Peril and Power in a Fairy Tale: 

One Woman’s Reckoning


Catherine Wells

(Spring 2014)

very year my parents retell my birth story. I’m told I screwed my mother out of an omelette. She watched my Dad eat breakfast while she was in early labor. I was born sunny side up which caused 36 hours of back pain and a second degree tear with an ineffective epidural. After all that hard work, the labor nurse finally handed me over to my father while my mother was being stitched up.

    Dad held me tenderly in his arms, stared deeply into my eyes, and felt a sense of family that had always eluded him until that moment. Once my mother was able to get out of bed, she took me over to the window and watched a light snow fall on Detroit. But when she stared deeply into my eyes, she told me much later that she felt overwhelming terror.

    When I was six weeks old, Mom went back to work and left me with my father and her mother. My Dad sold life insurance, pagers and whatever else would allow him to work at home so he could stay close to me. I spent the first few years of my life in the bow of his fishing boat while he fished, or playing at his feet while he did paperwork at the kitchen table. I formed the emotional attachment with my father that most children form with their mothers. My first word was ‘Daddy,’ and I was certain he hung the moon just for me.

    When I was five, my mom got pregnant again. Two children meant that my father had to face the reality that his unpredictable commission sales could not support his growing family. So he got a position with the postal service, and before he started his new job he took me to Disneyland. Sleeping Beauty had always been my favorite fairy tale, and when he took me to her castle I inhaled as much magic as my little lungs would hold.

    Filled with the imagination of Walt Disney and ready to go home, we were almost out of the park when I saw––The Train. I loved trains, and I informed my father that I was not leaving Disneyland without riding it. But the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is not your average train. It is a roller coaster ride, and my father hated roller coasters. He was certain that his cautious and sensitive daughter didn’t understand what was in store for her. He said that it wasn’t a regular train like the ones we had to wait for as they crossed the road. He explained that the Big Thunder goes fast down steep hills and even faster around sharp curves. I did not care. I announced I was not going to leave the park without riding that train. I poked my lower lip out, batted my eyelashes, turned my right toe in coyly, clasped my hands in front of me, and begged my father to take me on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

    "Pleeeuz? Oh, pleeeeeuz, Daddy?"

    The instant we hit the first downhill I tried to crawl inside his ribcage, screaming and begging him to make it stop, telling him that we were going to die and shouting that I loved him. He locked me in a tight embrace and growled through his set jaw that we were not going to die and that he loved me too, or he wouldn’t have let me talk him into riding that goddamned train.

    Our flight home to Detroit was turbulent. We flew through a formidable thunderstorm, and as lightning flashed outside the cabin windows, we sat hand in hand in tense silence. But this time it was his hand that trembled. Mine held his firm and steady. I don't know how I knew, but I knew we were not going to die.

    A few weeks before my sixth birthday our next-door neighbor made a beeline for me on the playground at morning recess to tell me that Mom had gone into labor––a few weeks earlier than anticipated––and had had a Cesarean section. They were worried that my newborn baby sister had contracted some sort of an infection and everyone was at the hospital but me. I was told to go back to class and that my grandma would be home when I got out of school that afternoon.

    The day my sister was born was the day I became an outsider in my family. My mother had surgery. My sister was in an incubator, and I had heard the news from our neighbor. They didn’t need me there. They didn’t want me there. There was nothing for me to contribute. The message was clear, I was out.

    But when I finally met my little sister the day she came home from the hospital, it was love at first sight. She was warm and heavy in my arms and she smelled like she had come straight from heaven. I knew with every cell in my body that if I accomplished nothing else in my life, I was going to have babies that smelled just like her. My parents, unamused by my appearance beside her bassinette for her 3:00 am feedings, shooed me back to bed with the admonishment, "When you grow up and have your own baby, you can take care of her!" I had been dismissed, but only temporarily. Soon, I would get more baby caring duties than I could then have imagined.

