Motherhood From Afar Archives
- Cassie Premo Steele
This is my last column at Literary Mama, marking a journey of nearly two years since I began mothering from afar. I had hoped that by now I’d have everything under control and would know exactly how our story will turn out in the end so that this last column could be like a vast Lego city that stretches into the future, with me and my kids as tiny Lego people heading off together into a happy rainbow-colored Lego sunset. But I gave away all my Legos and I don’t have a map of our path into the future. I’m a psychic without a crystal ball with which to scry my own destiny.
It’s funny, and I can say this now because I’m on the flip side most of the time, but my biggest fears in those days were about judgment. The worst courtroom moments were when untrue and unflattering things were said about me; I knew the words were untrue but I feared that people would believe them and think less of me as a mother. I knew myself to be a nurturing mother who put her children first, and I wanted people to see that in me because I so strongly identified with the motherhood image I was holding. Now, only a few years later, I’m in a situation that a lot of people find objectionable or at least uncomfortable. I’m okay with their discomfort. It doesn’t come from what people know about me but, rather, from the way they feel when they think the symbol of motherhood — so sacrosanct — has been threatened.
My expression of motherhood has been one long chain of sacrifice. I didn’t plan it that way, but I can look back now and see what I created: Quitting jobs to raise babies; sleeping sitting up while holding nursing infants in my arms; commuting three hours a day so my children could go to the schools that best supported their needs; dishing out the best bits for the kids and taking what was left for myself at every meal. Growing up, my brother and I teased our mom when she claimed to prefer her toast burned. Now I know why she did that. It’s a mother thing. Sacrifice.
This morning I woke up from a dream, the kind of dream that you just know is a mirror of real life. Anais Nin said once that “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect,” and often my dreams are a third taste. In this morning’s dream I walked around the house stuffing Nathaniel’s and Serena’s things into their suitcases and warmed a cup of coffee. It was almost time to go. Serena and I looked at each another through the tears in our eyes. “Do we really have to go back, Mama?” she asked. I didn’t have an answer. It was a dream, not real. I knew the dream’s next scene would have an airport in it, a flight, a departure. But I had something important to tell them, something they needed to take with them on their journey. But what? I wept, not liking this play I was in where I knew the plot but not the lines.
My mother was no artist. One day when I was eight she brought out a boxed art kit and drew fantastic trees with wonderful wild wiggly branches and roots. I drew my trees that way for weeks, but Mom put the art kit away. No matter how much I wished it would, the art kit never came out again. I wanted to see inside her, for her to wear her wild wonderful soul — like the trees she drew — on the outside, but she put herself away along with the art kit and became older, smaller, and less of herself every year.
Everything changed, then, when I left Pennsylvania a year ago. I stepped back from trying to be everything for my children. I left room for a distant father to become closer, to step into the space I left. My kids, rather than falling apart in my absence, seem to have become stronger: they are still straight-A students, they have more friends than ever, and they are growing into their independence.
“Non-custodial parent? What is that?”
I tensed, ready to explain my unconventional choice to someone who didn’t “get” it, and started with my standard opener. “My kids don’t live with me. They live with their father.”
“Oh, that!” the attractive, youthful 60-ish woman to my left, a nationally-known author and lecturer, smiled broadly at me. “I did that. It was the best thing I could have done. For all of us. My daughters got to really know their father.”
She had blue hair. She left strands of it throughout the school for me to find, so I would know I was never safe. In my dreams she was chasing me — slowly, methodically. There was nowhere to hide in my empty elementary school. I knew that no matter which classroom I hid in, which hallway I ran down, she would find me.
The bus lurched to a stop, its distinctive orange-yellow easily visible in my rented rear-view mirror. A knot of kids emerged and I struggled to locate my daughter in the gaggle of same-sized girls wearing colorful winter parkas. It had been so long since I had seen her — would I know her? I saw a girl of about the right size and hair color break free from the group. Was that Serena? I couldn’t be sure. Then I saw her, so unmistakably Serena that I almost laughed at having doubted my ability to know my own child.
In a few days I’ll board a plane bound for Pennsylvania and my children. I’ve rented a house for the week that we’ll be spending together, so we’ll be able to focus on one another rather than on restaurants and hotels and driving. Creating a home-away-from-home was at the top of my list for this visit. For that week I’ll be able to step back into their lives and we’ll all pretend awhile that nothing ever happened and that nothing ever changed. This summer we’ll have more time together, but I couldn’t wait for summer. It has already been too long.
On Mother’s Day this year, a month before I left, I cut Nathaniel’s hair for the last time. He sat on the porch stoop in a t-shirt and shorts, shivering in the unspringlike cool, bending his long body to conserve warmth and to make his head more accessible to my awkward scissoring. I held up curling dark-blond strands of his hair, overgrown since his last cut in midwinter, and sheared them short, as if in doing so I could make that last time of such casual intimacy between us stretch into forever.