My mother used to tell me that “they say once you have kids, your maternal instinct never goes away.” I suppose this could help to explain why a lot of mothers experience that Empty Nest Syndrome after their kids grow up and move away from home, or why many women mother their husbands. But then there’s the problem that anything starting with “they say” is usually reducible to nothing but a pop and cocky Old Wive’s Tale. So when my mother told me this (and especially because we are talking about my mother here), I pretty well dismissed it.
Over the years I wondered if I should have taken it more seriously, though. Since the abrupt appearance of children in my life, I have learned that this Old Wive’s Tale may actually (against my very rational and empirical judgment) be the truest thing there is about being a mother. About human relationships on the whole.
My wonder started slowly. At first, I just worried a lot. About a lot of things. Things I never would have worried about before were suddenly a natural thing for me to be concerned about – like whether or not it’s safe to let a child walk down to the mailbox on her own, or what kind of plastic the drinking cups I’m buying are made of.
Then the feelings started. Some things didn’t feel right. Or – on the flip side – sometimes it felt like there was no other way. Suddenly I would know if something was wrong, even when no one was home. Twenty minutes later everyone would come clamoring in the house complaining – someone fell, a bruise, a scrape, can I please apply seventy-five Minnie Mouse Bandaids to make it better?
Around the second or third time this happened, I began to accept the irreversible bond between children and their mother (the woman who cares for them); the bond that has little to do with blood relation and everything to do with the metaphysical and spiritual connection that absolutely no one and nothing but each other can break.
I’ve blogged recently that my ten year old was being required to have a try-out visit with her biological father. She used to see him infrequently even though he lived close by, every other weekend when it was at its most. Then he moved to Houston – suddenly expecting to have tons of vacations per year where she would be uprooted from our home and taken to stay with him and his wife. Eat three square meals of Taco Bell a day. Get eaten by scorpions. Shoot guns. And so on.
Quite obviously these were unrealistic expectations, especially given the history of the situation and the precocious and sensitive nature of my ten year old. Rapidly his behavior became harassing and obsessive, though. Suddenly I was a terrible person who forced him to move away, of his own free will; and I was robbing him the rights God bestowed on him because he had no idea how to properly function a rubber, lo those many years ago.
That was too far, wasn’t it?
Needless to say, it stressed us all out, and my little Pookie – with the most delicate and fragile heart – broke into a million pieces at the thought of having to communicate with him regularly, and be taken from her home to a place she did not wish to go. Thousands of dollars were socked into therapy to help her get through the try-out visit, and right at the moment when she started to get better – to forget about him and the fact that she had to take the trip – she had her required birthday Skype with him. As the Skype came to a close, he finished with “OK, see you in a month” and she fell apart all over again.
Now that month – the most difficult month – has passed. We are there, in Texas. In Houston, having arrived roughly four hours before we scheduled to have him come pick her up from the hotel room. He didn’t show up, though. He sent his wife. The interaction was awkward, and immediately sent up a red flag that after all this time he could not even be bothered to come pick up my delicate, little angel himself. Nonetheless, I packed up her things and walked them to the elevator, where I said goodbye, reminded her where her cellphone was and to take her allergy pills every day; and as the elevator door closed she shouted “Mommy!” only for the door to close and whisk them to the parking garage.
Since she shouted that single word – “Mommy!” – I have tried to ignore the feeling that something terrible is happening. Surely they cannot be that stupid and ignorant – he and his wife. They are neglectful, manipulative, emotionally abusive, unrealistic about parenting, unhealthy, and flagrantly stupid – but even the worst of the worst people can keep a child alive and in one piece for 10 days. Right? RIGHT?!
They say once you have kids, your maternal instinct never goes away.
This thing – this instinct that there is something wrong – has no kill switch, and so each moment that passes I am paralyzed by these fears that continue to creep slowly over me like spiders over a fly stuck in a web, threatening to consume me. I cannot just shut them off: these feelings that there is something wrong and that I need to get to her, all-the-while feeling as though I cannot because I have no real excuse to other than a feeling that will not go away.