    Whenever I felt unwanted or mistreated, whenever the mean old world would get the best of my tender heart, I would hide beneath the boughs of the giant fir tree in our front yard. I’d lay down on a bed of shed needles and sweetened soil and pretend I was Sleeping Beauty laying in wait deep in the forest. I’d pretend that this life was just a bad dream, and that someday a Prince would come and wake me up with true love’s kiss. I’d pretend that we would have our own children and live in an old Victorian house, that I'd spend my days in sundresses, playing with babies, hand-feeding squirrels, and cooking barefoot. At night, my Prince Charming and I would whisper sweet nothings in each other's ears in front of a crackling fire.

    But reality pulled me out of such reveries. My grandma fell ill with Alzheimer's, grew violent, had to be hospitalized, and died within the first eighteen months of my sister’s life. Then my mother’s father died of a stroke. My mom started working even longer hours on the corporate management track, and my father worked odd hours as a federal employee with no seniority. I was expected to fill in the gaps by watching my baby sister and doing other chores until my parents came home.

    School became a nightmare. I was smart, but shy and awkward. I cared more about books than Barbie dolls and was much more comfortable in the company of adults, except for the next door neighbor’s two boys who were my best friends. None of this made me popular with other girls in my class, and I spent a great deal of time hiding from them in order to avoid their increasingly merciless bullying.

    To help build my confidence, Dad pushed me into team sports with the two Katies. They were co-leaders of the school social pack and best friends. And they hated me. I called them The Little Pit Vipers. Since all the girls’ sports were coached by The Pit Vipers’ fathers, I did the only thing I could to protect myself––I sought favor with their dads, something I found very satisfying. When we lost a basketball game because the meanest Katie refused to pass me the ball, her father called her out in front of the entire team. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from grinning as I watched the tears pour down her face.

    But a sense of belonging eluded me everywhere, at sports, at school and at home. When my father wasn’t working, he was sleeping. When my mother wasn’t working, she was busy with my sister, busy with her work papers, maybe busy trying not to lose her mind, I don't know. She didn’t seem to have enough interest or energy for both us, and my sister seemed to inspire a constant maternal intensity in my mother that I received only in my most precarious moments. I didn’t feel like a daughter. Instead, I felt like the household help. My job was to take care of my sister and do the dishes, the laundry, and the sweeping, and to take care of our pets. In other words, my job was to do everything.

    My mother never gave me any credit, status or privilege for picking up the slack. She had grown up doing all of the chores for her divorced working mother in an era when those circumstances were highly unusual and socially unacceptable for mothers. If I complained about my mother's work hours, or my increased responsibilities, or even missing her and wanting more attention, I was told to go play with the toys, "––that my salary is paying for Young Lady!"

    I began to engage my mother in countless power struggles over anything and everything. If she said the sky was blue, I set out to prove it was pink. My tongue was like a fresh straight razor, and I could cut her to the bone with just a few choice words. I can no longer recall the specific arguments and what they were about, or what I would actually say to her. But if my father heard me, his punishment was always swift and violent. He would snap, "I chose her! We had you! You can’t talk to your mother that way!" then he would leave the room. When my father took her side, it only succeeded in making her more of a target. He might as well have shaved a bull’s-eye into the back of her pixie cut.

    My mom cut her hair after my sister was born, she cut her long honey waves which had been exactly like mine, and decided to bleach her hair platinum blonde. I felt she was trying to do anything not to look like me. I was certain she hated me, and in turn I hated her stiff boxy business dresses and pantsuits, her stupid lanyard work badge with all of her award pins, and the four tote bags stuffed with files she carted around. Her attempts at a sunny disposition were physically painful for me. I thought she cared infinitely more about her success at work than she did about me or my father’s approval, and I resented that she resented cooking on weekends and holidays.

    By the time I started middle school, the tightly wound buds of my adolescence and my disdain for my mother had begun unfurling. She favored my sister openly, and did not understand the growing rivalry between us. My sister was twice the tomboy I was, a fierce opponent, with justice in her back pocket who could give as good as she got. We were staunch competitors . . . unless––a rare occurrence––one of us was facing an external threat. Then our loyalties were to each other. The rest of the time? It was civil war.

