By Katherine Sargent for Motherwell
At least one of my daughters sleeps in my bed every night. Publicly, I complain about this. “When will it end!?” I ask and I site articles that I’ve read about kicking the habit. But the truth is that I want them there. Only one at a time, though. I like to hear their soft breathing while I read, to feel the warmth from their bodies and to smell their strawberry shampoo hair. I like to look at their faces, glowing from the closet light, and know that they feel loved and cared for. They trust me; they trust that I’ll protect them, and that I will not hurt them. Late at night, I like knowing I have someone in my life who feels safe enough to lie next to me and sleep and snore.
Sometimes I wonder what I would do if a man were to enter the picture and take over the left side of my bed. How would I remove my daughters from my room? What would that process be? But the thought seems foolish. To find love like that, love strong enough to share a bed and a life, is so much work. When I allow myself to fantasize about becoming that familiar with somebody again, I remember how I used to fall asleep, so comfortable and trusting next to my ex-husband. Trusting and peaceful enough to sleep and snore and adjust my underwear and dot my face with pimple cream and pull on my ancient cashmere socks only to kick them off under the covers where they’d nestle like rats.
I used to be so dependent on this person sleeping beside me, so reassured, that I couldn’t sleep without him there. Nighttime has always been vulnerable for me. I don’t like the dark. I don’t like receding too deeply into myself. When he left, I avoided my bed until I was so dead tired that I could barely keep my eyes open. And even then, exhausted, the emptiness of our bed pulled tears from me. I trusted that my husband would be with me forever, that I wouldn’t be alone. I trusted that he’d keep a roof over our family’s head, that he was building us a retirement and would keep me insured. I trusted that he’d share a bed with only me. How could I ever trust like that again?
The self-doubting side of me says that I will remain single. It was hard enough to find a partner the first time, and then I was young, had endless free time, breasts that rose above the equator of my rib cage and a stomach untarnished by the scars of motherhood. I was confident and naive enough to think that love could only bring good things into my life and that I was deserving of it.
But then there is another part of me, it’s hard to locate, but in this place there lives a sliver of hope. This part of me downloaded a dating app and the rest of me has been questioning it ever since. I’m constantly on Tinder. If a written conversation progresses enough for a man to ask me on a date, I am, each time, utterly surprised. How could a mother and a desired woman ever be the same thing? My daughter next to me, rolling in her sleep, her tiny hand wedged under her chin, collecting drool, softly farting under the covers. I’m there in bed with her, where I always scroll and swipe through real men that seem like nothing more than paint swatches—men that don’t come with any consequences. I’m wearing the same t-shirt on which my youngest wiped a perfect handprint of salad oil. The knees of my pants are worn and wet from kneeling over the tub, wrestling with knotted, soapy heads. A date seems impossible. Love seems impossible.
Since divorcing, I’ve worked myself up enough courage to go on a few dates. None of the men were fathers and none of the attempts led to a follow up. These statements are not correlated, just facts. For my first date after the divorce, I met with a man who claimed to have a job. It was a nice night, the evening of an art walk in our city. We decided to meet and explore the night’s activities. He was taken aback by my nervousness and made fun of my shy laughter. We walked down the street, me shoving my hands in my pockets for lack of knowing what else to do, grateful that he couldn’t see my face. Everything about it felt wrong.
On the other dates, I became distracted by the logistics of things going well. If I wanted to, when could I possibly see this person again? Would he lose interest before then? Be ready to move onto the next woman on the list? How many hours of babysitting can I accumulate and how does this relate to the growth rate of a relationship? And of course there’s the issue of intimacy. I can’t have a man in the house with the girls until things are serious. How long would this take to get serious? Is it even worth it? Do I even like him? I don’t know him! I want to go home.
And then there are strange moments of kindness from my ex-husband that make my mind drift. The smallest gesture. A gift card on my birthday or a logistical phone call that ends with a suggestion, “I’ve been watching this show that you’d love.” I listen and think, “Yes, that’s me. Of course you would know that that’s me.” And, for one deranged moment, the allure of familiarity and shared responsibilities lulls me into thinking how easy it would be to forgive, rebuild… share a mortgage. But then I remember what he did, and I think how desperate I must be for the whole, complete feeling of man, woman, children.
Here are things I do that make me happy—eat bowls of mussels with my daughter, drink just a little bit too much with my girlfriends and giggle about nothing, buy used books on Amazon and stay up late reading, indulge my sweet tooth whenever I feel like it, snuggle with my youngest when we should be getting ready, explore new museums while my daughters search through the galleries for naked portraits, paint my nails, pet baby animals as often as possible, take long drives to small adventures. I’m happy. My children are happy. We’re good at being a family.
So, for now, I lie here, a 4-year-old’s dirty feet swinging like pendulums, which I’m sure are leaving grey, grainy rainbows on my crumpled sheets. Tangled hair. Polyester nightgown. I’m 32 and my neck is particular. We need to consider that. I turn her head to fit mine in comfortably and she grunts a complaint, but that’s life. One day my girls will be too old and too far from me to rest my forehead between their tiny shoulder blades and breath them in. Warm skin. Mine. I don’t need a better love to comfort me at night. I don’t need anything. I can do it. But still, the hope keeps asking to be fed.
Katherine Sargent is a teacher and writer living in Portland, Maine. She is also a single mother to two beautiful adventure buddies.
For more great Motherwell essays: