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My journey to right here

Every child says something to their parents that they regret and want to forget. The thing I said, I can’t forget it and I’ve come to believe there’s a reason for it.

It was a Sunday, and we were all dressed in our Sunday best in dresses and collared shirts – me, my three siblings, and my parents. We had all gone out for brunch after Mass. I can’t remember why, but it was almost certainly a special occasion as we were at an expensive, all-you-can-eat buffet. As usual, there was a deep conversation happening. My mom, Big Mel, and my dad, Jack, were both staunchly conservative, but they also were open-minded and had long nurtured in us a love of dialogue and debate on a wide range of topics. And so, on this particular Sunday, the topic was what we wanted to be when we grew up. My siblings all took their turns. By the time it was mine, I responded with the sort of cockiness, shrillness, and certainty that only a preteen can muster.

“I know I’m going to be more than just a mom,” I said, in between bites of bacon and cold eggs. “Didn’t you ever want to be more than that? I know I’m going to be much more than that!”

I don’t remember her response, but as a mother myself now, I understand how much that must have cut her. But back then, I just didn’t understand how she could be satisfied with traditional, Midwesterner middle-class life.

My mom was a soft, understated woman with kind eyes and a warm smile. She was a fast driver who preferred a chilled Chardonnay in the evening and black coffee with something sweet to snack on any other time. Still, she was timid and prudish, a natural homemaker in every sense of the word. Growing up, our dinner was homemade and on the table by 6:30 every night. She took immense pride in raising three daughters to be future wives and a son to be a future husband. She had no problem with gender roles. Attempts to challenge her conservative views on premarital sex or abortion would send her storming out of the room. In fact, she and I never had frank conversations about sex -- about the joy of it, the thrill of it, or the ways to protect myself from it. My sisters and I never had Barbies because they were too sexual. She was outraged by the "filth" on cable and paid extra to block MTV. Madonna and her “Like a Prayer” scared her in ways she clearly wasn’t ready to process.

My mom was the opposite of a feminist, and it infuriated me.

What I couldn’t have possibly known, as a precocious preteen at brunch that Sunday, is what she was really thinking. Who she really was. I wouldn’t find that out for many more decades. Not until she died unexpectedly nine years ago.

What I did know was that I never wanted to be what she wanted me to be. A wife. A stay-at-home mother. I recoiled at the thought of being obedient to a man. The traditional job description included a submissive, secondary, reliant, dependent status or worse – a baby-making machine. I wanted the opposite. A partnership that would encourage my career and creativity, the celebration of my independent spirit, and full autonomy over my body. But I also wanted the unwavering affection and attention of a devoted and loyal man. I wanted what I thought the husbands had.

And so I rebelled.

My interest in wanting boys to be interested in me started in the 5th grade when I had my first French kiss at the end of his driveway after a rousing summertime game of capture the flag. That particular romance was short-lived but the high of receiving attention from the opposite sex remained. I counted down the days for the multi-school dances that happened quarterly during junior high. Those sweaty and stinky gymnasiums filled with pubescent teens were all the things I loved. Drama, flirting, and meeting new people. I entered freshman year with a sophomore boyfriend already in tow. He was soft-spoken, and patient and had comfortably decided he would join the family business, which was too predictable and ultimately was our downfall.

College Cat couldn’t possibly understand why the boys from the dorm across the quad didn’t worship her in the same way as high school beau did. They just wanted to hook up on the bottom bunk when their roommate was in class. Or the entitled prick who didn’t listen when I said to stop. Date rape or sexual assault, the lines were blurred, but whatever you call it; it shattered any illusions I had about the power of sex and the shame that had been associated with it for me, complements of my upbringing.

Based on the obliteration of boundaries over the years, I have worked to forgive past versions of myself for her decisions in the matters of love. In hopes of finding the “right one” I gave the title of partner or even boyfriend to men who weren’t, in reality, reciprocating that status with me. On the other hand, I have hurt good men who I let believe I was a version of myself that they wanted to see and I let them think I was.

Then came the summer of 2015. My mom had died the year before, and my family, traditional as ever, was worried about me not having a boyfriend or a husband. So, I showed them, I found someone. We matched on a dating app and he suggested a brunch the following day. I scooted over to the restaurant on my black Vespa with pink helmet thinking very little about my future, just the frivolous fun of a first date. I got there first and waited at the table for the tall, dark, handsome man to arrive. He was soft spoken and unassuming. He had a gentle smile, yet couldn’t make consistent eye contact. He asked what I was doing after our meal and since I didn’t have plans I agreed to get a drink with him. He paid the bill for brunch, which, in hindsight, was the only time that happened, and off we went.