    My feminine ideal began to form around what I perceived to be my mother’s failures. Perfume became my first beauty staple. I wanted a willowy figure, long dark hair, a soft voice and a quick wit like my aunt’s, but I wanted my next door neighbor’s stylish clothes. I relished domestic life, and prided myself on having fresh coffee for my father when he got home from work. I tried to edge my way into being the master in my mother’s kitchen. I told myself that my children would be my career. If I had to work, I would do what my father did and take a job that paid the bills and allowed me sick days, and days off for practices, concerts and games. Rather than my mother's, I sought my father’s approval at every turn. My secret dream was to be a writer, but I never considered it possible to make a living that way, so I honed my domestic skills and enjoyed my mother's irritation at my increasing appropriation of her role. 

    "Would you like another cup of coffee, Daddy?" I'd ask him while my mother was deep in a pile of forms. She'd look up and I could see the brief distress in her eyes even though she quickly returned to attending to whatever work-related chore she was doing.  I did not offer, and she did not ask, for a cup of anything. 

    In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the King had Sleeping Beauty raised by the good fairies deep in the forest in an attempt to protect her from an angry fairy’s curse. The good fairies called her Briar-Rose, and she grew up not knowing that she was royalty. 

    Briar-Rose and I had a great deal in common. I did not know that my relationship with my father was fostering an innocent talent for unconscious seduction. Nor did I understand the power of my hourglass figure. Adults around me said I was built like a brick shithouse, which did not sound attractive to me. My classmates told me that girls are either smart or pretty, and when I asked my father which kind of girl I was, he said I was smart and left it at that. My question had caught him off guard, and I think maybe he was not sure I was ready to face the siren call of my bedroom eyes and already D-cup cleavage. He had taken me bra shopping and handled the start of my monthly cycles with grace and humor, but he never warned me how other men might look upon his twelve-year-old daughter.

    So, I had no idea why he became so upset when he found out that I had not paid for an ice cream since I bought my first bikini, or why he became so distressed that men honked and yelled at me when I rode my bike across town. One afternoon in seventh grade, my mom could not leave work to pick me up for my evening babysitting job. I borrowed a pair of tennis shoes, put my dress shoes in my backpack, and set out to walk across town alone.

    My calves screamed with pain, the sun was setting, and nothing looked familiar. I stopped at a bar to ask directions, and when the hostess informed me I had walked five miles in the wrong direction, I couldn’t hold back my tears. When a man in a suit offered me a ride and the hostess was unconcerned, I followed him out the door and into his car. We chatted about my babysitting job and he dropped me off at our neighbor’s house. All was well.

    Then my father found out how I had gotten home. All was not well.

    He explained to me that although it was neither right nor fair, the world is different for women than it is for men, that women are much more vulnerable. He explained that allowing me to bike across town, or walk to the drugstore, or spend the day at the lake unsupervised were privileges he gave me because I was friends with the neighborhood boys whom he trusted to look out for me. He explained that it was important that I understood that when I left the neighborhood alone (which he preferred that I not do), I needed to be cautious and aware of my surroundings. 

    Even though my parents had given me a thorough factual sex education, I didn’t know that my father was really talking about the possibility of rape. I didn’t know what rape was. I didn’t know what made me more vulnerable than the neighbor boys, but my father was never more serious than he was when he spoke to me that night. The tone in his voice underscored what I needed to learn about myself, about men. But he did not spell it out. And I got the seriousness of the message, but did not understand what the message was.

    That summer, during our annual beach vacation, I was sitting on the edge of the pool, reading, when a tall handsome blond boy sat down next to me. He was fourteen, British, stunning, and more than happy to spend a large chunk of the week by my side.  I didn’t understand why until the third day, when he held my hand while we walked on the beach. I wanted to ask him what made him notice me, why he came over and why he stayed, what made him want to hold my hand, but I didn’t dare break the spell. On the last day he kissed me goodbye, sweetly and innocently brushing his lips against mine. I found myself wishing he had not been so painfully polite all week. I found myself wanting to kiss him again. We exchanged a few letters, then lost touch.

    A few months later, my mother announced that her office was closing and we had to move to Atlanta. My father planned to stay behind in Michigan to transfer his federal job and to sell our house. I campaigned to stay with him for the six months my parents figured it would take to get everything settled, but my mother flatly refused to consider it. I was petrified to live without my father, and as I watched him disappear through the rear window of the car as my mother, sister and I headed for Atlanta, I wondered what would become of me.

    I soon found out.

    We got to Atlanta when I started high school so I began to come of age in the American South, where seduction oozes from every living thing and a strictly imposed morality bakes you until you crack like the red clay soil. My childish awkwardness evaporated like afternoon rain on hot asphalt. I was amazingly welcome among most of the cliques in my high school, without having a sense of belonging in any of them. But when the third boy I had a crush on asked me to fix him up with one of my friends, I agreed on the condition that he tell me what was wrong with me, what I had to change in order to have a boyfriend of my own.

    He felt bad about rejecting me but was genuine about answering the question. His brow furrowed, he rubbed his chin and assured me that I was cute, funny and sweet, and that there was not one single thing wrong with me. But, he told me, I needed to date older guys, maybe even a college guy, that the boys in our class had no idea what to do with me. “There is something about you that scares the absolute hell out of me. I can’t explain it to you, but I don’t think it’s bad,” he said. He asked me if I understood, I nodded my head Yes, but I really had no idea what he was talking about. I was as full of questions as I had been the night my father told me that women were more vulnerable than men.

    I arranged for a friend to live in my bedroom for a month so I could go to Michigan to see my father. We agreed with my mother that she would watch my little sister and have free time to spend time with her boyfriend who lived only two minutes away. 

    On the flight from Atlanta to Detroit, I sat next to a handsome young businessman who straightened his tie and introduced himself. We talked easily for ninety minutes and as we made our final approach, he asked me if I would have dinner with him. I straightened my green silk blouse, tugged on the hem of my black pencil skirt, put my high heels back on which I had kicked off under the seat in front of me during the flight and looked up at him. I asked him how old he thought I was. He stumbled and muttered that he thought I was in college. He said he was 24. When I told him I was 14 he looked to me as though he wanted to reach for an airsickness bag.

    When I told my Dad what happened with the man, he finally decided it was time to explain men to me. He told me that when a man meets a woman, he is mostly interested in her body. Sleeping with her is his primary objective, and if he meets that goal before he is compelled mentally or emotionally to commit himself to her, she probably will not hear from him again. He told me that if I wanted a man to stay, I should cultivate his mental and emotional interest before I slept with him. He told me that sex is not dirty or wrong, but that people make sex dirty and wrong when they are not discriminating. He told me that a man and a woman should respect each other, that they should care about each other; that, ideally, they should love each other, but that isn’t always how it works out. He told me that sex is supposed to feel good, and that a woman is supposed to feel better about herself after having sex, not worse.

    The six months of my parents' "figuring how long it would take," turned into two years. All that time my father was in Detroit while I was in Atlanta was hell on earth for me at home. I fell into a deep depression, struggled with suicidal ideation, eventually got into the habit of dropping acid on the weekends and did exactly the opposite of my father's sex advice. I fooled around with a few upperclassmen, not working on any kind of mental or emotional commitment (but not going "all the way" either). My grades slipped in any subject that required effort. I found out my parents were considering divorce. It looked as though my father was not going to ever come to Atlanta. When he let my mother break that news to me, I figured he had no plans to send for me, that he was divorcing me too, and I sat on our apartment balcony at midnight with a wine cooler and tried to absorb the fact that I had effectively been orphaned by the only person I had ever trusted.

    But my parents didn’t get a divorce. We bought a house in Atlanta and Dad moved in just before I started my junior year. But I was still so angry with him for abandoning me that when he tried to step back into the authoritative role I had accepted just a few short years before, I didn't cut him any slack. Our fights were fast moving hurricanes, dark and violent, churning the seas and snapping tree trunks like toothpicks. He never stopped trying to earn my trust back, but I forced him to relax his control to recover it.

    For my Sweet Sixteen my parents bought me an old five-speed sports car my cousin was about to trade in. It was one of my happiest years. I got a job as a waitress and was finally welcomed into an older crowd of girls with a steady stream of college guys orbiting around them. One night I shared a bottle of wine with a tall blond soccer player I'd known for a few months and we ended up in bed together. One of the girls walked in on us, and by noon the next day everyone knew about it. I was interrogated over lunch. They wanted to know if I was too drunk to know what I was doing? Did I realize that this wasn't going anywhere? Did I know he didn’t intend to have a girlfriend six years his junior? They wanted to know why I did it––why I slept with him. 

