Life in the shadowlands
Shadowlands: An indeterminate borderland between places or states, typically represented as an abode of ghosts and spirits.
In the run up to a BIG birthday in January next year I find myself spending a deal of time in reflection. Always a cup-half-full kind of woman I’m looking forward too; thinking about what I might achieve, the events and experiences that I think could make me happy and the battles I still want to fight. My memoir writing though is mostly focused on what has already been, and although I accept, that like anyone, my memory probably either rose-tints or adds dark shade to the happenings of the past, I’m enjoying the retrospection and my growing collection of life vignettes.
Not surprisingly my significant others appear often in my writings, not least my mother and father and my husband John (all deceased). My baby, the child who died months before her or his expected birth date, also appears with regularity. This child who I never held or watched grow has nevertheless been present in my life since their conception. My shadowlands baby and I; a not (quite) mother and her spirit child.
Having worked as a nursery nurse prior to my miscarriage – I trained, not least, in the expectation that this would help prepare me for the care of my own children – I listlessly, sometimes desperately, wandered through my own life feeling that I had no purpose until I returned to education to study sociology. The discipline (and especially its political potential) and the hard work of studying it helped me find myself again. Since graduation the significance of mother or not has always been part of my academic labour and I have undertaken research and written much on those who do and those who do not mother (and father) and the implications of this. If my baby had lived this career would likely not have happened. Ironically, I think I know much more about the variety and complex experience of (non)motherhood/ing than I ever would have if things had turned out as I first hoped and planned. In my personal life too my child is always here, in shade at times, in the forefront at others. His/her bittersweet presence a part of my encounters with young friends and the children and grandchildren of others. Their absence (still) huge in conversations with those who don’t know, but ask about, my maternal status.
As a practising agnostic I can’t quite work out how I feel about an article I read a few years ago on the presence of deceased children in heaven. Written by a psychic the argument went that dead babies (including miscarried ones) and children continue to age in the afterlife until they reach adulthood (18 or 21? I’m not sure, the piece wasn’t clear on this detail). On reflection I think even if I had a strong faith I would be unsure about this possibility. There’s a comfort for sure in the confidence that your loved ones remain a part of the universe, and that you WILL see them again, but to have missed so many years of your child’s growth and development?
Remembering this recently and thinking again, yet again, about the significance of life in the shadowlands for my baby and I, I have spent a little time in ‘What If?’ ruminations.
In an alternative universe, a different life, my daughter or son would be well into her/his thirties by now with likely, maybe, possibly, perhaps, beautiful children of their own ….. There was never any more babies. I wanted to try but it had taken us so long to conceive you and the pregnancy was stressful and precarious and your dad made it clear that for him, if not me, enough was enough. Sick of the arguments – there were more, on other issues, but they came later – I gave up, gave in and lavished my love and my time on you my precious boy. After the inevitable divorce (we married too young and our hopes and ideals were just too far apart) your father and I got on better than we had for years and you and I found happiness and fun as part of a new blended family. Despite a few teenage tantrums, that I know you won’t want me to share, and I’m sure plenty of adventures that I know nothing about, you thrived. As you grew in stature so you did in character. I hid my distress when after college your chosen career took you (too) far away. Whilst studying you’d return regularly with a full laundry bag and an empty stomach but I was sure that this was the real break for us. A belief, I felt, confirmed when one particular colleague’s name kept cropping up in your telephone calls and emails. How does the saying go? ‘A daughter’s a daughter all of her life, but a son is a son until he takes a wife’. I feel stupid, stupid and ashamed, for thinking this now for it was your marriage and the pregnancy that quickly followed that brought you all back home.
As I sit on the garden swing chair, my youngest grandchild on my lap, the other two either side of me I count my blessings but dwell too on the things I have missed. My own career abandoned for full-time motherhood I never managed to return to the teaching job that challenged and thrilled me in equal measure. A part-time occupation or two here and there but nothing so fulfilling or stretching. Loving you beyond measure there was never regret but what if you had never been born? What might I have done? I’ll never know. And I do know how much I’d have missed. Never satisfied, never truly grateful, don’t we always wish for what we have not? I’m glad though that it’s easier (at least in terms of expectation if not always practically, financially or emotionally) for my daughter-in-law and granddaughters to be more than 'just' mother.
Just as I am ambivalent about my status as non (or not quite) mother – always feeling the loss, but grateful for, and happy with, the many opportunities and freedoms I have had and continue to have - I am aware that many women feel (at least some of the time) ambivalent about their maternal status and experience. So, my imaginations here make reference to the mixed emotions I would no doubt feel if things had been different.
This is not the first time I have written a ‘fictional’ what if. Not much ambivalence in this one:
A Wonderful Life
Conceived in love and born to celebration the child is a beauty, healthy too. Quick to smile and sleep through the night; record breaking in potty training, walking and talking. School days are happy. As popular as she is clever success is achieved across the board. University follows and ends with a piece of paper confirming what her parents already knew: Best in Class. She dates. Has one or two semi-serious relationships, all learning experiences, no broken hearts. Then she meets her soul mate and marries the same year as her promotion to partner in the practice (much earlier than anyone in the history of the firm). Three children follow and the growing family years are full of laughter and fun, of holidays in the sunshine and more certificates than the walls of her beautiful home can take. The children leave home, happy partnerships and good jobs secured. Alone with her partner (both in name and experience) their mother does not suffer from any empty nest symptoms. Applauded for her charity work, well known in the community and beyond; an accolade from the reigning monarch the crowning glory to a glittering career. Retirement is full, supported not only by well-earned pensions but also a not so small win on the lottery. Ten happy years follow until her husband dies in his sleep. She lives for almost another decade amply fulfilling the roles of doting grandmother and faithful friend. Content with her lot she dies gently, as her husband did. Her funeral is a celebration of a life well lived.
A familiar ache and tugging feeling disturbs my daydream and prompts me to go to the loo. My knickers are wet, there is blood. My dreams of my child’s wonderful life dashed for yet another month. (Published in: Parkinson-Hardman, L. (2014) Hysteria 3 (Hysteria Anthologies) London: The Hysteria Association AND Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, babies and other losses: a personal and academic story’, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2)).