There’s this thing I think about when I have an intense desire to run away. Not sure where I picked it up, but it works for me. If you’re going to leave something—a relationship, a family, a job, a place, a whole way of life—you’ll know you’re ready to exit when you have an idea of what you’re moving TOWARD and not just what you’re running FROM. Because—ala Jon Kabat-Zinn—wherever you go, there you are.
I had to leave Mississippi to survive. After the custody hearing, I began to look at my options. I decided my way out was education—meaning, another degree. Academics had always come easily to me. I think my reasoning was something along the lines of: I might be queer, but I could be a well-educated queer. Seriously, I doubt I was really that aware of my motivation at the time, but it makes me smile to remember it that way.
I had already earned my master’s, finishing up just in time to get pregnant. But three years later, the orderly plan I had set out for my young life was all shot to hell. My starting point on the path to life reorganization was to get a PhD. Something to go toward.
The identity crisis continued. Who was I without all of my previous self-labels? Was my need to get more education about mothering? The good mother has a good job, with upward mobility, and can support her children, while still making time for baking cookies and playing games. OR, was my decision to leave about taking care of myself? Did I have some instinct that I needed one to do the other? I don’t remember asking myself what would make me a better mother. From the vantage point of age 63, I now see that my turmoil was because I had not yet questioned my assumptions about what it meant to be a good mother. I was an emotional jumble: uncomfortable, scared, excited, hurt, angry, curious, and newly in love again. And I had a three-year-old daughter to be responsible for. No time for navel-gazing.
The Not-So-Good Mother
The world makes lots of assumptions about mothers. One I find particularly troublesome is that every mother—by virtue of carrying another human in her body—unquestioningly intends to spend the rest of her life sacrificing herself, body-mind-spirit, for her offspring. I had just made a decision to follow my own path. I could not stop the nagging, ever-present feeling that I was being selfish—selfishness being the number one trait of not-so-good mothers. Or, so I believed.
This was my mid-1980s unexamined list of qualities that made a good mother: self-sacrificing, noble, patient, hard-working, church-going, home-making, strong, no-nonsense, and smart. This was the mothering modeled for me. But my mother also had a rigid moral code about what the good woman, the good married woman, and subsequently the good mother DID NOT do. She did not drink, smoke, have love affairs, curse, dance, or otherwise indulge in any frivolous and immoral activity. Looking back on that time, I still wanted desperately to please my mother. Simultaneously, I needed to rebel against everything she was.
I know now that this is how it goes with mothers and daughters. It’s part of the process of growing up and, if you’re lucky, growing into yourself. Differentiating from and identifying with your mother. I’ve watched my own daughters go through this process. But in 1986, when my whole world had blown up? Not so much. All I wanted was to LEAVE MISSISSIPPI and everything I had known, including my Southern mama.
My daughter, my girlfriend, and I arrived in Austin, Texas on a hot June day in 1986. I was a newly minted Longhorn, admitted to the doctoral program in nursing at the University of Texas. We’d rented a newly constructed apartment off South Lamar and my great Texas adventure began. Notice the newly, newly? Every damn thing was new. I felt like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. In reality, I was a country mouse coming to the big city. Ready to take on everything Austin—one of the coolest cities on the planet—had to offer.
Austin provided my introduction to Jack Daniels and his best friends, Margarita and MaryJane (sorry, showing my age). This not-yet-sprawling Texas city felt to me like freedom-on-a-stick. Whole new world. And so many women! Smart, sexy women. Parties, dancing, drinking, smoking weed. Bars like Chances and Nexus, full of women checking each other out. Men’s bars—a sea of cowboy hats and flawless asses poured into tight jeans, floating in perfect Texas two-step around the wooden dance floor. Amazing food. Trudy’s, Kerbey Lane Café, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, Katz’s Deli, to name just a few. Concerts at the Erwin Center—Reba, Whitney, Lionel. Jody Conradt and the Lady Longhorns. Season tickets? Yes, please! Water skiing on Lake Austin, boating on Lake Travis, swimming at Deep Eddy or Barton Springs, the clothing-optional hidden coves of Hippie Hollow. As Billy Holiday sang, I was “having myself a time.”
Of course, I was simultaneously trying to be an upstanding PhD student, on the fast track to get my doctorate before my thirtieth birthday. Imagine my sense of validation to find out that several of the nursing faculty and my fellow students were lesbian. In the actual academic part of my doctoral studies, my mind was opened wide by feminist ideas and new ways of thinking about science.
In the midst of this brand-new life of new friendships, flirtations, parties, great food, outdoor recreation, and intellectual stimulation, I was raising a three-year-old. And doing it with a woman whose idea of co-parenting was to get stoned and assemble Barbie’s Dream House Mansion together. (It took us six hours. But when we finally finished, the lifelike kitchen blender and the electric doorbell worked. Barbie would never miss a guest!)
Learning a new identity comes with maturational/developmental stages, just like the ones our bodies go through. I was in the adolescence of my queer identity. The very air around the new me was charged with mystery. Who was and who wasn’t gay? Who didn’t think she was, but was curious? It was like belonging to a secret club—one of the things about being queer that was exciting. Until it wasn’t. Not so exciting when you’re trying to mother your way through shame, identity confusion, and fear of loss of your child or your job.
I struggled to believe in myself as a mother. My personal revelation (see Lies and other truths…) that I could not hate who I was and mother a child, was tested repeatedly. And I fucked up—a lot. I didn’t know then that my mistakes were the day-to-day hard lessons every mother has to learn. I believed I had to make up for my queer defect by going above and beyond as a model parent. If I messed up, it was because I was queer. I had to learn–the hard way–that the conditions you put on yourself to deserve love will end up being the same conditions you put on your children, whether you are conscious of it or not.
More than a Result
Although that period of my life was stimulating, growth-producing, frightening, and joyous, there was always, always, the mothering part of me worrying that who I was (imperfect) would affect everything my daughter became. She would be a result of my mothering. Knowing what I know now, I can’t imagine believing I had that much power. And, as James Hillman says in The Soul’s Code, we are MORE than a result.
It took me a long time to learn that all of the qualities I admired and benefited from in my own mother existed within me, right alongside the rigid, self-shaming ones that threatened to squash my emerging self out of existence. During those chaotic, intensely emotional years starting therapy helped—a lot. I read a book called The Journey Within: A Spiritual Path to Recovery. I’m not sure how I decided to read the book. All through my life, the right books have fallen into my hands at just the right time. Thank you, Universe. The Journey Within helped me to reconnect in a very tip-toey way with my spirituality. God and I had to figure out how to talk to each other again. The Journey Within author, Ruth Fishel, had me from page 1, sentence 1.
“I believe that deep within every human being lies the true essence of our being, a spark of life and love, a pure spark of energy that gives us all our sameness. Each experience thereafter establishes our uniqueness.” – Ruth Fishel, The Journey Within
I made my share of parenting, relationship, academic, professional, and every other kind of mistake you can think of during that time–and many since. But that hot Texas sun burned through a lot of layers as I worked through the me/not me process of growing up. My daughter and I survived those early years—even thrived in some ways. I ended the relationship I was in, finally realizing it was not right for me. It took me a couple of moves, but my daughter and I landed in a house in central Austin that felt like home. Seems my whole journey has been looking for home. And, damn if I didn’t accidentally rekindle an old (well, not too old) flame that burned white hot for the next seven years of my life. And here’s the crazy thing. While that fire was at its hottest, I decided I wanted another baby.