Breaking the cycle

I want both my work and my kids to matter to me, but it’s so hard to balance. And hard to describe. And yes I know “it’s hard” is such a bland sentence. How about, “I feel like I’m dying, trying to do it all without fucking things up.” Maybe I should tell myself some saccharine line I don’t really feel. “It’s not your job to hold the world together. Everything will be ok. Just relax your grip. Don’t hold on so tight.”

Oh yeah. Why do I hold on so tight?

Twelve years ago I stood in the courthouse, my hair in tight waves, black crinoline puffing out a 50s style black cap sleeved dress, grinning stupidly at the man I was about to marry. Matt stood next to me with long, naturally curly hair, grinning just as foolishly, vowing that he’d love me forever. And then ten years later, we stood in the same courthouse for our divorce. It was official. I was on my own, and he relinquished full custody of the kids.

My parents stopped talking to me because they did not support my divorce. Our bond was already tenuous, and Matt leaving just confirmed for me how deeply broken my relationship with my parents could be. Stuck in their fundamentalist ways, if they could not even stomach my separation, there wasn’t a chance in hell they would accept me for being openly bisexual.

This is my October. My birthday is three days before my ex-wedding anniversary and both serve as stark reminders of my loneliness. No matter how genuine my new community is, you cannot replace your children’s father, you cannot replace your own mother.

I am retreating, folding in on myself. I quit signing up for craft fairs. I took a social media break. I’m painting a series of “invisible self” portraits with no idea about how to market them. Each day I keep painting, keep shedding paintings, my feelings expressed in abstract colors, my heart beating with each brushstroke, each portrait like a brilliant autumn leaf.

When I paint I don’t feel crushed. When I paint I start to unfold. When I paint the pain is bearable.

I want to make a deal with the universe: I will be terrible at everything else if only I can be a good mom. Can I please choose my kids the way no one ever chose me?

I’ve been struggling with words, trying to capture my feelings in an honest way. I want to show my growth, to be honest about my darkest moments, my moments of pain and despair, so I can reach other people who feel trapped like me. I want to tell you about how I feel like I’m disappointing my kids and how writing about it helps me recognize it’s all in my head. I want to tell you about Clementine screaming for hours, clawing at my chest and kicking my belly because her father is no longer here. I want to tell you how I, too, want to scream.

But that’s not the only thing I have to share. 

My editor took a look at my rough draft and deleted all my admissions of failure and hardship. When I emailed him back to ask why he removed them, saying I was worried what remained was too idealistic, he asked me if I’d heard of Byron Katie. I listened to the podcast he sent. And ruminated on her message. And ever since then I’ve been allowing her words to permeate my story… not just the story of this one blog post, but the story of my life.

What do I tell myself about who I am? Am I broken? Am I abandoned? Am I a failure? What would I be if I set that narrative aside, if I walked out of it like an old house and never looked back?

I take the girls to an apartment in the city where we can walk anywhere we might want to go: the grocery store, the art store, coffee shops, even a park. Phoebe runs through the rooms opening all the built-in drawers. Clementine hides in the closet when it’s time to go. She wants to know why we can’t sell our house and move in right away. As we walk to the car, she runs over brilliant red and orange leaves stuck to the sidewalk, her arms outstretched as if she is flying.

My life feels like a work of art.

As I drive through tunnels of trees shedding leaves into the streets, I imagine how this final fury of color will end in the trees holing up for winter, folding in on themselves for a bit of privacy as they nurse their own grief. That’s how the trees will survive. And, before we know it, each sapling will be one rung thicker, budding new life for another go at summer. 

The next morning, Clementine lets the cat into my studio room and wanders over to look at the large abstract piece I left out to dry. I pull over a chair for her to stand on and show her how to create the splatters that look like starlight against a colorful night sky. Overeager, she squeezes a vile of white ink out all in one place, then I add a few flourishes to balance it out in areas she couldn’t reach.

It doesn’t look the way I thought it would, but it is complete.


If you like the words that I write or the art that I paint and you want me to create more (or if you just want to wish me a Happy Birthday) please support me on Patreon. Thank you.

3 Responses to Breaking the cycle

  1. Mehtap November 5, 2019 at 8:43 pm #

    We love you Erin. We love Phoebe. We love you Clementine.

    Mehtap & Asya & Ferida

  2. Katie November 5, 2019 at 10:08 pm #

    I wish we lived closer but I’m thankful I can read your words amd hear about your life with your girls.

  3. Savanna O November 5, 2019 at 11:35 pm #

    As someone whose biological father gave my mom full custody, someone who’s always felt abandoned and scared, someone for whom it took almost 10 years to realize my mom is my real hero, I think your girls will grow to be okay. My mom had times just like the ones you wrote about, me screaming at her like it was her fault. As an adult and a mom, I hope I’m at least an OUNCE as strong as she always was. And I know your girls will grow to be as strong as you are, Erin. My heart aches for you but also my eyes are lifted with high hopes for you. Happy birthday, sweet lady. ❤️

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