Give back your heart to itself: on craving solitude as a mum

Selfie in Thamesmead. This is where I cycle to claim solitude. I light a cigar, read a little Whitman to myself and admire the Brutalist architecture

On Sunday morning I woke up long past 5:30am, alone, cocooned in silence and layers and layers of luxurious bedding. I was not I my own flat: I was staying at a friend’s house in the countryside. It occurred to me I would enjoy lying in bed with the sun on my face, so I slipped out of bed momentarily to pull the drapes open. I then lingered in bed indulgently for another hour or so: I used this solitude to doze and listen to my thoughts clatter and bumble around in my head. I daydreamed a little, noting down some things I seemed preoccupied about and I read myself Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘Love after love.’ I found my soul fancying something a little liturgical so I responded by putting my headphones in and played Judith Weirs, ‘Arise, Arise ye slumbering sleepers.’ There was time for a long bath after that, and an affectionate application of eyeliner. When I had finally gotten my fill of myself, I eclosed.
Anyone with a young child or children at home knows how rare and precious these encounters are.

My hunger for solitude has sharpened since becoming a mum. I crave time to connect to myself. This is a phrase I picked up in Esther Perel’s podcast, an intervention she makes as she talks to a couple with two young children. (I can’t get enough of Perel, psychotherapist- such an original voice. She is fuel for reverie.) I need time to turn up to my own life, time to know what I think and feel. This is different from other sorts of self care. It is not just time away from nuclear family and caretaking duties with friends, not just time reading or doing things I love, although these practices have buoyed me since the birth of our son. But time to myself, where I am able to think and fantasise and day dream and stare into space and dive deep, deep, deep into my soul. Time to digest the gorgeous conversations I’ve had with friends, time to mull over those books I made space to read. Alongside food for reverie, I need the practice of reverie itself. Sometimes this looks like a weekend away alone, visiting a friend in the countryside. And sometimes it means allowing myself to stare out the window or doze on the sofa when I have a few precious moments to myself instead of doing something productive like responding to an email or folding laundry.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, ‘ I hold this to be the highest task between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.’ I am proud of many things in my marriage, but maybe I take the most pride in how we protect one another’s solitude. My husband generously, warmly took R. for the whole weekend and I knew from experience that he would contain everything. He has it in hand. That I wouldn’t need to have my phone near me, that I was not on call. That I was free to relax entirely and he wouldn’t respond with self pity or sarcasm when I got home and told him about how much pleasure I took in the lie-in I had. I knew that he would say, I’m so glad. You deserve it. You need it. You do such a great job as a mum, I’m glad you had that time to yourself. I’m able to claim and enjoy so much solitude because he protects it for me. He doesn’t just allow me time to myself with a dutiful sigh and a tight lipped kiss goodbye. He welcomes it. He prioritises it. I do the same for him.

And this fuels our connection. The ability to connect and be present to one another is intimately related to the ability to connect and be present to ourselves. I personally need quite allot of solitude in order to access my inner world, in order to attune to myself.

Perhaps the biggest joy, the biggest surprise, is how much I enjoy my own company. Having spent the first 25 years of my life in exile from myself, I now feel a little in love. I revel in my own quality chat, keeping myself good company. I bask in my attention, admiring my toned, shapely legs in the bath. I am dazzled by my intellectual prowess: I enjoy the soaring and dipping and diving of my own mind: what a magnificent wingspan! What triumphant squeals and squawks as I circle around the canyon. It turns out the raison d’etre of my soul is not to make other people happy or keep the peace or miraculously heal the wounded or entertain the masses. My life is for me to enjoy too. This is important to remember in the context of childcare: if I do my job properly, there will be a slow parsing apart of our dyad, starting with birth and ending when he leaves home. There will be an empty nest. And as Esther Perel says in her talks and her books, we don’t really ever possess our partners. I don’t own my husband. There are no guarantees and I don’t know what the future holds, although I hope we have the pleasure of one another’s company for years to come. The only thing I really have is me. My own soul, my own life. And if that is the case, if that is what I really have all to myself, I want to attend to it.

I suddenly find that I am eager, not so much for validation of others these days- I have feasted on that through therapy and it has made me whole- but for self- validation. I want to ‘give back [my] heart to itself,’ as Walcott says. I want to recognise how gorgeous I am. How startling. How funny. How insightful. I want to ‘greet myself arriving at [my] own door, in [my] own mirror’ and ‘smile at the other’s welcome.’ Walcott’s poem is an orgy of self love, an ode to the ordinary pleasures of solitude. And I find myself reciting snatches of it to myself when I am alone, when I find myself enjoying my own company. This practice- of giving our heart back to ourselves- that we sometimes don’t allow ourselves as mothers. It can be a bit taboo. But the fruits of it are delicious. ‘Sit. Feast on your life,’ the last line of the poem invites us. Solitude gives us the space and time to gorge on our own existence, to process and symbolise and take- in the fortunes and sorrows and experiences which make up a life. My own life.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Esther Perel, podcast: ‘Where shall we begin’ and book, ‘Mating in Captivity’

Derek Walcott, Love after Love

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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