I thought I knew myself pretty well. But then, three months ago, my daughter went overseas and I discovered that I didn’t. Having spent 22 years being an active mother, I knew myself mainly in relation to family. Writing and teaching took me away from family. But never very far. As soon as the school phoned up, or one of my kids were sick, there I was, on call. There was a comfortable familiarity that went with this. I liked knowing that I was needed, that I was making a difference to the family I loved. I didn’t mind my day being structured around the needs of others. There were times when I moaned about this. But I liked the way it took me outside myself and into the world of others.
I’d known for a while that my daughter wanted to travel. I knew that she needed to prove her independence. I wanted this for her too. But until farewelling her at the airport, I didn’t believe that she could leave without a backward glance. My son had travelled for three years, so I understood what her absence would mean intellectually. My husband traveled regularly too, something I’d accepted as part of the order of things. But the absence of my daughter, with whom I’d spent way more time than I had my husband or son, was harder to absorb.
I thought I would hate the late afternoons, when my daughter and I normally walked the dog. But within a few days of her being gone, I realised that it was something else I felt. It was a kind of wonder. Now it was just my husband and dog who needed me. However their need for me felt less continuous than my daughter’s had felt. My husband and my dog weren’t emotionally present to me when they were elsewhere, as my daughter until that point had been. I didn’t feel beholden to them in the same way. Besides, my husband worked insanely hard and my dog was a puppy with needs I’d long known I couldn’t meet.
Feeling off the hook, as a mother, was another thing entirely. It took me a few weeks to register the difference. For the first time I could remember, there seemed enough hours in the day. I still ran out of time. I still had the feeling that I couldn’t fit everything in. Supper was inevitably late. However I had an increasing sense that things were, to a greater extent than before, up to me. I could now do things that just hadn’t been possible when family concerns had washed through my mind, like the extended drying cycle on the clothes drier.
I thought I’d feel adrift, lonely. Actually, at certain points I did feel lonely, achingly so. But I also felt moments of exhilarating freedom. The flip side of loneliness, I discovered, was freedom. And I could only access the freedom that I’d been longing for without knowing I’d been longing for it, by enduring some loneliness. This loneliness didn’t hurt. It wasn’t painful. But it did feel strange, to be on my own without a child to look after. It was almost unearthly, the way loneliness sprang on me when I least expected it, and left no mark.
Eventually I realised that loneliness had something to teach me. Either I could babysit myself, by filling up the windy spaces with podcasts, on-line news and trips to the cinema. Or I could flick shut my laptop and work out what I really wanted to do with the new bits of time that life had afforded me. If I so chose, I could pick up interests that were but faint memories, glowing embers. Initially this was uncomfortable. I’d sit at the piano and feel like a 7-year-old practicing my scales before dinner. I’d do a drawing and become self-critical of my efforts. I spend time in the garden, distracted by all the other things I should be doing.
After a few weeks I relaxed, realising that I had two and a half months of aloneness ahead of me. My daughter wasn’t gone for good, this time at least. Yet I knew that one day, any day, her absence would be permanent. On that day my daughter would move out of home and into her own orbit. These three months, then, were my trial run. A chance to be the centre of my own universe. What was I to do with it? Would it be an opportunity or a curse? Was it the beginning of the end, of everything-is-downhill-from-here? Or was it the beginning of something that as yet I had no words for, something that I’d been longing for without knowing it?
I tell you what I did. I went to the newsagent and bought an A2 sheet of cardboard and a packet of star stickers in five colours. On the cardboard I drew, in pencil without a ruler, a 6-week calendar – which I’d read somewhere is the length of time needed to create a new habit. In each square of the calendar, at the end of each day, I stuck a star for each time I did morning yoga, practised sight reading at the piano, and did a drawing after dinner. It sounds childish. It is childish. But mostly it worked. I needed an external marker for my efforts, to help me over the hump I had to overcome when faced with activities that I wanted to do, but didn’t have to do. Easing into a distraction was eternally easier than getting myself to play the piano, or to sew. Who would have thought that it could be so hard to sit down on a piano stool or to take out a pad of paper and pencils after dinner? Doing yoga, thankfully, was a little easier, perhaps because I’d been doing this for longer and so resisted it less.
My daughter has been back for five days now, and the squares on my star chart for these five days are empty. She, of course, laughs at my star chart. In the most natural way, she plonks her I-am-the-centre-of-the-universe way of being into the middle of my mind. I can no more ignore her presence than the surf wax, leg ropes, wet suits and shells that are strewn through my previously tidy house. Meanwhile my husband goes about his work, barely affected by her return. And the dog accepts her back as if she left the house the day before yesterday. I, meanwhile, am no longer lonely. But I’m not free either. Time I got back to putting some stars on that chart.