I ignored my intuition and focused on him as a distraction for my sadness over my mom, and solution to the concerns of my family.

I didn’t know those early decisions would alter the course of my life. But less than six weeks later, after not feeling quite right for a week or so, I went to CVS, bought a pregnancy test and discovered, while at work, the very real consequences of premarital sex that my mom had warned me about all of those years ago.

I purposely went to my dad’s house alone to share the news. I knew my dad didn’t like him, even if he never said it directly. We were in the kitchen with my mom’s legacy oozing out of the cupboards and countertops. I waited until he had made his nightly cocktail and was seated across from me at the counter. I was leaning against the sink and declared that I had something to say and blurted out: “So, I’m pregnant.” Dad was quiet and so I rambled on that everything was going to be OK and that we would figure it out and that the father was supportive, trying to not let on how unsure I was about all of those statements. My dad, like my mom, is extremely anti-abortion, and so I was left speechless when he offered, unprovoked, to support a decision to end the pregnancy. I shook my head. Then I told him I was going to take it one day at a time, that if the baby made it through the next seven months, I was going to be a mom. And that was that.

My son arrived after nearly 72 hours of excruciating labor and an emergency C-section. The man that said he would be there for me and for his son was nowhere to be found, until the last few hours or so. I remember being in the hospital room, recovering from surgery, learning how to feed my son and discovering in his backpack a handwritten note from another woman thanking him for a great night. Of course, he had an explanation for it. He always did.

Over the next six months, I was able to breastfeed my baby, go back to work, pay all of our bills and navigate the overwhelming loneliness that had only intensified since my mom died. His presence in my home only made it worse. My beautiful and loyal girlfriends that flew in from all over the world to be with me at my mom’s funeral and organized my baby shower would call daily to check in. They would gingerly ask about him, knowing from afar how much trouble I was in, but unable or unwilling to crush my vulnerable hold on the world. At one of my prenatal check-ins, I asked about postpartum depression and what signs I should be watching for. I was referred to a specialist and I’m convinced that meeting helped to preserve my mental health and my son’s physical health. They spoke with me for more than two hours, and I realized my symptoms more than qualified.

By the grace of God herself and my mom’s unwavering support from up high, I was able to muster the strength and conviction to demand that he leave my house.

He called me names, threatened me and used my insecurities as weapons. Once he finally left, I knew he was never going to come back. He was never going to fight for us because he had already moved on to his next target. I navigated the humiliation and shame that came in his wake. I have dodged the questions and spoke in generalities about my son’s biological father. I built stronger walls to reinforce my defenses and also had shattering moments of transparency.

My son will have his own journey with his father and his actions, and that feels more daunting to me than anything I’ve been through thus far. If I could protect my son from the feeling of abandonment, I would make any deal the devil offered. The hardest questions to answer have come from my son. When he was about 3 years old, he asked, as only a toddler could: “Why don’t I have a dad?” or “Who is my dad?” The questions and answers have evolved over the years, but they never get easier. Dads are awesome and my son deserves one who shows up, not the coward he got. But my mom chose right over 50 years ago and my son has the world's best grampa. My dad is the only other person who loves my son as much as I do. Their relationship is beautiful, important, and sacred.

But it hasn’t been easy on me. Indiana, ever traditional and conservative in its culture and politics, isn’t designed for successful, independent, confident, single mothers. It’s designed for people like Big Mel. It’s unpleasant the way some married women treat single women, as if not being a “Mrs.” lessens my worth and makes me a worthy threat to marriages.

I’m beginning to reckon with the uncomfortable truth that my mom and I are more alike than I once thought. She wasn’t just a mom and neither am I. She was a product of her upbringing and a subject to the unfair expectations, standards and burden placed on women, just like I am. I understand now why she fought so hard for her worldview, even against her youngest daughter. I remember one night, after a heated debate around the infamous dining room table, I was the one who stormed out. My mom came outside as I was getting in my car and said: “I know you’re mad and that’s OK. But you’ll come back, right? I just want to know that you aren’t too mad that you won’t come back to the house after you cool down.” I laughed a bit and said, “Of course I’ll come back Mom, you can’t get rid of me.” I’m forgiving both of us, for our narrow and opposing views. I am grateful, however, for never letting them linger.

I believe I am worthy of every good thing, and maybe, one of these days, my partner will make themselves known to me with their fine, soulfully healed ass. But if the amorous love continues to elude, our family of two is still cool.

Our lives are filled with an abundance of real, genuine connections and love, and I’m so grateful this life is ours.


Written by Catherine Esselman photographed by Erin Mawhorter.

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