    I laughed. Why wouldn't I? I wanted to. 

    They dropped their forks and stared at me. I didn't understand what was so shocking and why they seemed so angry with me. I didn’t understand what had made these beautiful, confident girls, each of whom was dripping with admirers, so uncomfortable.

    Rather than being angry with him, I was grateful for our sexual encounter. We remained friends, and six months later when I ran into him while I was with my first real boyfriend who would later become my husband, he congratulated us. “She's a firecracker and a great girl,” he said. They shook hands, and I tried to figure out what ‘a firecracker’ meant in guy talk.

    I had met my husband-to-be just before Christmas. When his deep, rich voice rolled out of his delicious tangle of bone and sinew, I again did not follow my father's advice, I simply gave him my entire life, to do with what he would, no "preparation" required. He was four years older than I was, a tall, dark and handsome Prince Charming, with just enough mischief in his eyes to make him irresistible to me. Our relationship was a refuge from the turmoil of late adolescence and the judgement of prying eyes. We spent our time crawling the riverbanks and ridgelines of the southern Appalachians, learning the secrets of lady-slippers and wild brook trout, and the pleasures of having sex without social judgment. My father's fear that without preparing the man for commitment, he would not stay, proved totally wrong.

    We did talk. We talked about wanting the same things––traditional marriage roles like his parents had, a child or two, a comfortable rural life. We dated for three years, lived together for one, and married in 2000. I was twenty. In 2004 we moved to Asheville, North Carolina, close to our Appalachian forest playgrounds. I took over the accounting department for a small company, he worked in retail, and by 2006 we had finally made enough money for him to carry me over the threshold of our first home. I started writing for the first time and enrolled at the local community college. I felt as though we were creating my fairytale future.

    Except that my Prince Charming lost his charm, became emotionally distant, and his repressive religious upbringing contributed to an unhealthy sexual dynamic (as in no sexual dynamic, or, rather, no sex at all). We said we loved each other and I think we were best friends, but he had started a new job that would keep him out of touch for eight days at a time. I lived alone for the first time in my life during those eight day stretches. He lasted three months at the job before he quit, not because he was away for eight days, but because he hated the job. He fell into a deep depression. Three weeks later, when my small company was purchased by a private conglomerate I started to feel a lot like my working mother, they doubled my work with no increase in pay. Sleeping Beauty was waking up at the same time that her Prince Charming was losing himself.

    The financial pressure was intense, and my Prince became verbally abusive. He resented the accolades I received at my job, the good grades I got in my college classes, my writing success and my confidence, all of which, paradoxically, had been born out of his love for me. He questioned his commitment to me and admitted to a deep ambivalence about ever having children. In response, I worked double overtime just to avoid the arguments. Over the next year my husband and I completely destroyed our marriage. 

    Unable to admit the differences in our visions of the future, unable to find respite from his constant unemployment and the financial stress it created, unable to navigate the sudden shift in our respective financial powers, the only thing left to do was weaken our relationship. I did more than my fair share in that regard, but when he wrote his high school sweetheart to tell her that I was just a consolation prize that he settled for after losing her, I couldn't wait anymore:  I asked him to leave.

    I imagine he was devastated to realize that his failure to fulfill my expectations––which I had dreamed up so long ago on that bed of shed needles and sweetened soil under the boughs of a tree I’d pretended was a castle courtyard––outweighed his value to me as a person and as a husband. I was devastated to find myself the breadwinner by default, outraged at his suggestion that I loved my house more than I loved him, enraged with him for admitting he did not want children after I had given him thirteen years of my life. I realized Dad was wrong again, I had wanted my man to stay, and I had cultivated his mental and emotional interest in me for thirteen years, but it did no good at all. He did not stay. I didn't even want him to stay.

    My husband told me that he had not meant to hurt me, that he had thought time and growth would lead him in his father’s footsteps––to a happy married life with one or two kids.  He told me he thought he could avoid facing who he truly was and what he truly wanted. In our last conversation as a married couple, he admitted that what did him in was that I didn’t need him anymore. My voice cracked when I told him that he had taught me to live without him by constantly letting me down. I couldn’t believe my marriage was ending in divorce.

