She rushes into my arms. “Mama!” she cries as I bend down to scoop her up. More pairs of hands grab at my waist, my legs. Everyone starts talking at once, mum, mum, did you get the ice blocks we wanted, mum mum we learnt a new card game mum mum Ollie had a sleepover with us at daddy’s house, mum mum mum mum mum mum mum. The chaos of it settles over me like a familiar onslaught I’ve come to feel at home inside. I squat down, pulling them all to me, pressing my face into their necks. Billy squirms. Georgie holds my face between both of her hands, squishing her eyes into her signature smile. Ella wraps her arms around my neck and says, “I missed you, mum.” Questions come one after the after, they go to the fridge to inspect what I’ve bought in their absence, Georgie stays pinned to my hip. I close my eyes and nuzzle into her. My face cocoons within the crook of her neck and I breathe in, smelling her like an animal. Her hair smells foreign, a mixture of herbal shampoo, incense, essential oils. It jars me. I am a lion who can’t recognise her own young. Is this Joel’s new shampoo? Is it their “Almost Stepmum’s”? Do they use all her things now that she lives with them? They are questions I will never ask, ones I will discard to the side quickly, flicked off like flints of amber from a bellowing fire, burning my skin if I don’t block them in time. I smell her again, as if she were territory, as if she were my territory to even claim.
I walk into the therapist’s office. The waiting area is white and bright, and there is a television blaring out the contents of a morning talk show. I walk to the reception desk and tell the woman there my name. She kindly instructs me to take a seat, that I wouldn’t be waiting long. I look to the television and choose a chair as far away from it as I can. As I settle into the seat, I notice a sign to the left of me which says: Where you are is not who you are. On another day, I would have thought deeply about that, but today all I think is: What a ridiculous thing to say. I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling like this.
“I feel like there’s more,” the therapist says. I reach up to adjust the bobby pin in my hair, assembling my face into a neutral position to indicate I was not going to make the first move. My couch suddenly feels too big. “There’s a missing piece here,” she says. “Perhaps the real reason you came to see me?” It wasn’t a question, the way she said it. It was a statement, and she sat back calmly, as if she had nowhere to be, as if the room belonged entirely to me and she was there to witness it.
A stale room. The poster of a car. A Torana, he tells me. There are magazines, poses to reenact, things he tells me to touch, a smell that’s like metal. I am three, maybe four. It’s my first memory of life. I do as I’m told because he always makes me feel safe and because his manipulation is too great for a little girl who is learning to tie her shoelaces.
I tell her the story, a mechanical process that feels separate to me. I do not cry. The details have been so thoroughly dissected, the story so rehashed, that after thirty years, they’ve simply become something I say.
She sits there silently and as I speak, she does something I have never seen any therapist do in my entire life. She reaches for a tissue, lifts up her glasses, and begins to dab the corner of her left eye. In this moment a rule has been broken, and I watch her, stunned. Therapists aren’t meant to cry.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Go on.”
It is in then that I realise the weight of my past, the extent I had gone to to downplay it, and the way it sat in the room between us, bonding us in a way that felt innocent and beautiful — that because of its horrible-ness, we were both on the right side of it. We stared at each other, the sight of her tears cracking something inside of me, and she eventually shook her head at me, not in pity, but with respect to me, with rage and objection and sadness and honour towards that little girl inside of me.
I eventually speak again. “It’s not what happened to me that is the problem,” I say. “It’s what I believe because of it.”
She waits for me to go on.
I wonder how I can tell her that everything that happened afterwards led me to believe I’m not worthy of being protected. That if anyone truly knew me, they could never love me. That I’m different, an outsider. That I’m missing what other people have. That the only safety I feel is inside what I share with my children. That I love them too much. That losing them to a stepmother is something I will never survive. And that all of this shit is somehow bound together, snarling at me like a wild beast, caged, snapping its yellow teeth, ready to rip me in half.
The sun is warm on my skin when I leave. I’m hollowed out, drained in a way that makes me feel raw and open and good. I scrunch my tissue up in my hand as I walk home. Her words float through my head.
You haven’t, for most of your life, experienced secure attachment, Rachel.
We all use the modelling we’ve received to develop healthy, secure attachments in our adult relationships.
But because you haven’t had this, your secure attachment is to your children.
You use them to heal parts of yourself.
This is neither good nor bad, we all heal to some degree through our attachments.
But it is contributing to why you are experiencing a high and crippling level of trauma at the belief you are losing your children to Joel and this other woman.
Her words repeated themselves over and over again during that walk home, as if something was clicking, as if something felt true.
“Besides,” she had said, “I think I can fix you.” It was then that I had seen it, a little curl at the corners of her lips, the second rule she had broken. She’s not allowed to say the word “fix” and she knew that I knew it. An unexpected sound had erupted out of my chest. I heard myself laughing — Bubbling laughter, the kind that reminded me of who I was, that I might be happy again, that I wasn’t permanently altered in some way. “We can learn healthy, secure attachment,” she had said to me. “So you don’t rely on your children for that, so the sting of them being separated from you won’t be so severe and so you can do things differently in the future.”
“That would be great”, I had squeaked, as I wiped the wad of tissues against my blotched face.
She had looked at me for some time and then said, “You’re doing so well,” and I laugh again at the memory of it walking home: The contrast of her words against how I must have looked – a dishevelled woman crying on a blue couch to a stranger who had promised to fix her.
Georgie and Ella are snuggled up with her on the couch. She reads them a story. I sit at the dining table, doing a puzzle with Billy and Joel. Her voice is soft and kind. Easter egg wrappers are littered across the coffee table, remnants of breakfast cover the kitchen bench. Georgie’s head leans against her arm, and she brushes Georgie’s fringe out of the way, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. She gives the characters accents as she reads and I watch as my children smile. She is lovely, in every sense of the word. As we near the end of the puzzle, there is a moment Ella stands up to get something, and then pauses at the edge of the room. I watch her out of the corner of my eye surveying us all, understanding how everything fits, finding her place in the middle of it. She is satisfied as she surveys, like the quiet joy of a mother watching her children sleep. She walks over to me and gives me a kiss. Then she walks over to Joel and gives him a kiss. And finally, she returns to the couch and interrupts the story to deliver her final kiss to her Almost Stepmum, as she likes to call her. A knot instantly forms in the back of my throat, not because I am jealous and threatened, but because I am finally not. Because here was my daughter, surveying her life, knowing without a shred of doubt that she was safe and loved, and had three adoring adults to prove it.
Ella looks across the room and smiles at me. I wink back and as I do, all I can think about is the days and weeks and months and years it has taken to get here. The hours of therapy, the bottles of whiskey, the fights and the tears, the trauma, the bottomless grief and the ways it all swirled together, as I fought over and over to pull myself out of it and evolve as a human. And here I was: Finally at peace.
Not long later, I get up from the table and say my good-byes. I hug my children tight, one after the other, holding them too long that they squirm in my arms. I laugh into their necks, inhaling their smell. and when I do, the herbal shampoo, the feint scent of incense, the essential oil I can’t place…it wafts from their hair, like a predator baiting me, like a territory taunting me to defend. I tip Billy’s face up to look into mine. “I love you, mama,” he says. I kiss him on the nose. And as I leave, I realise that I am a lion, and these are my young. I had grown them inside my own body, felt them kick against my rib cage. I had howled and cried them into this world and rocked them against my bare skin, soothing their cries, rejoicing in the sounds of their coos. I will always be a lion; they will always my cubs. But what I realised when I got in my car and drove away was that there is only territory to mark if there are predators to defeat, and the only thing I found within that house was more love for my children.