by Brie Doyle
In every basement, in every house I ever lived as a child, there is a stack of canvases sitting on the floor against the wall in storage. On them are naked female bodies, mostly in neutral colors—curves of hips, soft doughy buttocks, slender legs, hair pinned in low chignons, and glimpses of breasts; not fully exposed, but alluded to. These paintings are my mom’s. They are the unfinished business of a woman before she has children, the quiet dreams that never calcify, the free and playful hours taken for granted. One day, they say, as they sit there collecting dust.
Every mother has her version of these. For me, it’s travel journals that detail each spicy meal eaten in India, every local encounter on tempo rides in Nepal, indecipherable paper clippings from shinkansen rides in Japan. And more. Mine hide under my office chair collecting not only dust, but entire bunnies because no one is flipping through my ghosts of girlhood past. I’m not entirely sure why I hide them. Maybe I don’t want my youngish kids to find them and uncover less-than-pristine stories and thoughts their mother had. It might make me too human while I am still trying to play the role of responsible mother. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, though I can’t think of when I’d ever read them again. One day, I keep telling myself. I save them anyway.
One of the pictures in my mother’s stack I thrummed through as a child is a picture of a baby with bright blue eyes and a small, upturned nose. She will be blonde—the picture shows white fuzz atop her head. But she barely has hair yet. She’s looking over the shoulder of the dark, wavy-haired man carrying her in the painting. Family legend has it that it’s me, my mother’s first child and only daughter. But she painted it in her early twenties, before I was even a thought. I have my father’s nose and big cheeks, which she painted perfectly, though she didn’t know him yet either. My dad also has wavy, black hair. Looking at this picture as a kid makes me feel like there is magic in the world, and that it comes through my mother.
I’ve always loved that painting, but the story even more so. It has concretized one of my core beliefs that a woman’s creative talent roots her directly to her own divinity and reminds us all of our own. And that one of the ways to find our way back when we’ve lost ourselves is through creative expression. The picture never made it to a wall and my mom rarely tells the story anymore. Beyond magic, it made me know my mother had been waiting for me, like she knew I was coming. You are wanted, the artifact said to my childhood heart. The only thing every child wants to know.
“I didn’t want children,” my mom says to me as I drive her up to Vail for her surgery. “You weren’t planned.”
I am 42 years old when she first says it, a raw truth exposed. Though it doesn’t hurt to hear her say it. My childhood belief served me when I needed it. And I understand her womanhood regrets and yearnings now more than ever since becoming a mom myself.
“Oh,” I say, not sure where this is going. “That must have been hard.” I offer this in an attempt to add comfort to the small shared car space that suddenly feels like a confessional.
My mother stayed home with me and my two younger brothers while my father worked. She had small jobs here and there, but her energy was spent in the home, despite other visions she held for herself that I’ll never fully know. I heard murmurings that she wanted to go back to school while peeking my head through the banister, eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. But school was expensive, and we were all consuming. Her aspirations, like her paintings, would have to wait.
Arguments about money regularly permeated the walls of our house, a dark lurking stranger. It was my parents’ most frequent cause for disagreement. Not because we didn’t have it, entirely. More so that the fear of not having it seethed at the core of both my parents from their own youth. They couldn’t seem to shake it. Every decision was made in the context of: “How much is this gonna put us back?”
It’s a question that lives in my being now, too. No matter how secure I am, it’s the first natural inquiry that bubbles forth. “Do we really need this?”
As most children do, I saw my mom one-dimensionally. What I felt about her being home with us was that she chose us. We had home-cooked meals, someone to pick us up after school, someone to host all of our friends, and take us to every practice. She may not have wanted kids initially, but I think the act of having us changed her mind along the way.
I also see now how we tethered her. She’d never say this. No mother would. But at times, I feel it in my own life too. You don’t blame your kids for these forgotten liberties—how open you once were, how driven, and free. I chose to be a mother and my kids didn’t ask to be born. Yet, I am very much a different woman than I was just 14 years ago. So different than I imagined when I was 25, or 29, or 30.
“You should go on more trips alone, Mom,” my daughter tells me as we’re driving home from camping, just the two of us. She’d asked me what it was like to study abroad in college, which triggered a cascade of self-indulgent stories; likely more than she wanted to hear.
I share what it felt like to be trekking the Himalayas when the September 11th strike happened. How scared we all were, and how the news in the Nepali hillside reported, “all of New York City was under attack.” I tell her how we all sat crouched around a tiny, battery-operated radio in a small wooden shack after finishing our dhal bhat, hanging on our teacher’s every last translation. How my study abroad program sent their fastest sherpa back down to Kathmandu to get more information and to make sure our families were safe.
My daughter listens eagerly, and I know she needs these stories as much as I do. Imagining herself in my largely lived life shows her she can have one, too. I feel it’s a gift I can give her, the stories of my past. As my late friend Linda Bear once told me: “It’s as important for children to see their parents happy as it is for parents to see their kids happy.”
Hearing accounts of her adventurous mom with a shaved head in hiking boots, carrying trekking poles and a backpack with only a few clothes, loads of books, and a bag of local weed with some matches, proves that her own flavor of adventure awaits in the not-too-distant future. It’s such a contrast to the image she sees regularly now—frumpy mismatched sweatpants, dirty hair in a ponytail, and sleep hanging on my face as we drive home from the campsite.
