I’m taking a trip while my son is spending long weeks with his dad, and I think I’m going to the Badlands. All that is subject to our whims once we get in the car, but if I had to decide this morning which way to turn the car once we left the driveway, that would be it. I remembered this morning that the first time I was in the Badlands, I had my son with me, albeit in utero. I was six months pregnant, and it would be the last outdoor photography trip I took as a non-mom. Sleeping on the ground with the extra passenger aboard was easier than I expected. But I think that’s mostly because I got better sleep in my second trimester than at any other point in my life. So I just didn’t feel it.

I probably made a pretty weird sight on that trip, a pregnant person chasing after bison with a camera, trying not to get too close (because they’re bison) and yet still trying to get close enough. Or sitting in front of a prairie dog town for hours, shooting around my belly.

When my son was about nine months old, I confronted the disappointing reality that it wasn’t going to be easy to reconcile parenthood with my preferred lifestyle of sleeping on the ground, in nature. My then-husband’s parents live in Georgia, and we drove there for a long weekend and left our son overnight with his grandmother for the first time. Meanwhile, we headed for the Appalachian Trail. I had no concerns about leaving him with his Mimi – she has always been warm and kind, and she had a sense about my level of anxiety for him, and matched his care accordingly. I knew he would spend the weekend sitting under a waterfall of love and attention.

But I wasn’t prepared for how things felt on my end. That invisible ribbon of attachment that had formed between me and my infant was being tugged, hard, and it hurt. I hiked with small, tight knot in my chest, and the climbs seemed steeper than usual. We stopped at the top of a small peak to take a drink, and we sat for awhile, both a little shocked by how this felt. After some time, a small group of people gathered where the trail met the expanse of rock we were sitting on. We began talking with them, as you do on a trail, and one of the guys told us they hiked this trail every year in memory of his brother, who had died several years ago. This had been his favorite hike. They were just waiting for their mother to reach the peak.

She was 78.

I saw her white hair rise above the lip of the rock, saw her focused expression of physical effort – it was 90 degrees on the trail that day – and the invisible ribbon yanked again. She climbed up onto the rock, and looked out over the view, her annual ritual of honoring her son almost complete. Without even thinking we stood up, because it seemed disrespectful to remain seated in her presence. We shouldered our packs, conveyed our sympathies and our respect for their ritual, and headed off the rock to allow them privacy.

I cried all the way down, thinking about the older woman’s invisible ribbon, and how her end was obviously still intact, and even pulling her up that mountain, even though her boy was gone. So it seemed that for many of us, the invisible ribbon never goes away completely, no matter what the circumstance, geography or nature of the relationship with our kids.

Do you want to go back?” The question bubbled up suddenly from inside of me, and the answer was yes, part of me did want to go back, and just be with my child, to chase the feelings away. But at some level I knew what was happening here. When you’re part of the all-consuming odyssey of parenting someone, your self can get chipped away, often so imperceptibly that you’re not even aware of it until it’s half gone. When you’re everyone else’s primary someone, it can be very difficult to remember that you are your own someone first. And I had enough trouble hanging onto my self as it was. I knew that if I left now, fled the trail to go get my son, it would only be harder next time. So we didn’t leave that day. We compromised, and left the next day – even his dad was ready to go then. But we did spend that one night in the forest – an important night in my struggle to hang onto a self whose needs and desires are often incompatible with what the world expects of mothers. I told myself it was a learning curve – one night this time, two next time. And so on.

It’s gotten easier since then. We went to China when he was four, and again he stayed with his grandmother. Then divorce came, with its parenting time and its separate households, and I learned real fast how to handle separation. By then I was ready, and in my “off time” I traveled to England and Sedona, and backpacked in the Adirondacks and the Smoky Mountains. He also goes with me sometimes on an adventure or two – a year ago I introduced him to the freshwater springs in north Florida.

But all in all, doing “my thing” while parenting has been one of the hardest struggles of my life. I don’t think it’s just me, but I think my personality doesn’t help.  I’m a strange mix between restless nomad and nurturing homebody, and those two sides of me bicker all the time.

I suspect that when he’s gone, flown off to live his own life, the restless nomad might have her glory days. We’ll see.


4 thoughts on “The invisible ribbon and the struggle for self

  1. I still struggle with this at almost 60. The ribbon you talk about is very strong for my children and now grandchildren too. My compromise is day trips here and there. I just don’t thrive or feel happy if I’m away from them (or my own bed!) for more than a day or two. The joy goes out of whatever I’m doing. Maybe you’ll find the cure for that???

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