I saw her while out grocery shopping. It was one of those quick shops … didn’t want to buy for a week because I hadn’t planned yet, but had to get something because we had completely run out of everything essential like fruit and Nutella (don’t judge, my husband was in Japan and I was not, resulting also in the very introspective post you are about to read). A young mother passed by me, baby in stroller. I never saw her from the front, I didn’t even see the baby, but her clean, sweet image woke some deep sleeping memory in me. She looked Singaporean, she looked like she stayed at home with that baby and she looked like the kind of person who could keep her baby’s stroller clean and wash her hair regularly … that beautiful, clean type of woman who seems so natural and happy in their devotion to their family life. That is a lot to read from a fleeting look at the back of a walking woman! But we all interpret things through our own experiences and I saw all those things because there was a time that I had dreamt of being that young mother.
Before marriage, I had imagined myself as a mother, quietly devoting my life to my family. To prepare for it, I had taught myself how to cook and sew, budget and save. Of course this vision included a career in illustration, I was going to be sensible and also creative. But mostly I saw quiet moments that included lots of light. You know, light on a carpet while playing with a baby, light on a drawing table, light filtered through those fruit trees I was going to plant in our yard, just lots of light.
What I didn’t know and what I could not have seen in my future was all the darkness. My first pregnancy began in a foreign country, a dark winter, a small converted garage as an apartment, the nausea, the friendlessness, the foreignness, the busy husband. Another baby … and then the moves, another city where the dark winters left me sick for the smell of soil after a South African thunder storm, another baby, another foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and my mind felt dark and stupid.
Eight years into this journey, I realized that what I thought was temporary had at some point become real life. We didn’t start out wanting to be a nomadic family. We were always going to go back “home” and plant those fruit trees. I had put so many things on hold waiting for the settling in, that state where you breathe and say, “it’s nice to be home, let’s get to the real stuff!” But the children were real and growing up and I realized that this was my life! It was then that I started wondering about those fruit trees and about that illustration career. I insisted on change.
So we moved again, still in the northern hemisphere but this time we were buying a house, with lots of windows. There was light on the carpet and light filtering through the tall trees in the yard and the children attended an earthy Montessori school on five acres of wooded land, with classrooms flooded in light. No wonder, after two years, we started talking about having another baby. But this would require some sacrifice. Our third child was six, I had started working on those illustrations and having another baby would require all my time. My husband had one of those jobs that never slept, he was never home for dinner and even when he was home he was held captive by his phone. Urgent through-the-night projects and sudden crises were a regular part of his life. Many things were put on hold for his job. To restore the balance, I tried to fill the gaps as much as I could, but that was a full time job, especially if there was going to be a new baby.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the decision was already made, I wanted to illustrate children’s books very much … more than anything … except for this one thing. I wanted a baby for our family while there was light. I was willing to give up art for it, and I did.
Number four was a little girl. She was such a gift to our whole family, and brought a dose of healing happiness with her. Our family had never been this happy. This little addition always had a willing set of arms to hold her and every thing about her was savored and celebrated. I didn’t give illustration a thought during that time. I was at home with my children and I was happy.
Two years passed; I was in a craft store on a child-related errand. I ended up in the aisle with the sketchbooks. It was silent, or maybe I just stopped hearing everything around me as I opened a book and felt the clean textured paper. A completely unexpected feeling of loss hit me hard on the heart and something inside me staggered. This feeling was so disturbing and confusing, I thought I had given it up. I truly believed that the happiness we were experiencing at home was because I had committed myself so wholeheartedly, but the feeling of longing had been awakened and there was no burying it again.
There was another move; this was a bitter-sweet choice. It was sweet because it meant no more crazy work hours for the busy father, no more phones ringing in the middle of the night for the sleep deprived husband. It was bitter because it seemed as if we were leaving all that light. We were leaving behind our vegetable garden and our beautiful sandpit, surrounded by trees and glorious dappled light. What I couldn’t leave behind was my struggle with my responsibilities.
I know that I am not the only woman who has had this struggle. I want to have two lives, but I am not willing to sacrifice any part of my family life to make space for that second life. To be there for this family I have is what brings me my greatest fulfillment. There is depth of emotion in family life that is unfathomable, joys and sorrows alike. When my six year old comes running at me with her beaming little face, hair flying, life slows down. In that fleeting instant I feel eternal and she becomes the most beautiful thing I could ever have imagined. Why would I want to miss any of that if I am blessed with the choice?
So when the chance to be like that young Singaporean mother was offered me, I took it. I relished the light and the freedom that came from surrendering to the most important role I will ever have. No more pressure to be extraordinary in my artistic expression, just the beauty and joy of living a simple, focused life, where my focus was on something with unmeasurable value. That time was a gift.
To sit for hours and hours, slowly creating something that didn’t exist until I put it on paper and telling a silent story with my pens and brushes is a very unique desire. Reaching into silence and finding my best and worst self there and pouring it out on a blank surface is an experience that can not be replaced by anything, not even motherhood. But this process of creation also can not fill the gaping holes I would inevitably leave in my carefully woven life with my family, should I indulge in this desire. I knew that I could sacrifice this form of storytelling and I also knew that if I had to choose, illustration would always lose. Most people carry a much larger sorrow or burden without the gift of choice, and still they manage to find joy in their lives.
My dilemma was not whether I could give it up, but whether I should.
I believe that our talents are tools that we use to bless our lives and the lives of others but I had never really considered my talents as worthy of this statement. Doubt about whether my ability qualifies for this conviction begins at the limits of my own talent. To justify the time and attention taken from family, the talent has to be great enough to bless many, not just myself, for me, this has been a simple concept of fair trade and balance. I cannot sacrifice a part of what is most important to me for something mediocre.
Life took an unexpected turn for us. Most of us are aware of cancer, but we don’t really factor it into our long term plans. My husband got cancer. Even now, more than a year later, I can’t type this without deleting it a few times. Seeing it written down like that makes it too real and forces me to look at it. Cancer is complicated and some cancers don’t go into remission or get “cured”. Some cancers can be cut out but will come again at some uncertain future date, and my husband has one of those. We can no longer ignore the uncertainty in our lives, and I am faced with the possibility of transitioning from the role of “dependent spouse” to “breadwinner.” Compared to many others, my choice is still a privileged one. For now, I get to choose what I want to do. I have been given time to see if I can make a living doing what I love most, so I am not complaining when I say that my dilemma still haunts me daily. I am merely stating that life is odd and never works out quite the way you thought. When I wanted to do illustration for myself alone, it seemed that the sacrifice of my family-centered focus was too much, but now that I am illustrating for my family, my desire to illustrate has been enveloped by my desire to serve my family and I am willing to sacrifice many things to be able to do it.
We have moved again … now we are living in an eternal summer and my home has so many windows I have little space to hang pictures! Life has become a stark study in chiaroscuro. There are big shadows in our life, but they are paired with an outpouring of light. It is not the quiet light that I imagined as a young, single person, but a bright, demanding light. Light that illuminates the world around you and refuses to let you hide. A light that pushes you out of bed to do good things in the world. Illustrating and telling beautiful stories is the gift I have to offer to others and to my family, it is what I will do while my life is kindled by light.