GROWING TO BE A MOTHER
I married to become a mother after my dreams of becoming a lawyer or journalist or ambassador dissipated. It was as if life were stubbornly opposing me. I grew so accustomed to bending under its weight that I no longer knew my true height or worth. Until only recently, I hardly knew who I was or where I was going. I was young, and restless, and I started to dream. I started to feel there might be something out there awaiting me. But a slap from my father after a small act of disobedience would send me back to my cage without resistance or hesitation.
I started to walk when I was very little, my mother always told me. As a continuous warning, my grandfather would tie a rope around my ankle and tie the other end to a black iron rod planted deeply in the ground. I still remember the rod’s shape and size. For some reason, the memory of this doesn’t bring me any fear. I don’t remember if it hurt me, and I don’t remember if I ever tried to untie the rope and escape. I don’t remember anything except what my mother told me—that my grandfather was forced to tie my ankle because the neighbors had to keep bringing me back home. My grandfather often said, “This girl is not a girl made for this life.”
This phrase has echoed throughout my life. Though we told this story many times, laughing about it, the rope stayed with me. Whatever I did, I remained tied to something that always held me back. I felt its effects for many years. At one point, the feeling almost overwhelmed me, my eyes filling with tears. I tried to suppress it. My grandfather is an idol that I will not tarnish.
I have many strange memories from childhood, memories of accomplishing things only adults should have to do. I was a little girl with a giant living inside me. I could no longer differentiate between my childhood and my maturity. It took a lifetime before I understood what had taken place.
Shortly after I divorced, in the midst of wars being waged against me, depression hit me forcefully. I wasn’t able to move in any one direction. I was like a camel stuck in place as knife-wielding men race towards it. I was that camel, taking blows from all directions to protect my four little children.
There was a moment when a social worker asked me to recall certain memories from my youth. “Did you experience a traumatic event in your childhood?” she asked. I told her my childhood was pleasant and very normal. I don’t know why the question seemed so dramatic and strange, and I don’t know why I suddenly felt as if something traumatic had happened to me, a rape or an assault. Perhaps those things happened behind other closed doors, but not in my house. I had always been proud of my family.
When the social worker insisted I plumb the depths of my childhood memories, I stopped at an event I had always considered heroic. I was not yet four years old when one morning my father dropped me off in front of the school gate and drove off to take my aunt to her school.
I was still in preschool then, and it was around this time that I first heard about the “rats chamber,” which is where the principal locked up mischievous children. One of my distant cousins, who was much older than me, used to tell me horror stories about that chamber during breaks. I actually enjoyed listening to these stories, but wanted to make sure I never became one of the principal’s victims.
On that day, my father dropped me off as usual. He left and I entered the gate, but I was the only one there.
After several failed attempts to walk to my father’s workplace, I finally made it. This became a heroic story the family told with pride for years and years. My mother would repeat the details with so much specificity I almost thought she had been there with me. I even memorized the story as my mother told it and used to enjoy hearing my great accomplishment relived in front of other family members. How could a four-year-old child travel from her school to her father’s office on her own? As I grew up, this memory helped me imagine myself as Supergirl.
The social worker forced me to return to that memory. “When you get home, I want you to write down what happened on that day,” she said.
“Don’t write it the way you’re used to talking about it. Find the four-year-old girl inside you and let her tell you what happened.”
I scoffed at this idea, and told myself that these specialists are too obsessed with tragedy. But I went back home, locked myself behind closed doors, took out my pen and paper, closed my eyes, and started to call to the young child inside me. Perhaps becoming a mother made this easier. There was a huge distance between me and the young child within me, but I called on her with a softness I was not used to treating myself with. For many years, I had spoken to myself with only cruelty. Calling on that little child was extremely difficult. My tears erupted as if a great misfortune had befallen me. I cried for hours. I was afraid of what was happening to me. Suddenly, that child stopped in front of me, and I could see her standing alone near the big cypress tree in the school garden. I let her tell me what she felt for the very first time in my life. I allowed her to cry. I allowed her to feel scared. I allowed her to tell the story in her own way, with her own emotions. I allowed the child in me to speak for the first time in my life.
A great comfort came over me later. When I sat down afterwards with my family to tell them what had happened, I said to my father, “On that day, I lost the most valuable thing one can lose.” My father almost jumped out of his chair, and my mother stared into my eyes, asking herself, Could there have been a detail she failed to tell me? However, I quickly calmed their anxiety and said with a laugh, “Don’t worry. I didn’t lose my virginity on that day. I lost my childhood.” Of course, my father felt relieved, and my mother assured me … by calling me mad.
I realized I lost my childhood that day and reached maturity. I was no longer a child. From that day on, I became the girl in charge, the one who could do everything. I carried this responsibility proudly, in the hopes of winning praise from my parents. The more mature we become as children, the more we free our parents from their own responsibilities.
What should I have done on that day as a child? Why didn’t I ask for help in the nearby shop? The clerk must have seen me pass by the roundabout many times. How did everyone disappear that day? Was I walking with such confidence that not a single person thought to stop and offer assistance? I could have cried and asked for help. I could have waited for my father until noon, when he planned to pick me up. I was truly scared—this is what I told myself when I was able to look back at that moment. Instead, I went on living, pretending to be unafraid, trying to conquer that moment any time I felt it resurfacing.
Afterwards, I understood what the social worker was trying to do—help me to understand why I behave the way I do. Why do I always have to make sure everything is under control? Why do I accept everything and try to carry on? Why do I always try to save the situation? Why was I the way I was with my husband?
My feelings towards my father often made me wonder. His presence in my life was like a flowing spring. No stone or rock could stop his love from flooding over me.
He was a stranger to his feelings, and he still is. He doesn’t know how to express his emotions, but he is so full of love that it flows from him, and you can almost wash yourself in it and drink from it until it satisfies your thirst. He was far away from my heart when I was young, but he became part of my heart and life when I grew up, especially when I got divorced.
He fears to express what is happening inside him. Yet he has entered into an unusual state of reconciliation with himself, and this makes him powerful. He doesn’t pretend and doesn’t attempt to change. He has his own set of beliefs, and he never imposes his ideas on others. My father is like the ancient palm tree with deep roots, proudly upright, carrying its dates every season, not caring about the wind or a burning sun. He is a real believer, in a way that is striking to me now, as compared to what I knew of him when I was young.
Inside my father is the man I wish to find—a man with a heart like his, with a pure love like his love.