IIt’s a strange irony that what we want most in life is often what eludes us. Writer and feminist Rebecca Solnit says, “It is often the desire between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.”
The protagonist of my first novel, The impostor, struggles with the sensation that Solnit describes: that blue of longing. He rides on the top deck of the bus in the city where he lives, staring out the cozy living room windows he passes by, filled with seemingly happy families, and he yearns to be a part of one of them.
There is much, in that sense, that I have in common with my invented character: that desire to belong. The first place we belong is within our own family and if we don’t feel like we are a perfect fit with the rest of those puzzle pieces carved just for us, it can leave a lasting impression. It can manifest as a desire and a longing to recreate that same unity when we grow up and have families of our own. Or at least it did in me.
My own childhood was not as harsh as some, yet I often felt like a cuckoo in the nest. My parents divorced when I was five years old and they both got married and had more children. I felt diverted between these two new families, never feeling that I fully belonged to either of them. My father was a workaholic I rarely saw and my stepfather a drinker who sometimes made our lives hell. My stepparents were never going to feel the same about me as their own children, so I deeply felt the disparity between the family life that I idealized and the life that I had landed with. Instead, I looked outside of my family, spending much of my time as a child at our next door neighbors’ house, hoping to blend in with their furniture and among their children so I wouldn’t have to return home.
I longed for something perfect, something that would stick, and yet I always ended up creating the opposite: clearly, my neighbors would never feel the same way about me as their own children. And so that blue of longing settled inside my bones.
I worked hard in my 20s and 30s as a journalist and editor for national magazines and newspapers. Perhaps there is a feeling of being on the inside that journalism offers, from the national newsrooms where you were once, before the internet, first to hear the news, to the hours you spent sitting in other cozy living rooms, listening to secrets that they had not been poured out before to another soul.
I went from newspapers to books, and there was also a certain intimacy in my work as a ghostwriter. During the time that I work with someone to write their memoirs, I myself become an impostor, occupying their “I” instead of mine. I see the world through their eyes. I write with your voice. There is no feeling of being outside, looking in. I am transparent, a ghost, maybe there is only a hint of my touch, but I am there, hidden between the words that appear on the page.
There are those who believe that parenthood will assure us of something that will stick, although I cannot claim that this was a knowable force within me. I was too busy with my career to think about having a child, until I fell in love. In motherhood I found a completely different sense of belonging, although it would not be the same that I had pursued. I am not the first woman to be disappointed by a man’s whispered promises. Suffice it to say, I drove my daughter home from the hospital alone and looked at her in the car seat, wondering how she would make it all work as a family of two.
Over the years that followed, there were arrivals and departures of my daughter’s father, and I have some pictures of the three of us, snapshots taken on vacation where we look like the perfect family, the image of what I had so much about. desired: the same kind of family that would make the woman in my novel green with envy. But I had to remind myself how hard I had to work for those moments, how often they were little more than a fraction of a second, and what reality was behind those smiles. It’s hard to see those same families on social media that you envy yourself when you’re the sole caregiver and provider. How easy parenting is seen through that lonely lens: what a luxury to have someone else contribute to the mortgage; or share evening meals; or give her a five-minute break so she can eat dinner between feedings. I remember well the nights I watched my food for a burn in the oven while trapped under the weight of my baby, lost in a milky sleep. Interestingly, it was not the struggles of parenthood that you wanted to have someone to share with, but the joys: the first steps, the first day at school, the delight on your child’s face the first time he rides a bike without stabilizers.
The sting in the tail of single parenthood is that, most of the time, you spend time with the same families that have eluded you and your child; those safe little units that you wanted so much to be yours. You long for the worldliness of sitting quietly with someone in front of the TV, both of you staring at their phones, even that seems more inviting than the silence of the house once you’ve put your child to bed. You are exhausted in those moments and yet they suddenly turn you into a ghost. After you put your child to bed and realize that you suddenly lack purpose in the dark.
It was impossible for me not to feel like an impostor for many, many years. I felt that, somehow, I was not keeping up with all these other families who were doing things “the right way.” Yet how strange to feel that I was missing when I had created two people out of one: I was mom and dad.
But that’s all I could see for a long time: the space where the other parent should have existed. The baby years passed, as did the toddler years, and suddenly my son was six, seven, eight years old and I realized that he had spent too much time living in poverty to realize how precious he had been. been our little unit of two. He wasn’t just focused on what we had accomplished: the journey we had made; the tour of Japan that we had undertaken; the construction site we lived in while renovating our little house; the seven books he’d written on the spaces between bath time, sleep routines, and school runs. There was nothing imposter about me or my son.
I realized that I was living with regret for my own childhood, in this blue of longing for the perfect family that I had not had and had not been able to create as a father. But living there, I risked my daughter feeling the same sense of loss creeping into her heart. I had to exorcise those ghosts from the past, and the only way to do that was to see things differently.
When I looked at my friends, the very people I envied, I realized that there really were no perfect families. I saw those units fighting to protect their children from a parent’s addiction; or those who presented the perfect veneer while listening to stories of their unfaithful husbands; those who share their life unhappily without love because they feared what was on the other side. And what was that? Something like my daughter and I had?
Has taken the writing of my novel so that I admit that I am obsessed with the idea of belonging. Yet I have found belonging in ways I hadn’t considered: in the little intimate moments I share with my daughter, those secret moments that only a single parent and child know about, when only the two of you are against the world. I have found belonging among the words I write, whether they are mine or someone else’s. Belonging may not be the state of arrival that I believed; It is the journey, it is to make peace with that blue of longing, or more likely to ride the wave towards a horizon that, if you open your eyes a little more, may be even more beautiful than the one you had. once imagined.
I will not tell you if the protagonist of my novel finds her own sense of belonging, but what I am going to tell you is that whatever the ending, it will not resemble the traditional idea of the perfect at all. Because that is simply a mirage.
Anna Wharton’s The Imposter is a Mantle publication, priced at £ 16.99. Buy it for £ 14.78 at guardianbookshop.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism