Essays

Lullaby

On motherhood and the pain of holding

Chloe Garcia Roberts
Lighthouse stairs
J. Chapiewski / Creative Commons

In Aeneas’s story you were nothing more than an interlude. A place of refuge as he flew from the ruins of Troy to the future of Rome. For a shining moment he alighted in your lands. And then, when you finally came to understand the migratory instinct can never be overcome, not even with love, your chapter ends. The story goes that when he left you, you left yourself. That it was by your own hand that you were whittled from a queen into a ghost. That when he turned his face to the sea, you fell beneath the horizon and were consumed—by your terror of the ever-unrolling unknown, your grief at the wayward stirrings of your own.

You are described as doing nothing but succumbing, infinitely. And yet you’ve always been the hero of the story to me. It’s your latency that made me love you. It’s your latency that made me recognize you, how we hold our selves roiling under the skin and never ever release them. But every love story is also a story of corrosion, an inevitable unmaking of the ones we would mythologize. There is a part of me that has always longed to see that latency broken, your power set free to achieve itself as easily and decisively as a river carves her own banks.

Now when I reread it, your story as it’s told no longer satisfies. A woman is not a place, and there is no amount of telling that can make her be. I want a story of that night Aeneas tried to flee that has you standing on the shore watching his ships burn like a line of lanterns hung between the water and the sky, an arc of sparks exhaled from your heat, a row of bared teeth. You were always greater than his loss. And he was never the villain. That role belongs to his protectors, your possessors, the gods whose fingers closed around you. In this story, my Dido, we would make them open their hands.

My son was born at sunset. And on that first night of motherhood, I had a nightmare my own mother brought him to me, swaddled, his face shrouded. Something was terribly wrong. She approached me silently, visibly trying to compose herself, but I could sense the tragedy that would arrive as soon as she opened her mouth. I awoke into that silence, and my first thought as I swam through the fear to consciousness was: and so it begins.

The instinct to enclose is our response to both love and fear. To hold is to protect, to harbor, to shield for a time. To hold is also to possess, to keep, the active state of having. Harbor, hold, keep: they are all nouns as well as verbs. They are protection and the places that afford us that protection. This despite the fact that all our enclosures ruin, all our holds loose.

Fear is intended to be a biological protection, a physical warning, like a light on shore that causes you to swerve and so survive. But given that the line of the future always arcs on the far side of sight, what that fear warns of is often impossible to divine. Part of the definition of to parent is to fear, whether you quarantine that fear or communicate it. Part of the meaning of to love is a willful and futile refutation of your powerlessness. And because powerlessness begets fear, a body in love inevitably becomes overrun with that most useless of emotions, dread—the fear of what is here overlaid by the fear of what is coming.

I am terrified that in the end all I can say I have done for you is hold you, with all the impermanence that implies.

My mother has always told me that to mother means to collect small deaths. The little ones you knew become dead to you and then are replaced anew by people increasingly ignorant of the intimacy they were always fated to sail away from. She asserts that to mother means a slow wearing away of your hold. Do I feel that way now that I have children of my own? Perhaps—it is still too soon to say. They are my everydays. I carry them, I comfort them, I rearrange their splayed limbs in sleep, I kiss their cool eyelids, smooth the whirls of hair at their necks, towel their tiny shoulders after baths, and, even in a hurry, still swing them both high up into the car. My life right now is an ever-repeating chorus, a blood song to my young.

Every love story is also a story of corrosion, an inevitable unmaking of the ones we would mythologize.

I won't lie, there is a part of me that would like to burn their ships, keep them forever in my lands. I have been lulled into thinking that I am a place where childhood happens, that I am a country that could hold them forever. O, flesh of my flesh, sometimes when I turn to you, I feel as plural as a field. As if my every beating cell is quenched by the star of your face, slaked with love. Other times I wonder if it’s possible that this impenetrable love is just another force that holds us to this place, another type of gravity we all must surmount to escape?

The first lullaby ever sung is the shushing of blood rushing along the walls of the uterus like weather wearing against an enclosure. The shushing sound crooned to babies after they are born approximates the rushing that surrounded the consciousness in sound, describing it for the first time. This first lullaby is the origin of the lie that each of us believes—that we are an eye in the storm, a quiet removed from the unceasing current of change, victims destined to be left upon the shore. The best lies are the ones so simple that we decline to examine them. Because of course we know that beneath baby’s skin is just more of the same, a baby being but an eddy in this endless roar.

