By Alexis Donkin
Passion is painful. When I first discovered it, I cried, like that time I watched Hotel Rwanda, and walked back to my dorm room in shock. Safe in my room, I locked the door, held onto my chair, and collapsed, in a crumpled heap, weeping until there were no tears left. I think it was hours – hours of weeping.
Yes, passion was too painful. It was depressing. It was too much that I ran from the whole enterprise. It was better to feel nothing than to feel passion. So I doused my flame. I choked out its air, and I drew. I painted. I sculpted. I avoided the news. I ignored anything real around me, because if I didn’t, I was at risk of sinking into a deep pit.
For a long time I was just pieces of previously burnt, compressed, wood. Cold. Charcoal untouched by heat. Not yet fuel, everything was superficial. Everything was simple, and I was easily swayed by ideas. Without principle, without a standard of measure, it was easy to float about, carelessly moving from one place to the next. Until time caught up with me, forcing the issue. Time forced me to confront myself.
I was thirty. I had misgivings, but I had that intense need to breed. The kind of need that suffuses your entire body, that comes up at awkward times in awkward places, that persists like an aching hunger. And the hunger sharpened horribly any time I saw a pregnant body – a beautiful baby. Even an ugly baby. And the worst was a father and child.
I would see that, and my body would destroy every thoughtfully constructed, logical argument against parenthood. It would counter the financial hardship, the question of health care, of college several decades later. It would counter, roaring, with the most fundamental raw uterine bellow – BABIES!
The first chance we got, we made good. The second I felt it was possible, I abandoned my lingering doubts about my abilities, financial stability, and readiness. We jumped in with both feet. I got pregnant. We were excited.
The doubts lingered in the recesses of my mind, nebulous fears of what might happen. But I reassured myself. My husband had a job. We had health care. I could work from home. It would be fine.
First the working from home thing fell through. Nothing materialized. But I kept my head up. I had a few more months. Things would be fine.
At seven months, my husband lost his job, and we lost our health care.
I wept, wetting the coals through. Soaking.
It was too late for an abortion. If it had been earlier, would I have aborted? Maybe. I would have considered it. Things were so uncertain. No health care. No way to pay rent. No way to pay student loans. No way to live. No way to come into the world. Poverty stunts children – stunts their growth. Gives them disadvantage after disadvantage. What kind of parent would I be if I knowingly did this to my child?
Could I give the baby up? Could I let someone else adopt my baby? Could I live knowing someone else was caring for this child I’d spent nine months nurturing in my womb? A child with my blood coursing through his veins? A child that I wanted? That I loved without ever having met him? A child for whom I traded perky breasts and unblemished torso skin?
I couldn’t. I had to keep him. We belonged together. But what should have been a blessing felt like a curse. Not on me, but on him. What child should be brought into the world with such disadvantage? And it happened every day. Every day another child born into poverty – into a world that treats him as less because his parents weren’t gifted by an accident in their own birth. I wasn’t a Hilton. I wasn’t a Johnson. I was no Trump. I was a Joker – the one thrown out of the game of life because there was no place for me. What kind of mother could I be? What blessings could I give him when I couldn’t make rent?
I couldn’t stop crying. This was what I ran from – from life, from reality, from feeling. But I couldn’t run from this. This was every breath and heart beat. This was every second of my life, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me to attention.
“Alexis! There’s no running from this!”
And in that moment of crisis, we were loved. Strangers, friends, family, from all across the country rescued us. Arms encircled us with money, food, resources, and kind words we never imagined. And for a moment, the doubts, the misgivings disappeared. I felt like we might succeed in our parenting adventure. So after the baby came, our beautiful boy, I held him close and we cut our losses.
We went home.
Transient, homeless, and pretending to be perfect middle-class WASPs, we holed up for the siege of despair in a room of my parents’ house. At first it was a relief. With the pressure of rent gone, of utilities, of attempting to feed ourselves, we felt lighter. For a moment the sun shone on us.
The coals dried.
And then reality set in.
What were we doing? What was our plan? There was no plan. My husband searched for a job. It took months before he was working a full week, every week. In the time between the move and successful work, we struggled to breathe.
A fire cannot burn without air.
My misgivings turned into fully developed despair. Full-fledged depression. I watched myself around knives. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk across a bridge for fear of what I might do.
He doesn’t need me.
I’m no good.
He’ll be better off without a mother like me.
These are the things I thought, the words that floated through my consciousness at any hint of danger, driving me towards self-harm.
In those moments, I knew myself. My true self woke, baring bones, and I knew, beyond flesh and sinew, the stuff of my spirit. Mine was stronger than I ever guessed, those dark coals sitting in my depths. They anchored me, kept me from going too far. How many times did I keep from jumping? How many times did I put the knife down? I can’t say. Until I confessed. I confessed and I wrote. I reached out.
I knew my son needed me. I knew my husband needed me. And even though I blamed him, I hated him, I knew he hung by a thread, just as I did. And a pendulum is no way to live. No push and pull works while resting in despair. We needed to rise up. We needed relief. We needed release. We needed to summon our hidden strength and search out solution. We needed someone to rescue us.
The coals ignited.
If I had any hope of changing our lives, this was my task. So I worked, feverishly. I toiled. I researched. I sought out every remote possibility of employment, of life direction. I read. I poured over websites and books trying to understand myself and my partner. I dared to dream. Imagining what could be, what would bring me fulfillment, I explored every direction. I challenged my small voice. I countered every “no” and doubt. Whenever something failed, whenever a project became inviable, I moved on without missing a beat. I wrote a book. I wrote several. I woke up staring at my son’s sleeping face and knew, above all, there was no choice but success. So I pushed ever forward and I rediscovered myself – I rediscovered passion. I burned.
I wasn’t happy, but I was. Despite the pain, I became more myself than I had ever been. My purpose and my actions snapped into place. My path clear, I felt my core ignite, a fiery furnace urging me forward. Even now, I feel it. The burning. Always burning. I walk around with a planetary core, alight in my soul’s depths. It is impossible to extinguish, impossible to destroy. Every obstacle, every success, it only fuels the burning. Everything pushes me towards a white-hot level – a point of unstoppable drive.
I still despair. My heart still aches around other parents, when my son plays with toys that are not his – that I cannot yet give him. Reading articles about poverty, about income at birth, about neighborhoods, I worry that I have stunted his potential, despite his inherent privilege, despite his powerful gifts. I worry that I have not done enough, that I am still not enough. I worry that he will be stuck, that his life will be like mine has been in the last two years. I worry that he will suffer because of me.
But even those thoughts are gasoline. The fire roars, and I burn.
Alexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She paints, sings, and draws when she isn’t writing genre or creative nonfiction. Read more about her memoir, THRIVE: HOW I BECAME A SUPERHERO, and other work on her site, www.alexisdonkin.com.