I lived in a house by the sea. It was a white-washed building so close to the cliffs that on cloudy days it disappeared against the horizon, it’s only distinguishing feature a low dark roof.
I was younger then, not yet a wife or a mother. I had come to Scotland to study, to be a learner in life as much as literature. This was wild territory far from home. They knew our Tennessee whiskey but they did not know my mother’s egg salad or what humidity does to a body in the southern climate. It was an experiment to see if I could hold up under different conditions. I wanted to see if I was the kind of animal that could adapt and not just survive, but thrive elsewhere. This was my evolution. I walked to classes on a path the wove through the ruins of a cathedral, tourists kneeling awkwardly to make rubbings of memorial stones. Classes were held in buildings erected before the foundation of the America. I was a new fish in a very old pond.
From my window in my house by the sea, I would press my forehead to the glass, always cold, and watch the waves beat against the rocks like they were in it for the kill. Above them, seagulls circled and screamed at each other. The experiment was failing. I was not holding up. The divergence between the worlds was too much. From my window, I watched others camp on the tiny beach. They built fires to chase away the cold. I watched friends from home practice texting each other in Gaelic. And I curled inward, listening to the wind shake the rafters. I declined invitations to dinner and ate curry takeaway. I was living less, not more, with no one for company and only the sea to tell me so. The big wide world was too desolate.
Flash forward to post-college, still young, but wiser, I was now living in a 400 square-foot studio in Manhattan, a railcar of a room. It was to be a new start, a new me, another experiment. I wore suits, back when that was still a thing for young professionals. I bought my Metro card and rode the rails to my job in publishing. I assisted the editors like the newbie grad that I was. Every menial task was meaningful because it was new. At work, I was a success. But at home, at night, with the wild sounds of taxis and late night shouts and radiators clanking on and off without my consent, it was isolation by suffocation. I was desolate in a new way, an island upon a mountain of islands which I could not cross. I was lost in a sea of busy twenty-somethings who all had somewhere to go. I walked with purpose in the crowds while my heart languished. I remember wandering into Bloomingdales, because that’s what one does when in New York and new. I bought a scarf from the first display, an overpriced paisley thing that I would never wear and looked perfect for an old lady or a poodle. I was too afraid to wind my way into the depths. It was hot and crowded and so shiny inside, so shiny it made my heart stutter.
And now, as a mom, I find myself in another experiment. I am not adrift in a house by the sea. I am not adrift in a sea of apartments. But I must confess, sometimes I am still adrift. Isolation is not a problem with jammy lips kissing my own and sticky fingers holding the hems of my clothes and heads peeking into the bathroom at inopportune times. Sometimes I look down and cannot distinguish my own hands in the mass of limbs wound up like yarn on our couch before bedtime. So why do I still catch my heart wavering like it did in those cities in all those former versions of me? Why do I still wonder what I’m missing? When I sit in the stillness of the morning, before the children or the sun have risen, sometimes I think I catch the answer.
Motherhood is both a calling and a journey, a big trip to the other side of adulthood. It is a land you enter as an alien. There are no natives in this place, only journeyers much like yourself, expatriates from another world. What I never let myself do, in all my experiments, was…experiment. I expected my circumstances to do all the heavy lifting. A sea and a subway were not going to remake me.
Moving to the land of children will not automatically turn you into someone else. You have to buy in and get out of yourself. You cannot stay at the window peering out. The weather might be perilous, the crowds overwhelming, the circumstances out of your control (more often than not), but if you never open that door, you will miss the adventure. You will perform the necessary steps, but your heart will stay home. You must say yes to the hugs and snack time shares and picnics in the park. You must say yes to the extra five minutes before bedtime and conversations instead of movies in the car. You must follow your kids following a bug all the way to its hole just to see where it goes. When I feel my heart drifting, it is not because my environment is wrong. It is not because I chose the wrong destination. It is because I am not stepping out into the wild world of it. Motherhood is a calling to brave the conditions, no matter what they forbear, because in the end, it is the only experiment worth following to its final conclusion.