At every stage of my life, I yearned for my mom to get back to her painting. I’d tell her regularly, “You should, Mom. You’re so good at it.” I’d buy her brushes in all the wrong sizes and styles for Christmases, birthdays, and Mother’s Day, hoping I’d spark something.
She’d nod, smile, and speak about her many duties. “One day…” she’d mutter.
I realize now that my desire for her to express again was a selfish one. I needed to see her in touch with her own source, as I was developing the confidence in my own creativity. It is a gift we give each other, our divine creations. Seeing them, holding them. Experiencing these creative works is a window into the freedom and wonder that’s still possible, the kind we all yearn for. But I know now, as a mother in the midst myself, it’s not that easy.
I change the direction of the conversation, the way my mom used to. Yes, I think as we drive. It would be incredible to travel alone again. And more so, to write about it. I just can’t seem to think of where I’d fit it in the schedule between soccer, football, dance, work, and more.
“Thank you for saying that,” I say to her, patting her leg. We both drop deeper into thoughts about our own dreams as we pass pine trees and trails, then open farmland, listening as the tabla and sitar play over the car speakers in the background.
My mom started painting again shortly after she divorced my dad, when all three of her children were adults. We squeezed every last bit of color from her while at home. The life she built around her was never really her own, as so many of us experience in the role of Mom. I’ve always wondered if the divorce was the final step out of her concocted cage, the final lifting of the floodgates to all of her repressed dreams. Or maybe it was just a matter of energetic availability: so many attachments, it was hard to unhook herself for the sake of herself.
But now, paintings spring forth from her like shiny, colorful gumballs from a faulty 25-cent grocery store machine. They adorn the walls of her modest new “she-shack,” as she calls it. And there’s always a work in progress perched enticingly on her easel.
“You should make an Esty store, Mom. Or sell your pictures in a coffee shop.” I can’t help but tell her this regularly, as if her hours of crafted divinity should be packaged, boiled down to a number, thrown up on a website and turned into a hustle.
She laughs at me. Only my generation seeks to monetize everything for the sake of our personal brands. “I just do it for fun, Brie.”
I envy her in this lighthearted detachment to her art. She always felt like what she was doing, being our mother, was more than enough. Her certainty in her role evades me as a mother. In a hungry quest to find my own significance outside of just “mother,” I’ve built businesses I’m not entirely sure I want, taken jobs I don’t need, and forced myself to write books, blogs, articles and more to prove to the world, and mostly myself, that I am so much more than “just a mom.”
“You’re so busy, Brie,” my mom says to me often. “Take a rest. I’ll take the kids. You’re doing so much already.” Countless times in the past I laid on my parent’s couch across town while my husband traveled and fell fully asleep at 5 p.m. Me, pregnant with another child, exhausted and depleted. My mom cooking something meaty and warm in the crockpot, my dad, reading to however many kids I had in tow at that particular point.
My body knows she’s right as I drool on her leather couch pillows, and cuddle up in the plush blankets from my youth. But my mind is a militant soldier, always demanding more. It’s as if my attachment to busy comes from the same fear my family held about money disappearing. It’s an addiction, really, to work to prove my value. So that I won’t disappear…
My favorite painting of hers is a Koi fish that’s half finished and stands on her easel still. There are patches of orange, auburn, black, and lots of remaining blank space calling for attention. It reminds me of my obsession with Asia as a young woman, in the before. All the hours spent reading by ponds in beautiful Japanese gardens, or the fish pedicures in Chiang Mai, the small toothless carp in the night markets nibbling dead skin off my toes, or the exotic guest houses in Bali, with clinking bamboo and chirping crickets, stepping by and over the rainbow-colored fish in various encasements at every turn.
The Koi reminds me of my Piscean husband, who I met through my Piscean best childhood friend. Both of them, who swim around me still—the perfect, watery balance for my fiery heart and mind. Looking at this half-finished painting sparks something curious and fantastical in me. The magic behind her art awakens something in me, still.
The picture, in its liminal space between here and not yet here, reminds me of myself. I am both the girl with the wild heart and dreams, and the tired mom with the sweatpants, the duties, and overflowing love.
I am the free-thinker, the shaved-head goddess, both sexy and fierce, the courageous solo traveler, the wide-eyed Buddhist devotee, hopping from country to country with only my books, journals, and a pen. I am the white girl in the local section on the Indian train, sweating profusely but heart bursting with thrill as I share chiyaa with a family of twelve shoved into a compartment made for six.
And I am also Mommy and wife, who makes dinner each night, who cleans the butts of our new baby chicks, who packs perfect lunches for my own chicklings with the dopest napkin art around. I am the well-spoken wife at my husband’s company gatherings and the mom who volunteers to help the teacher with art projects. I am the mom who throws a football better than a lot of dads, and who gets along with the dads better than a lot of the moms.
I am the in-between, the both, inseparable from either part, a Gemini girl and mom. And as I dip my toes in again to birth my own art, ignited by my mother’s inspiration, I settle into this luminous liminality of being all things at once: mother, daughter, woman and girl, artist of life.
Brie Doyle is the author of You Should Leave Now, mindfulness teacher, and the founder of She Glows Retreats. Her writing explores mental health, spirituality, parenting, rebelliousness, and the dark side of life. Brie’s short stories have won awards, and her satirical piece on yuppy mom’ing was chosen as a fan-favorite in the Listen to Your Mother Show. She keeps an active blog at www.briedoyle.com/blog. This is a chapter from her forthcoming book on motherhood, Lose Yourself.