“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” ~Rumi
Her back was to me at first, and so I wasn’t sure what I was walking into. The energy of the house was somber, yet calm. She sat at the kitchen table facing the window. The kitchen itself was clean and tidy, the fridge strewn with drawings and paintings from her boys. I smelled coffee so I walked over to pour myself a mug from the carafe on the counter. She knew I was there, but couldn’t quite bring herself to turn around.
“May I sit with you?” I asked softly.
She nodded. Mae had texted me at six in the morning asking me to come by. It had been months since we had seen one another. We messaged back and forth, but they were brief check-ins. If I’m honest, I could feel when she wasn’t well, but it wasn’t until this morning, after her reaching out, that I could drop everything to see her.
“Where are the boys?” I asked, taking a seat beside her. I didn’t want to obstruct her view of the late morning sun.
Mae looked up at me. “They’re with their dad.”
“I see- a day off for you then,” I offered lightly.
And that’s when I could no longer deny the blatantly obvious bend to her body, to her mood. She was crestfallen.
Her eyes misted at my words. She gave a short, mocking laugh.”Oh yeah, a day off…believe me, Danielle- it’s more like a day off for them.”
Mae battled depression. It had become worse right after her marriage ended and now, two years later, it was simply unpredictable. She was at the mercy of the black dog. Parenting with depression was like being pulled in completely opposite directions. Both demanded your undivided attention. No one could be pulled like that for long.
“I’m listening,” I said tightening my hands around the warm cup of coffee.
She stared straight ahead: “Ed texted last night to say the boys wanted to stay with him an extra couple of days.” Her voice was flat, tinged with hurt and hopelessness. “I just typed ‘K’. And then I cried for an hour,” she said shaking her head. “Who can blame them? Why would they want to be here? I’m no fun when I’m like this. Maybe I’m never any fun. I forget things constantly, I’m easily annoyed.” Mae turned to me and I could feel the dichotomy to her: the strangled cry for help, the resigned self-loathing.
“You’re in pain,” I said quietly.
She shook her head. “No, I’m actually quite numb.”
I stared into my coffee feeling eerily serene. Having been where Mae was, I knew there was hope. I knew things could shift. She had reached out to me. She had asked me to come. It was everything. I knew it.
“Where’s Shawn?” I asked. Her boyfriend had recently moved in. I liked him. There was a lot of adjusting, of course, but it seemed to me he saw Mae- saw past the dark and loved her light.
Mae played with the leather strap of her watch as she answered: “He’s at work.” Her face settled slightly. She breathed deeply. “He’s been great. He plays video games with the boys, takes them to the park to shoot hoops- it’s good, but it makes me feel like shit. I should be doing that, Danielle. Instead, I try to steer clear of them. I stick to cleaning and organizing. I try to make their life easier… I’ve messed up so many times. They’ve caught me in raw moments and I’ve said the wrong things.”
“Mae, I’m sure…”
She waved her hand in front of her face wanting none of my ‘bright side’. “They complained they were bored and that they had better toys at their Dad’s house. It felt like salt in a wound. I made some stupid comment about shared custody and no child support…something way over their little heads, but charged enough to make them feel bad for mentioning their father.” She dropped her head to her hands. “And don’t think Ed didn’t text me to reprimand me about it. They told him, just like I’m sure they tell him all the time about how bad it is here. I already know they deserve a better mother. It’s hard when their father agrees.”
I pulled my chair closer to her. “Ed loves them,” I said.
“Yes,” she mumbled.
“You love them.”
Mae’s head flew up in protest. “So what? I don’t give them what they need. I can’t! I feel myself wanting to, but my brain won’t let me! It is the most frustrating feeling in the world. I cuddle them when I can, but for the life of me, Danielle, I cannot get happy. And when I can’t get happy, I can barely move. Everything I do takes effort. ”
My eyes teared up. I knew exactly what she meant.
She looked down again, her shoulders hunched. “Maybe they should just be with Ed all the time. All I do is hurt and confuse them.”
I let that last statement hang for a moment. She was almost testing me with those words…seeing if I would agree to her purported awfulness. “This is the darkness talking, honey. It is hard for everyone. But Mae, I’m wondering if I tell you something now….can you keep it for later?”
She looked up at me with confusion and annoyance. “For later? When I’m less crazy, you mean?”
I smiled at her. “We both know you’re not crazy. You’re depressed.”
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. The sun had made its way to the right of her apple tree. A lone beam streamed right up her arm and shoulder, embracing her.
I continued: “I look around this house and I see the boys everywhere: Their art, their toys, their favourite foods, their school photos. I see a shit ton of evidence that you are trying. I’ve seen you play with them, joke with them, take care of them. You are a good, loving mother, Mae. You are also in pain. That’s discomforting for the ones who love you to see. It’s also hard when they don’t know what that’s like. They’re going to say or even just think things like: ‘Why can’t you just be more optimistic?’ or ‘You’re always in such a bad mood’ or ‘You’re so mean’ and it’s going to hurt. But you also have people who understand, or who are at least willing to. That’s who you reach out to when it gets this dark. That’s who you lean on.”
Mae was quietly playing with her watch band. Her eyes darted briefly in my direction. She was listening.
“When you feel yourself coming out of this, make an appointment with your therapist. You need to amp that back up. You don’t need to be ‘fixed’, Mae. You need compassion, support and tools. Lots of each. You deserve it. Maybe try not to expect more from the boys right now. Try to focus on taking care of you instead of getting mad at Ed or taking it out on Shawn. Yes, you said some things you perhaps should not have. I understand why you feel guilty, but it doesn’t change anything. It simply triggers the dark thoughts.”
I took a deep breath and held her in my mind. I knew how tired and unloved she was feeling. I also knew from where the love was missing.
“Please be gentle with yourself,” I pleaded. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to parent. You are doing your best. Your boys are loved and they know it. They can’t help but know it because it’s true. Their confusion or uneasiness, their boredom or desire to be somewhere else- those are temporary. They are thoughts and feelings that will come and go. What remains is love. Their feelings need to be honoured, but not to the point of obsession. They love you and you love them. Sometimes it can be that simple. Make it that simple for yourself. Let people who have been where you are show you how.”
I placed my hand on the cool surface of the kitchen table, palm turned upward. Tears pooled in my eyes and compassion poured outward. Wordlessly, she placed her hand in mine.
Mothers in arms.