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Zoë: Breaking the Silence

Many of you will resonate with this moving portrait from guest blogger Zoë Purdy, a freelance writer and editor. Zoë lives with her husband and three children in Toronto, Canada.

Zoe Purdy

“I’ve been thinking, and I don’t want to be a mother when I grow up,” Sofie announced gravely one day when she was about three years old. “Oh, yeah?” I answered. “Well, you get to decide, of course, but you don’t have to make up your mind until you’re an adult.” She nodded, the relief evident on her face. Sofie is my middle child, cheerful and smart, stubborn and quirky.

“Babies are cute and stuff,” she went on, “but if I have one of my own then I’ll have to take care of it.” “True enough,” I agreed. “And you don’t think you’d enjoy taking care of a baby?” Sofie has always been gentle and empathetic, and of my three children I think of her as the most nurturing. She is the one who wants to bring every ailing insect and earthworm home to be nursed back to health. When our youngest was a baby, Sofie eagerly suggested ways to soothe her when she cried: nursing, cuddling, feeding her an ice-cream sundae, covering her in stickers. It surprised me to hear that she didn’t find the idea of motherhood attractive. “It’s just that there are so many other things that I want to do and if I’m a mother, I won’t get to do them,” she explained in a matter-of-fact tone.

I protested, of course, forcing myself to sound enthusiastic despite the ache I felt gathering in my chest. I told her that being a mother is only one part of who I am, albeit a very important part. There was absolutely no reason why she couldn’t do all those incredible things she imagined and have a baby. I believed what I was saying, but I know that it fell flat. This is why: as a parent, how I engage with life and who I am fundamentally as a person have far more impact on my children than anything I actively try to teach them.

Over the next days and weeks I returned to that conversation again and again. Something bothered me and it wasn’t that my daughter’s vision of her adult life didn’t include children. If she ultimately decides that parenthood isn’t for her, I won’t object. No, what really bothered me was this: my daughter found my life unappealing and I really couldn’t fault her for it. I had let myself be swallowed whole by motherhood and I had barely noticed. When had I given up on doing gratifying and important work myself? When had I decided that it was enough to raise other people who might grow up to do interesting things, to make their own valuable contributions to the world?

Three-year-olds are fickle creatures. You could ask Sofie what she wants to do when she grows up and get a different answer every day of the week. I’m sure that I too entertained a variety of career fantasies as a child, but one thing has remained constant throughout my life: my love of the written word. I have been devoted to writing and books for as long as I can remember.

My mother tells me that I dictated stories to her before I could read and write. Later I took to carrying around a small notebook just like one of my favourite storybook heroines, Harriet the Spy. As we rode the bus I would jot down notes about the other passengers and then spin off into wild speculations about their lives. At school I was known as a daydreamer — I was always busy putting together stories in my head, making up characters and sticking them into different scenarios to see what would happen.

Sofie writingI was a shy child who was constantly told to speak up at school. Whenever a teacher read my writing for the first time, they always remarked with surprise that my voice was so strong and clear. In writing, I was able to try out other lives, to get out of my own head and inhabit someone else’s. It’s not that I was unhappy with my particular circumstances or with who I was; I simply wasn’t content to experience everything through only one set of eyes when books and my imagination gave me the ability to live and to feel so much more broadly and deeply.

I felt a kinship with the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Matilda. I almost cried in recognition when I read these lines: “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

As I got older, I never gave any thought to whether I could make my living as a writer. I always assumed that I would find a different way to support myself, but I never doubted that I would continue to write. It was a part of who I am, as basic and incontrovertible as the colour of my eyes.

When I graduated from university with a degree in English literature, I had no firm plan for what would come next. My boyfriend Erik was working on his PhD in chemical engineering at the time, and he spent his days in the lab developing a novel method of aerosol sampling. We joked that our relationship represented the meeting of Arts and Science. While there are plenty of good things to be said about a liberal arts program, it doesn’t prepare you for any specific occupation. Engineering majors become engineers, while English majors become… Englishologists? Baristas? My fellow graduates were all heading off to teacher’s college and law school in droves, but I hadn’t applied to either. I already had a full-time job at a bookstore. While I didn’t envision myself in retail forever, selling books certainly beat selling coffee. I decided to take a year to work and figure out what to do next.

I cast a wide net, sending out resumes and applications to anything that looked remotely appealing. I was particularly interested in a Master of Fine Arts in writing and literature. Spending a couple of years in an MFA program doing nothing but writing and reading was incredibly appealing. Even better, for the first time in my life I would be in the company of other people who thought that these activities were not only legitimate but also important. It was a way to put off adult life and its responsibilities a while longer. There was scholarship money available, and undergraduate teaching or editorial internships could offset the costs further while providing work experience. It wasn’t entirely impractical. I put together my portfolio, rustled up some reference letters, and summoned the courage to send in my applications.

The acceptance letter came that spring, the day after I found out that I was pregnant. Erik and I had agreed that we wanted children, but in that vague way you talk about things that are too far away to feel real. This, however, was real. When the shock wore off, we welcomed the idea of a baby. The timing wasn’t perfect: we weren’t married, we had no money, and Erik was still a student himself. The MFA would have necessitated moving across the country — so for now, school and motherhood were mutually exclusive. I turned down the offer. I told myself that I was postponing it rather than giving up on the idea entirely, but then, as if on cue, I stopped writing. As my belly grew, I imagined my creativity being channeled into the new life within it.

That autumn just after the new school year started, I gave birth to our son. Max entered the world in dramatic fashion, an accidental homebirth. Erik remembered only one thing from our prenatal class and it turned out to be highly relevant: newborns are extremely slippery, and you must keep a firm grasp on them if you don’t want to drop them onto the floor. So on that sunny fall afternoon we went from being two individuals to being a family of three. The world turned upside down. Read more

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