Loneliness: Discovering a well of compassion

well-compassion“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friends tell me. Five years in the making, my transition into single motherhood has been swift and fierce. I spent eight days in Haiti at the crèche surrounded by sixty children, their caregivers, my son, and my older brother who was a gracious Sherpa the last few days. I woke up to babies crying, a rooster crowing, and my son popping up beside me with a mix of confusion and expectation on his face. We played hard during the day and dined in the evening at the home of crèche directors, a Haitian family who welcomed us in. At night we fell asleep to a sky loaded with stars and a soiree of cicadas and alike.

On the morning of our departure, everyone hugged us tight. Sixteen hours later, my son and I crossed the threshold into my—now our—home. I still remember walking down the hallway into the kitchen and seeing all the groceries I’d asked a friend to pick up artfully stacked on the counter. As thankful as I was, I could feel panic rising in my chest. My son of eight days, like most newly adopted children, used food as a comfort and he had no sense of when to stop eating. I wanted to hurl every cracker and fruit snack out the back door. He ate three bananas that first night before finally falling asleep. He wasn’t quite three years old at the time.

Those early days were an adrenalin rush. I woke to the slightest glimmer of the sun edging its way across the horizon, and my son saying, “Ale!” (Go!). In the early morning hours, we’d roll my suitcase up and down the hallway. We did the same with Tupperware containers and a colorful assortment of balls that light up, cars that honk, and an airplane that sings. We ate frozen meals prepared in advance by myself and others, my oldest sister-in-law most notably. Our first big outing was a walk to the post office. Our next was to Target, sadly, to get a diaper genie. The thought that I might need one had not occurred to me.

Adoption experts tell you to “cocoon” when you first bring your child home, to basically not allow anyone to visit for several weeks (some say months) so your child learns that he is in his home and that he belongs to you. I tried my best. For a long time it was just the two of us. My son had no choice but to trust me, and I had no choice but to figure it out. Those chilly autumn days were wonderfully exciting and terribly exhausting. The loneliness came in waves, at quiet moments rocking him to sleep and not so quiet moments when forgotten Kleenex tissues erupted in the washing machine and tiny shreds stuck like magnets all over our clothes. It was enough to make me want to weep.

I had friends who came at night so I could shower and a friend who picked up my son’s laundry and returned it nicely folded outside my front door. I had friends who sent gifts and others who left hand-me-down toys and clothes on the porch. My family called often and everyone asked for pictures. My oldest friend kept a nearby restaurant on speed dial for the times I called and she knew from the tone of my voice that I was more hungry than tired. I felt buoyed and isolated all at once. None of them were there when he fell and split his lip. No one was there when he clung desperately to me in the waning hours of the day. Or when my patience grew too thin.

Being single for as long as I have been, I have had to learn how to stand up in loneliness and embrace it for what it is. I remember when I used to think that no one could ever understand what it felt like to wake up alone on a Saturday morning and not know what you were going to do or how you would fill all those hours. There were some mornings that I woke up and didn’t know who I’d talk to, other than the grocery clerk whom I discovered you can only really talk to for a few minutes before he figures out you’re desperate. And having someone know you’re desperate is worse than being alone.

But in the aftermath of grieving infertility, and the abruptness by which it happened, I started paying attention to loneliness differently. I listened to a dear friend struggle in her marriage. She was trying desperately to reconnect with the goodness she still wanted to believe was in her husband, but she felt so lonely in her marriage that she didn’t want to come home at night. She found herself staying later and later at work.

I listened to my friends who had newborns at home and how they longed to talk to real adults, as they called them. I thought about their isolation sitting right there next to their joy, remembering back to when I was once a fill-in nanny for three young children. From the moment I dropped their mom off at the train station all the way until dinner, I didn’t speak to a single adult. When I imagined what that was like day in and day out, my heart filled with tenderness. I asked my sister-in-law, a mother of six, about this one afternoon as we sat on the front stoop watching her girls race up and down the sidewalk. “Oh, Karen,” she said, “It can be terribly lonely.”

The more I listened, the more I developed a deep sense of compassion and connection. Their loneliness was no different from my own. Their struggle was my struggle, just painted on a different canvas. It seemed like loneliness held wisdom for me. And even redemption. Perhaps I was not so alone, after all. And now, all these years later, the same is true. Single or single with child, it does not seem to matter. One had too much time to fill and the other doesn’t have enough time to be fulfilled. Both crave what we all crave: to live into the fullness of who we are.

So my prayer these days is to stand at the crossroads between the mom and the woman I desire to be and the loneliness we all experience; and to once again find within myself that deep well of compassion, that place within all of us where the divine dwells.