    My bitterness was exceeded by shame, disbelief and desperation. I had invested my youth in a man who couldn’t invest in me in any measurable way. At twenty-nine I saw my chance to have a family, my chance to fulfill my vision of ‘happily ever after,’ slip away. More than a few older women quietly advised me to ‘accidentally get pregnant,’ but I could not bring myself to give up on love, to give up on finding a real Prince Charming.

    A year later, just before my divorce was finalized, my position at work was eliminated. 

    I took my severance check to a bar and dusted off a business plan to start my own accounting firm. At thirty-years-old, I had become completely my own woman, but I was still more than a little lost and without direction. I had perfected the ability to assist the man in charge, without cultivating the aggression required to be in charge myself. But I persevered even though I might be walking five miles in the wrong direction.

    Dating was like trying to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat. Men who made good candidates on paper were odd and cloying. They offered me health insurance, vasectomy reversals, weddings and houses. And all this by the third date! But I wanted to make certain I would not repeat my past mistakes and end up with a man I loved more for the fantasy he could give me than for who he was as a person. And I no longer wanted or needed to fill in any of the blank spaces in a man’s life. All the while, my biological clock ticked.

    I had a few casual arrangements with men who were savvy enough to value my friendship and our obvious sexual chemistry, but wise enough to decline to waltz to the tune and fantasy of my Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. I discovered that because those relationships precluded the possibility of a future, they were blissfully empty of any emotional power. They provided a much needed reprieve from the dating game. As I had told my catty friends all those years ago, I liked sex! What is wrong with that?

    I was able to connect with a man in these situations without the burden of fulfilling any fairy tale fantasy. I was able to enjoy a man without creating any expectation for the future. In return each man was able to express a great deal more tenderness than any of my––Want a house? Want a wedding? Want health insurance?–– suitors. There was no power struggle in my sexual relationships. I also wasn’t constantly gauging their interest or commitment to me. I felt free––a freedom I attributed to a lack of commitment.  Dad was wrong again, one can have sex and not have any interest in getting the man to stay!

    The truth was that as my more serious relationships advanced, they mirrored my broken trust, my learned ambivalence towards monogamy, and my shaky sense of self-worth. The pattern in those relationships was that we came on strong, full of darkness and mystery, then fell hard. When our infatuation with one another and our ideal selves dissolved into reality, the relationships crumbled and so did I. None of these were bad men. In fact they were perfect, until they weren't.

    After three years of post-marriage dating I was frustrated, cynical, and growing more frantic with every passing month. So, when I met yet another man through mutual friends, I accepted his adoring advances against my better judgement, and what should have been another red flag seemed like a selling point! I knew I wasn't ready, but I didn't feel I had any more time to waste. My biological clock was throbbing like Poe’s tell tale heart. I was 32, two and a half years shy of the dreaded “advanced maternal age.” 

    We wanted the same things. Where had I thought that before?  There was something open and light about him, a kind of burning intensity that rivaled my own. Although we were very different, he was willing to engage emotionally on a level that hadn’t been possible in my marriage, and when I got pregnant a few months into the relationship we were both ecstatic. It was a gift and a relief to tell him that I was carrying his child and to see joy and excitement in his eyes, not dread.

    I moved into his house. But after a mere month our relationship began to fail under the pressure, devolving into a hostile and dangerous situation that broke both of us, like a lightning fire in an overgrown forest, the heat leaving nothing but two stumps and scorched soil. It was the relationship pattern repeated, strong, full of darkness and mystery, then falling hard, but this time I was pregnant. My death grip on my ‘happily ever after’ had blinded me to the battle he was fighting with his own demons. I did not want to admit that, in spite of not wanting to, I had once again filled in the blank spaces in someone else’s fairy tale. And I did not want to admit that I had once again found someone to fill in the blank spaces in mine.

    I did not want to admit that my insistent attachment to a fairy tale put me and my unborn child in a precarious social and financial position. Without the grace and generosity of my parents who took me in, who took us in, I would have been in a domestic violence shelter. Sadly, I still did not understand how things had gone so very wrong. Unbelievably, I could not fathom why it was so difficult to find a stable man who could hold my interest and with whom I could start a family. I still couldn’t comprehend what was so frightening about being with me. It had to be me, right?

