In 2002, I finally got to do my study abroad trip that I had wanted to do for a long time. I was so excited, three whole months in London, all the theater I could handle in a big city. No car. No phone. No kids. No television. I was beyond thrilled to be doing this. My mom had just the month before purchased a flat in Central London since she worked over there so much and she was letting me stay there for the duration of my time in London. This was great. I didn't have to stay in the dorms and I didn't have to have a roommate. Part of the reason I was doing this was to experience what I had missed out on.
When you get pregnant at 17, there isn't any time to transition into adulthood. You just do it fast and you get it while crying in a corner and feeling overwhelmed in between taking care of a newborn and dealing with your parents and the rest of the world telling you that you better grow up now. Which I did. Without really even thinking about it. And I started college before my son was even a year old because I knew I had to get my shit together or just be one of those single mom statistics. One day I looked up and noticed everyone else was having a very different college experience than I was. Parties. Late night conversations of the soulful figuring things out variety. Self discovery. Epic mistakes that didn't involve you messing up your kid's life while trying to figure out your own.
I had gone from a turbulent and traumatic household with my parents to a turbulent and traumatic year of living with my drug addicted, verbally and physically abusive boyfriend and several certifiably insane roommates to getting pregnant and moving back in with my parents when I was about six months along. I brought two cats and a bunch more emotional trauma than I had left with. From one loud household to another and then back again, this was my life.
I had dropped out of college twice and after a long break, a terrible job, and many painful changes, I was back. My life now included four children of my own and a loving and stable relationship. I no longer lived with my parents and suddenly I was desperate to finish my degree. This was my third and final attempt to finish college. I would successfully end up with a degree, graduating on the Dean's List with a solid GPA to be proud of. But it was a rocky road to there.
My college experience was not like the others. I could never start my homework before ten pm, after the last child had given up the last gasp of "One more drink of water." and me yelling "Get back in that bed right now!" Luckily, I was a night owl naturally and I loved being in college. I loved my teachers, I loved my classes, I loved learning and reading and writing everything. And I was old enough to appreciate my teachers as peers and not some mature people who intimidated me.
When I got on the plane to London, right after we hit cruising altitude, I started to cry. Part joy. Part terror. Part guilt. I would miss my kids, though I knew they were in very good hands. Between my long time babysitter, my parents and my boyfriend, and the rest of the village, those kids were going to be more than fine.
This is one of those things men do all the time. They go out of town for business or school or any number of reasons and no one blinks. It's different for moms. Probably always will be. I hope not but the fact is people just look down on you. It happens. I don't care. I've never been a PTA mom or a traditional mom and I wasn't about to start caring what anyone thought of me. It's too exhausting. I had already been a teen mom, a statistic, a person to be judged one way or another. I was beyond giving a damn. My life was what it was. I could only live it the way I thought was best. Trying to please anyone is beside the point.
I waited a long time to do this study abroad. Until I thought things were reasonably stable. I chose the summer program because it was the shortest and would require the least time away from the kids. But, I knew I wasn't going to get points for that! I was still leaving.
Part of the reason I did this was to do this cool theater program in London but I admit, the large part of this was to go back and find that transition path to adulthood that I had missed out on. I was going to be a grown up, with a small apartment, in college, taking care of just me. I was going to live by myself for the very first time in my entire adult life. It was always something that I had felt was missing in my life. And I had given up getting it back. I thought, maybe this is something I will experience when all my kids have moved out and I am on my own. Maybe then it will happen. But more and more desperately I wanted to stop resenting everyone and everything that interfered with my solitude. I wanted some quiet to finish a thought, to write a play, to just leave the house without a multitude of planning babysitters and feeling as if I was stealing time to myself that was limited. I wanted to be able to sleep in the next day or say I feel like going to see a movie without second guessing my ability to for sure get a babysitter or feeling closed in and frustrated because there was never enough time.
I'm sure to some of you, that sounds incredibly selfish. I chose to have kids. I chose to be a single mom. (Let us not even deal with the fact that there was no single father sharing that burden) I didn't opt out of it, I wasn't as careful as I should have been. YES, I get it. I have been suitably punished for having underage, unprotected sex. I do not need anyone to remind me of the consequences of my actions because I lived with those beautiful children every single day. I was responsible and diligent and I made the sacrifices. So- please, spare me the lecture some of you are forming in your brain.
But I am very self aware of needing what I needed no matter what anyone else thought I deserved or should have in my life. And what I needed was a stretched out length of time that was not a vacation. I needed to take care of just myself. I needed to find myself without the noise. I needed to figure out me inside of just me, with no one tugging at me or needing me or...you get the picture.
So, I arrived in London on a Sunday. It was my birthday and for the first time in my life, I spent my birthday alone. I followed the directions my mother gave me about getting from the airport to the flat and dragged all my luggage up the the fifth floor. I put the key in the lock and opened the door to my life for the next three months. I think I did a joyful lap when I first got in the flat. Gone were the tears-- but what was there instead was silence.
The first thing I wanted to do was turn on the television. But there was no television. I was sure there must be a radio but I couldn't find it. Eventually, I did but the batteries were dead. Now I was surrounded by this eerie quiet and I had no idea what to do. London is a huge city. Busy. Populated. But the flat was silent as could be. I could hear no traffic. No chatter. No noisy neighbor. No friendly meow. No ear piercing, crawl up your spine, escalating, vibrating, pound into your brain stem screaming child. Just this dead quiet. You would think I would welcome this. Instead it was causing me stress and anxiety. I needed noise. Where were batteries? What did I have to do to make this radio work? What the hell was this??
I ran around the flat in my exhaustion for twenty minutes thinking there must be batteries. There were not. I finally fell into a fitful nap of frustration with no television to lull me to sleep. I was too exhausted to search the streets for some place that sold batteries. England is not like here. You can't just go to Target for your every need. There is no Target. It took me two solid weeks to find a can opener. I finally discovered one at a hardware store around the corner... but I digress.
This silence, this thing I hated, this thing I was afraid of, this thing I did not understand, it grew on me. Yes, I did find music and noise and a way to live. I learned to cook for one person. I took much pleasure in being able to do my homework any time I wanted but the biggest and most unexpected thing that happened was that I learned to embrace the silence. And in the silence, I found my own thoughts, my own voice, my own needs and desires and quiet yearnings of my soul. I found the answers to the interrupted questions I had been asking myself. I found twenty seven books to read. Sometimes, I just turned off the radio so I could hear the thinking going on in my busy brain. It turns out that silence does not really drown out the world as I feared, but opens your senses wide.
When I returned from London, I was a different woman. I was more confident, more physically strong from all the walking, more thoughtful and more sure. The resentments I had were gone because I had been granted enough time. I'm so glad I had no television to distract me. I'm so glad I didn't really make any friends. I went out to eat by myself. I read the Evening Standard. I went to the theater and movies by myself. Sure, I did a few things with people but mostly I just reveled in how cool it was to just be with me. I felt as if I had finally grown up. Crossed that invisible passage to adulthood. I wasn't hanging on to anything any more. I wasn't just thinking, how long will it be until I can get out by myself again (this is part of what postpartum depression does to you, something I would discover much later), I was spending time enjoying my kids in a way that was a revelation.
Sometimes, when I am on road trips, I deliberately turn off the radio to feel the silence around me. I think through plot points and engage my imagination. I plan out the next day. I access the thing that has me stuck and work it out while I chew it over. The silence changed me. The alone stitched me together. The silence seeped into the cracks in my soul and filled me up. Maybe I would have found another way without that, but I feel strongly that I knew what I was yearning for and what I needed in many ways. But I never suspected my greatest need would be silence.