I grew up on an island. Despite the ocean’s accessibility to me, I was never a summery beach person, preferring instead chilly winter walks along the shore when the blue and white nothingness of it all seemed only for me, as if I was the first person on earth taking up vacancy. I’ve always loved the sheer emptiness of the beach, an oblivion that always spoke to me in a way that seemed to turn off others who loved the warmth and sunbathing of island life. The colder off seasons drew me in as a little girl when I’d take Sunday walks there with my parents, the brisk air awakening my lungs. I’d play hide and seek with my older brother in the sand dunes, taking shelter in the valley, which was always filled with a softer, warmer white type of sand. If a large breeze blew by, it’d whip the grains around me, as if I was one small brown speck inside a giant hourglass. As a lonely teenager, I’d escape the dysfunction in my house by seeking refuge in my first car, which seemed to always automatically steer its way to the beach. I’d stare out at the gray-blue winter water through the windshield as if my longing to be on the other side of that ocean could will it to actually happen.
And years later, after already venturing to the land across that ocean a few times, I still found myself being drawn back to its shores, this time, with a tiny newborn against my chest who was along for the ride whether he wanted to be or not. When I stood at the threshold of motherhood, I arrived there much more dumbfounded, frazzled, and jumbled than I could ever remember my tiny son appearing on his own journey into humankind. Even though Aidan was decidedly frustrated with the limits of newbornhood and all the constrictions that came along with it, he seemed to still maintain a steady and strong will, as if he knew exactly who he was and what he wanted, even at two weeks old. I, on the other hand, felt like my entire soul was an erupting wound of vulnerability and naivety, rocked with the presence of this miniature yet assured creature whom I desired for so long but had no idea what to do with. Aidan as a newborn didn’t like rattles or pacifiers or sitting in his pretty swing or bouncy seat. He’d wail if placed in a stroller and didn’t sleep in the infant carrier that I saw so many other babies sitting contently in. He’d roam his humongous black eyes around the living room, our “campsite” during the early days of feedings and diapers as if to say, “what else ‘ya got?”
And so, we’d go out. To the duck pond. To the bay. And finally, to the ocean. I’d show Aidan the vast blankness that I cherished so much, and let him hear the cyclical crashing acoustics of the water. Back then, I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt compelled to take a tiny newborn to roam the desolate shores, other than to have a definitive place to go with an infant that seemed to want to see the entire world before he could sit upright. But I suppose I felt a deeper draw to the water, as if its blue depth was a magnet to my rawness as a mother. As if the answers to my confusion would be whispered on the wave crests. I craved its therapy, and how the timelessness of the beach brought me comfort when nothing else could. For, even when I didn’t have the answers, I knew the ocean would remain steady and still, as it always had been, despite whatever immense changes were going on in my life.
I recall one day when I was four months into motherhood, waist-deep in the trenches of sleep training and wide-eyed dawns. Aidan wouldn’t nap and I felt myself becoming more unraveled each hour that passed with his irritability. I had been trying to help him learn how to sleep well for weeks with no success. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I found myself strapping Aidan into his carseat and heading the five miles to the late autumn shoreline. I’ve never felt more unhinged in my life. Unhinged and crazed and lost. Completely maddened by this tiny person whom I dedicated every waking moment to. Lost amongst friends of mine who seemed to bounce right back from childbirth, motherhood, and infancy, as if they had acquired a new piece of furniture instead of a creature that required incessant grueling attention. I felt like I had been abducted by aliens the day I gave birth to Aidan, and was returned to earth forever different, possibly appearing the same on the outside but altered and changed nonetheless. The ocean didn’t help Aidan’s restlessness; neither did the rocking of the tide nor the salty cold air. He wouldn’t sleep. I drove Aidan home more maddened than before and wound up locking my keys in the car. Unable to get into the house, I took refuge in my old neighbor’s place and called my husband to make the 45 minute commute to come open the door and rescue my keys. Any hope of Aidan eating and sleeping was lost. I waited politely yet disturbed the whole time, and when my husband finally got home, he magically got Aidan into his crib to sleep, evoking my envy over his grace as a father. When he returned into the living room, I wept uncontrollably onto his collarbone. I felt like one big ocean, waves of emotion upheaving onto my husband’s dress shirt and tie. I cried primitively, like a brand new baby myself, the tears lurching out of my exhausted, red eyes like stinging waterfalls. I howled into him, losing all sense of reality and composure. The ocean had not worked. But I kept hope for its compass-like pull to me, waiting for calm. Listening for answers.
A year later when we relocated six hours away and much further from the coast, I mourned the loss of my ocean and all things nautical. I didn’t know how I was going to leave the shore. I regretted not spending enough time engaging in water activities, thinking I should have gone on more boats and spent more summer days at the beach. But we fell in love with our new location and soon I didn’t think about how much I’d miss my proximity to the beach. Still, its lure was a subtle haunt within my heart; a quiet vestige of our old life that I’d crave often. Aidan got older and turned into an unstoppable toddler, then a feisty older toddler and finally a verbose strong-willed boy. Every disrupting cycle of bad behavior or upheaval in who I thought Aidan was made me crave a drive to the ocean. We managed without it but I missed its soothing vastness.
Recently, we took a family vacation to the beach. I was eager to visit a spot on the coast I had never been to before and to get away for a bit. But I was impatient to fulfill that quiet craving that had been lingering for the last few years. I couldn’t wait to stand in front of the ocean and just be. Aidan, at four, had been well behaved and chilled out for awhile. The insanity of earlier days was behind us. Still, I was antsy to get myself on that sand and feel soothed and solaced.
But instead, although we enjoyed the beach and the vacation, the satisfaction for being coastal again was anti-climactic. I couldn’t wait to get back to the place I always felt restored, but when I got there, I didn’t feel any big relief or change. Aidan spent most of his vacation tossing around in the waves with Daddy. They’d stand knee high in the water and Aidan would squeal with delight as my husband lifted him high into the air and safely into the surf. He chased the tide and ran backwards with the water as it lapped upon the sand. I spent most of the time standing to the side, watching my two men at play, almost amazed at how effortlessly parenting has found its way to us. I thought back to my early shattered days standing at the ocean like a puzzle piece waiting for its matching pair. I thought of how far I’ve come as a mother and of how I’ve learned to create my own salve for the chaos and trauma that raising a child can bring. I smiled as I watched Aidan playing contently at the shore, thinking of how we’ve both matured these last few years - two composed daily comrades instead of crude adversaries in some sort of apocalyptic babyhood warzone. Peace had found its way to our family naturally.
It is not the ocean, nor the water or shore that is therapy for me. Its presence back in my life didn’t alleviate any sense of isolation or confusion. I realize that what it always did for me was simply provide an environment free from distraction, so that I could return inward and find solace and certainty in my own maternal heart. The magic was never dancing upon the foam on the shoreline or whipping around the ocean air, but inside me all the time. Without the confusing world of parenting advice, other people, internet articles, Facebook, books, magazines, clichés, little old ladies in the drugstore that offered mothering advice – with all of that gone and just the elements of nature around me, I could look within and restore my own knowledge. The answers were already deep within. Once, I was adrift at sea. And eventually, I found my way home.