A few years ago, when my son was six years old, he asked to climb to the top of a lighthouse to see the sea, and I volunteered to accompany him. When we entered the cool dimness of the keep, I looked up and saw that the stairs that threaded the interior walls like the turns of a shell or a screw were wrought iron mesh, perforated with thousands of holes. Through each veil-like step you could just perceive what was above and, once we began to ascend, what was below. I made it up only one flight before, out of nowhere, an unknown sensation broke over me, wresting away my control. I lost the ability to move, and over the roaring in my ears I could barely stammer out the thought that, were I to continue, were I to try and pretend this fear wasn’t filling me, I would be unable to keep my son safe on our ascent. I would no longer be of any use.

Vertigo is the sensation of whirling in place, the sensation that everything but the anchors of your ankles is a great wave drawing back the sheen of the world, calling all its surfaces careening backward. It is the psychological illusion that the person herself is that point around which the whirling happens—like she is an eye, like she is the only quiet, the only lull.

I lost one along the way, between the two I was able to keep. I miscarried it; I held it wrong and so unheld it. That little wingbeat, that tiny knot, that slightest tug on the line that unfolded under my touch and withdrew, that one I never knew, not really. But my cells did. Looking down at them from the ramparts of my skull, I was shocked by the uselessness of my platitudes against the sheer force of their collective mourning. How they refused to listen to me, how they howled as they rushed the shore, how they burned to mark its procession as it passed down my river and away. Of all my children, that’s the one who showed me most clearly the fallacy of my reign.

From this desertion I learned:

If to dream is a form of sifting, a shaking apart of molecules, a dissolution of mysterious happenings into relived grains; if to die is a form of dispersal, a teeming face that unglitters, uncommunes, unloves; if to bloom is a form of bravery, a furious opening against, despite; then to mother must be a form of molting, a realization through loss of what was always held.

Allegory is defined as extended metaphor. But all metaphor extends. Each articulation is just a point on the bloom of lines rumbling radially through time, like a map we all must consult when we take up any image and draw its insides out. Better said, allegory is metaphor made multidimensional. If metaphor is the window in the word, a passage by which any oppressive singularity can be escaped, then allegory is the city created by the collective light of all those windows out-shining, like a harbor in the night, like Carthage from the sea.

There is a third way to interpret Dido’s story that is something besides the cautionary tale of a woman’s rage, or the tragic refrain of all human separation: the pyre she built that night was not a beacon of defeat but a hold of flame, a keep through which she flew. And with that act the two enthralled, the protected and the possessed, were released. Godspeed.

In other words: once when I was on a highway crossing the country, I found myself behind a semitruck moving a load of hives. There was a loose black net slung like a veil over the lashed boxes within, filling the net so it undulated in waves, swelling the contours of the cloth, passing under and through like expressions move across the surface of a face, like a hiving soul, were the bees. So are we.

The term used is “migration of souls,” but migration of a soul is also correct, as the soul itself is plural. And conversely a migration, which always refers to a mass, is a singular created by a simultaneous and multitudinous rushing into flight.

A saint once described our lives as resembling a bird escaping the storm of the night by flying through a hall, in and then out again. A bird threading the eye of the window on the near wall, the eye of the window on the far wall, in one shining stitch. It’s difficult for me not to identify with the hall in this metaphor. That edifice of fixed stone, the hearth that holds the traveler in warmth, the roof that covers your stirrings, the walls that keep you within. It’s difficult not to read you as the bird. What delusion. These hands are not walls; they are just more wings. I do not hold you. I am beside you, plying the perilous wind, equally vulnerable to its whims.

To mother must be a form of molting, a realization through loss of what was always held.

I wake today at dawn to a chorus of birds. I wake because their songs have seeped inside my dreams and focused the spill of my meandering mind into lidded listening as each bird’s call, the description of their selves, blends and bounces, echoes off the newly unfurled leaves, articulating the wavering surface of the boughs in song, singeing an exact double of that singing shape into the dark canopy of my skull.

Perhaps it is not quite right to label the birds’ sound as song. They aren’t putting speech to music; they are descrying through music. The verb to descry is the etymological source of the word to describe, it means “to catch sight of,” “to perceive,” “to announce as a messenger,” and “to reveal.” But wade a little further into the entry and you’ll find that when descry is used as a noun it is “a battle cry.” Thus the birds’ crepuscular relation to the world they inhabit—this place where any one of us at any moment might be called to fly—is no less brave for being the only possible thing they can do.

O my loves, the veil inevitably will fray. And in the meantime, in order to mother you, I shade into the chorus, which is to say: I am with you in this hold, beneath the darkened rafters of this keep, and I am furiously describing for you everything that I see.

Chloe Garcia Roberts is the author of a book of poetry, The Reveal, and the translator of several books from the Spanish and Chinese. She is deputy editor at Harvard Review and lives outside Boston.
Originally published:
July 12, 2021

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