I set out to write a very different book, when I started the manuscript that became Deeper than the Sea.
Then, I had a baby.
The life-splitting shock and heart-shattering exhaustion of those days with a new baby who doesn’t sleep is not something I think I want to repeat, ever. But, I love the shit out of my son, and four years on, being his mother has changed me in ways I couldn’t have fathomed. It’s probably unsurprising that it has also changed what I would and could write.
There were parts of DTTS that were especially difficult to write, and they were the ones in the shifting, murky landscape of maternal love. It’s always been a sensitive topic. Is there anything more sacred and revered in popular culture than the love a mother has for her child?
In DTTS, I write about two very different sorts of mothers. One biological mother who doesn’t have the will or desire to take on the traditional mothering role, and one non-biological mother who has it foisted upon her, and rises to the challenge.
I didn’t want to pass judgement on these women – they made their choices. I do have doubts about how I walked that line, but what I wanted to do was explore what makes a mother, and how we could stand to be a bit more generous in our definition of the role.
My own history has a bearing on how I feel about these things, and it’s coloured my view of certain behaviours. My father left the country and left our family when I was an infant. He didn’t pay child support, and I didn’t see him for a very long time. That is between us. We have a good relationship now, and it’s one that I value.
But, he left, as many men leave, because many men can. Freed from the biological imperative to grow a child in their body, birth and then potentially nourish a child from their body, men can leave. I don’t think that’s okay. I do think they have a responsibility to their progeny. But I also wonder why it is that a mother’s responsibility is deemed greater.
What if women, once their child is born, find themselves unsuited to the role of mother? What if they believe they have another calling that, if not higher, is essential to them, like making art? What if they just don’t like being mothers? What if there are others in their community who do, and will take their place in the job?
When I wrote DTTS, I was struggling to recalibrate who I was with the task of mothering added into my already scattergun identity matrix. It didn’t come easily to me. I’m too anxious, too distracted and too intense to be a mother who wears the mantle loosely. I wanted to be a Very Good Mother. But that meant different things on different days.
I don’t always enjoy being a mother. There are many things I hold dear that are incompatible with mothering, like silence and showering alone and doing anything alone, ever. Sometimes I feel bad about that. But, what I always come back to is the simple and perfect fact of my love for my son. In whichever ways I mess things up, that will endure and I have faith that he’ll feel it and know he is loved, always.
In my book, things are a little more complicated than this. But also, they are not. Love is love. And, a mother is something amorphous and beautiful and broader than the fact of biology or the unremitting zest for the task. A mother can be both. A mother should be able to be neither.