed and clucked and fussed, but he took particular care not to let any affection rub off on me. He avoided eye contact, truncated conversations, and spent less and less time at home. I tried to assure myself that all marriages suffer for a while after a child is born. He would come around. Right?
When our daughter was about 12 weeks old, her sleep patterns improved and my spirit began the long, grasping climb out of the bog. I started to look forward to the soft coos in the morning issuing from her crib and the radiant smile when she recognized my face. As time passed and she learned to roll over, to sit up, and to crawl, the terror of motherhood subsided just a bit.
Then one night just before our daughter’s first birthday, my husband announced that he was leaving the country to open a liquor bar on a Caribbean island. He wanted a divorce. His words pierced through months of denial and left me gasping, sucker-punched. He moved out that night and never came back.
For the next few weeks, I numbed the pain on a TV-bender, getting drunk on explosions and manufactured drama. The idea that I was not only a mother but a single mother seemed so ludicrous that I would have laughed had I not been so heart-broken. I looked at my suburban home, my salaried job, my clinging baby, and wondered, How the hell did I end up here? What happened to the girl who wanted to change the world?
Once again I sank into the black pit that had consumed me after my daughter’s birth. Even the baby’s joy as she took her first steps and shaped her first garbled words couldn’t pierce through the muck. I lived as if underwater, haunted by distorted shapes and muffled sounds.
One winter evening a couple months after my husband’s departure, as I lay on the floor of the baby’s room watching her play, I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I couldn’t stand another day of this. Not another day cooped up in the house trying to summon a smile for a child drooling on plastic toys. Not one more night sprawled on the floor of her room waiting for the hour when I could put her to bed and lose myself in another vapid movie.
So I stood up, threw a bag of clothes together, buckled the baby into the car seat, and drove to the only place you can get high without taking drugs: the gym. I marched through the swinging glass doors and into the nearest enrollment office, where, averting my eyes from the price tag, I signed up for a membership.
Minutes later my daughter and I entered the steamy, chlorine-scented atmosphere of the indoor pool area. It was heaven to dip my toes into warm water, to hear the echoing sounds of children’s laughter, to see the ecstasy on my daughter’s face when she ploughed, shrieking, into the pool. As we splashed and swam over the next two hours, I realized something wonderful. I hadn’t thought about the divorce the whole time we were there.
That pool became our winter refuge, our balmy escape from the dreadful quiet of home. I also started taking fitness classes and looked forward to slogging away under the barks of a militant instructor because the pain was, mercifully, only physical. Afterward, I floated home on a dopamine high that lasted all evening.
The decision to join a gym sparked a flurry of other positive lifestyle changes. I moved out of the house with all its memories of a crumbling marriage and into a small apartment closer to the city. My daughter and I started patronizing a local farmer’s market where friendly farm hands chatted about the crops and the animals that produced fresh milk and cheese.
We joined an online group for single parent families that organized playdates and picnics. We visited parks and museums, pools and forests, playgrounds and festivals. We discovered little gems of beauty or creative play all around us. And slowly, the wounds are healing.
It’s still not easy. There are times when I wring my hands, clutch my head and curse my fate. But those are becoming more rare. Day by day, moment by moment, motherhood is stealing my heart for all the stupid, corny reasons I always scorned. It’s not what I asked for in life, but it’s what I was given. Sometimes the best gifts are the ones we didn’t know we wanted.