She was old and pale. She stared back at me with a coarse attitude, always judging. She had a knack for appearing out of the darkness when you least expected. Whenever I was in doubt, she was instantly there as if to confirm my worst thoughts. I don’t know why she chose me and I wished she would leave. I fear however, she is here to stay for the indefinite future.
The first time she showed up in my life it was shortly after I had gotten married. He was it, my first love. It was electric. The intensity and desire between us was undeniable. We fought passionately, we loved passionately. That first year of our marriage was filled with extremes. Intense emotions lay hidden just above the surface ready to overflow at the slightest trigger. The outpour was either of anger and frustration or of affection for each other. To the outsider we were referred to as that ‘melodramatic’ couple but only the two of us really knew it was our personalities that were crashing against each other like waves on the beach on a stormy night. He could not stand it when I would become silent and distant, exuding an icy cold exterior, isolating myself from him. I couldn’t stand it when he would erupt like a volcano, no care for where he was or how damaging he became to himself or others around him. But the irony lay in the reasons for these battles which originated from a place of love. It came down to not being able to spend more time with each other. In this regard I was the culprit. Since he met me he had observed a pattern of behaviour when it came to my career. I worked hard and I worked long and with each passing day it seemed to him that my devotion to work always came first. In my naiveté I told him it would get better after we got married because well naturally I had to learn to balance my personal and professional life right? Boy was I wrong. It in fact got worse, and in his eyes it seemed he was going to be secondary and that did not fit his understanding on what love and companionship was about. Each day that I came home late (which was every day) I was failing him as a wife. It took us a year to learn to control the emotions better, to adjust to each other and even change certain habits. I have to say he met me 80% of the way and me the remaining 20%. Until we reached that point however it was the most stressful period in my existence thus far. I was utterly confused with the expectations that came out of the marriage especially as they seemed to clash with my identity of being self-sufficient and independent. I had always prided myself in giving my all when I committed to something as I was doing with my work. I thought I was doing the same in my marriage, but apparently not. So to feel that kind of disappointment directed at me was devastating. It took an emotional toll. I tried hard for no one to see it. And so it manifested in her. She appeared every time I looked at myself in the mirror; a reminder of my failure.
“Why are you here?” I would ask her often but already knowing the answer she refused to reply, just continued to stare at me, a ghost in the darkness. I eventually learned to live with her by trying not to catch my reflection on anything. If I looked in the mirror, I would not focus on anything specific, just a blur staring back. In time she became a part of my life and I would catch a glimpse of her now and then. Life moved on and a happy marriage soon led to a happy pregnancy and a life altering experience of giving birth. My need for control over everything including my body demanded that I not be pumped with any kind of drugs. I wanted to experience this birth naturally regardless of pain. The nurses kept badgering me to take the epidural which fueled my stubbornness as I refused each time. Every searing cramp had me clutching the side of the hospital bed for dear life but the moment I felt I could not take it anymore that pain was followed by sweet relief. Enduring this made me feel stronger and I was connected with the awesome reality of Mother Nature in a way that only the experience of giving life could provide. The only time I looked to the mercy of the nurses to comfort me with painkillers was when I felt the indescribable and overwhelming sensation of the baby move through me. I had never experienced anything like it before, it was unknown and I was afraid. I thought I was going to die. That saying that you are closest to death at the time of giving birth became so very true. I did not know what was happening to me. It was of course too late to administer anything. Before I knew it however, I was pushing. After three incorrect pushes and three correct ones, my little angel was born. Just like that. While she was taken away for the standard APGAR test, the worst part of labour ensued. The episiotomy stitch: to sew up the part of you down there which the doctor had cut to prevent natural tearing resultant of the pushing. Despite the local anesthesia I could feel EVERYTHING. With every prick and prod my body reacted, making it difficult for the doctor to concentrate on the stitch. She threatened if I did not stop thrashing she would end up giving me a lopsided stitch. I couldn’t have that. As rude as it was, this is when I realized that doctors only insist on the epidural not to ease your pain so much as to make their job easier for them. A patient who is properly numb from the hip down is a much more calm and relaxed patient, ideal for the doctor. Anyhow, it was probably because my body had already gone through such trauma it was hyper sensitive to any touch at that point. In the end they had to give me the ‘happy gas’ which immediately slumped my body into relaxation and took me far, far away to a deep sleep. When I awoke a few minutes later (not much of a nap) all was forgotten as my baby was handed to me for her first feed. It was a miraculous moment as she latched on with quite a bit of vigor. Such aggression! She was definitely my child. They took her away again as it was time to wheel me back to my room. As I was helped onto the wheel chair from the bed, my body felt like it had gone through a war and then some. In a flash it all came back and I think I had a moment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It was so overwhelming that my body reacted and I cried. Tears after tears flooded out as my chest heaved uncontrollably. It was just the release I needed because after that a calm took hold.
