“If Only, If Only” – by Lindsey Westerfield

September 8, 2022

Staring at my three-year-old’s profile, I see traces of us both. 

The baby is his spitting image, but our oldest seems to be the perfect blend; she has her father’s cheek structure, my red hair. 

She borrows colloquialisms from both our vocabularies and is adjusting to calling her homes by the names she’s chosen. 

Two birthdays, two Christmases, two bedrooms.

Double the love, I hope.

Double the heartbreak, doubt whispers.

I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got, I want to scream back to that nagging feeling. 

I’ve read books, blogs, and articles. 

I’m both hardened by judgment and yet vulnerable to her pain.

If only, if only.

Her hazel eyes are a mélange of ours: his brown, mine blue.

We’ve been on the frontlines of this custody battle for months, and with no true end in sight. There are days I am resolute: 

I am a person before I am a mother. I deserve to live. 

But more often than not lately: 

What is life without them? If my true purpose is as their mother, could anything stop me from that calling?

A fall from grace is painful, but my swan dive from grace was catastrophic. 

Unforgivable. Indefensible. Reprehensible.

If only, if only.

As my mind begins to wander, I’m brought back to this moment by a preschool-pitchy rendition of an almost-unrecognizable Disney tune.

Stay for the kids.

Leave for the kids.

Show them what love is, both viewpoints agree, although radically different in execution. 

My parents, church, and practical strangers have weighed in— their consensus the same:

You did this.

And I did. But I never knew that burning it all down would leave one thing standing— shame.

While I spiral into this place I now know as home, she begins to sing his favorite song in my tone-deaf voice. 

We’ve spent the morning avoiding lava, climbing mountains, and fighting monsters. 

If only the things that haunted me hid under the bed or lived in the closet. 

If only a bright light, a catchy song, or a spray bottle of water could bring peace.

If only, if only.

Shame has become my skin. 

Unable to meet the eyes of the mother next to me in the coffee shop, the pharmacist, the therapist. 

I am shackled, starved, and constrained by shame.

Guilt is delicate, a flower that withers as quickly as it flourishes. 

It churns, but never as deeply; a chasm, a pit, embarrassment.

But guilt’s mother is shame— birthed in true darkness, thrust into light: gasping, squealing, ruddy, and renewed. 

Starkly naked, helpless, and incapable of ever returning to its sanctuary, hidden from prying eyes. 

Degradation from simple perception.

Light filters through her curls, his curls. My freckles dapple her nose, his nose. 

We are forever one, desired or not, in the features of our daughters’ faces.

If only, if only.

She reaches for her cup, a quick “cheers!” to my coffee, blissfully unaware of my internal voice. 

I wish I could keep her as safe from the world as I can keep her from myself.

I’m not who I was a year ago, six months ago, a day ago. Forever evolving, but ever ashamed.

She feels deeply as I do, ponders big questions as he does. 

We all find comfort in a well-loved book.

Am I doing right by them? Am I choosing the next right thing? What is right? Is right even right?

An undertone to my thoughts, heightened by anxiety: 

It’s entirely too difficult to continue.

“Mama?” she anchors, my name a question on her lips. 

A moment passes before she looks up through her messy hair, head bent in concentration over her most recent masterpiece. 

She nonchalantly continues, “sometimes, the hard things become the good things if we don’t give up.”

I stop, eyes wide and mid-sip, and ask her to repeat herself. 

I wonder if she can hear the depth of despair in my thoughts.

She blows a curl off her forehead, his forehead, and says, “You know, we can do hard things. And hard things can become good things. But we gotta not give up.”

She returns to her coloring as I return to my coffee and attempt to comprehend the brilliance of such a tiny person I delivered myself. 

I marvel and consider which of us inspires her wisdom. 

I hear my mantras in her words, his analytical nature. 

Such a small voice, such a simple message. 

And yet–

Here, on the patio, sun shining and kid-commotion all around me, I come face to face with our reality.

If only, if only.

Shame is hard. 

This situation is hard. 

Life for my children is harder than I expected when I said “I do” at the altar when I met my babies face to face for the first time in that bathtub when I hollowly stated to the empty living room “I think we’re just delaying the inevitable.”

But as my daughter so graciously revealed to me, I’m learning that I don’t need to circumnavigate the “hard” to arrive at the “good”. 

I have to experience the hard for the good to be revealed.

If only we accept, if only we receive.

Shame, my shame, can coexist in our calm. Good can happen in the midst of our chaos. 

This world of motherhood, of womanhood, is dichotomous at best and tumultuous at worst; yet, we’re called to live in the mess. 

And somehow, someday, the hard becomes good.

It’s not about the circumstance, but it is about the strength. 

Raising little people, and remembering that they will indeed come into their own personhood, takes grit. 

While my own personal hell unfolds in my lap, this moment is made worthwhile by the dimpled hands holding mine. 

I look at her face–translucent and transparent like mine–and pray that while she develops tough enough skin to survive our world, she stays soft enough to hear that provincial voice; to let the hard become the good each day.

I tip my near-empty mug towards hers, both delayed and delighted. Shame, clarity, growth, change. 

Cheers, sweet girl. 

If only, if only.

Lindsey Grip Westerfield writes from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her two daughters. A lifelong learner & educator-turned-bureaucrat, she spends her free time on essays and poetry post-lockdown. She loves to connect with readers and authors alike on Instagram — @linswesterfield


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