A few weeks into being home, as I was splashing some water onto my tired, sleep deprived face, she stepped out of the shadows with a friend this time. I was startled and jumped back. Was I seeing double? My eyes were already blurry from the exhaustion; it could be I was hallucinating. But there they were both aged and pale, looking like sisters. Again, I wanted to ask “why did you bring her? I haven’t done anything wrong this time.” But in that instant I knew that this one was not here to judge me, this one was different. She had empathy in her. She was here to acknowledge my trials and triumphs and be my strength as I endured the challenges of this new stage in life. I was more accepting of her and with that understanding she too slipped into the shadows, only to emerge now and then for support.
Time seemed to accelerate as another life changing event was brought upon us. A migration across the Atlantic Ocean, to a land I used to call home many years earlier. It was a place I was familiar with but I had returned to it in an unfamiliar role. Succumbing to my inner traditionalist and choosing to take care of my very own family on a full time basis. This meant caring for my now toddler around the clock whilst minding a home, no easy task indeed. I learned to appreciate what I didn’t think much of before. I learned to respect what I didn’t hold in much esteem before. I finally understood why this role was taken for granted as the only real proof of its labour lay in my un-manicured nails and the toll it took on my once youthful hands. Mental and physical exhaustion from taking care of an energetic, clingy child is one that cannot compare to any kind of fatigue caused by overstimulation of the intellect. I know, I have been burnt out by work before and it definitely is a different kind of tired. The tired I experience now is daily, all- consuming and never-ending but the rewards from it are worth far more than a paycheck. Do I say this to make me feel better about my decision, especially on days when I feel my mind has turned to mush? Maybe, but do I regret foregoing a career to put all my attention in my daughter and family? Not once. I am learning that you cannot have it all without having to compromise on something or someone, so best to choose a life that you can at least live with, free of guilt.
And so today after putting my daughter back to sleep after a 4 am bout of tantrum, I escaped to the bathroom for a moment to recollect myself. These are trying days as my toddler tries to grasp sense of her new world with new discoveries, desperately needing to control things just out of her reach. It occurs to me we both are in the same boat, trying our best to figure out life and make sense of it. I look in the mirror and decide it’s time to really look at myself. Examine this face, this person I am now, not the memory of once before. I see the bags under my eyes, framed by fine creases. The reflection in my pupils showing me the years I have lived and the many more to go, the wisdom I have gained and so much more to learn. Then, as if on cue, the ghosts of my past surface from the dark; Judgement, Empathy and almost expectantly they bring along a third companion, Hope. She too stares back at me, upright and in my face as if daring me to defy what she stands for. I take a step back. I realize each appeared at a crucial stage of my life. Each symbolized what I needed to understand about who I am and who I was going to be. As I enter a new juncture in life, one not meant for despair, but for finding courage and strength within. To use it to become the pillar of support for my family as it grows, nurturing them to their fullest potential, sending them out to a world of endless possibilities. A time for me to become the woman I have always aspired to be; a woman of faith, strength, confidence and compassion. For only then can I be the wife I want to be, the mother I want to be, a better daughter and sister in the process. After all isn’t that what life is all about, self-improvement to find personal happiness and of those around you?
I bring my face closer to my reflection, gathering courage and proclaim, “Sisters of the shadows, I no longer look at you with fear and apprehension. Your aged, pale, abrasive appearance is NOT reflective of who I am, but a reminder of life’s milestones and things to come. I am no longer afraid of you.” With that I brush my fingers through the dark waves that frame my face and let the three stark white hairs disappear for a moment into the shade.