    Then, one sweltering July night, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road, rubbing my rounding belly. A thunderstorm had rolled into the valley, the air was thick with energy, lightning dancing through the cornfield that stretched towards the ridgelines in the distance. Goosebumps on my arm served as a warning but I was unafraid, because I knew that none of the lightning bolts were for me and my baby. We could fight off a little rain, a little lightning, a little thunderstorm. I remembered how I had felt when I held my father’s hand on the flight home from Disneyland. I remembered knowing that we were not going to die. And I laughed as the raindrops erased what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of tear-stains on my face, taking gulps of air so heavily ozoned that they tasted like pennies.

    Lightning and thunder were finally breaking something loose within me. I had never been so uncertain about my future in every respect. But where there ought to have been fear, there was instead a great clear freedom, churning like ecstasy behind my ribs. I never fully understood how much of my life had been about becoming a mother until that night. I felt like a part of the storm, free and wild, fulfilled yet petrified. There was no Prince Charming, but at that moment, I knew exactly who I was. I knew I was  waking up and the rain was washing away years of addiction to a powerful, but dangerously deceptive fairy tale.

    My relatives all say that my son Jay looks just like I did when I was a baby––wheat blond hair, big squirrel cheeks, satisfyingly chunky thighs, the same toothy grin. He has his father's eyes though, gorgeous pools of icy blue. He is also less cautious and eager to please than I was as a baby, which I find encouraging. And, yes, he smelled just like heaven when he was born.

    Perhaps when he is 32 he will know himself better than I did at that age. I never intended to raise an only child with my aging parents for support instead of a life partner. I certainly never intended to have a child without a stable income. Yet, the sum of my decisions belies my intentions, it is evident in the converted crib at the foot of my bed in my parents' house. We are an untraditional family, despite and because of my best efforts. I smile when I think back on my mother shooing me back to bed when I got up for my sister’s early morning feedings. I smile again thinking about the operating room nurse handing Jay to my sister while the obstetrician finished my cesarean section. The sister who had been my arch-rival for so very long has been a devoted aunt since my first bout of morning sickness. We were now fighting a rare external threat––life itself––together. We were invincible.

    After Jay was born, I swore I would never love a man again. It seemed as though I had run out of chances at romantic love, that The Fates had finally made me a mother and that’s all I needed and it was all I was going to get. I tried to move on. But eventually I went on a few dates to prove to myself that I could, and to pacify friends and family horrified by my decision not to try anymore. Perhaps it is just as well that nothing came of those dates, because as the summer wore down I quietly began to accept my fate, my life, myself. I wonder if Sleeping Beauty ever did that?  But hers is a fairy tale and my life is real.

    When the air turned crisp in the fall of 2013, a charming intelligent stranger with his own brand of darkness and a heart-catching grin, slowly and confidently graced the doorway of the empty room in my heart. Just as I had begun to board up the windows and strip the sheets, he set his bag at the foot of my bed, took the armchair in the corner, gave me a look-see with one raised eyebrow, then opened a newspaper, nonplussed by the bare mattress and the appearance that I had closed up shop. He let me know he was here to stay.

    Sleeping Beauty has indeed finally awakened, but it was not because Prince Charming finally made it through the briars that ripped his predecessors to shreds to save her. My lover does help me cultivate a deep understanding of what it means to love without expectation. Nine months ago, I tweeted a lyric from a very old, tired song. “I'd like to know if your love is a love I can be sure of, so tell me now, and I won't ask again, will you still love me tomorrow?”  He replied, “But I haven't finished loving you today yet!" As far as I can tell, he isn't going to finish any time soon.


    In the German version of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty is awakened by her newborn son suckling at her breast, and that is exactly what happened to me. Someday my son will want to understand how he came to be a part of the world. He will want to know why his father does not live with us, why he doesn’t see his parents at the same time. He will wonder why the love that made him did not last. He may even feel that my relationship now is a betrayal of his father. Perhaps he will judge my decisions harshly. Maybe he will wish I were different, as I used to wish my own mother would be. And maybe he even will doubt my love for him.

    I will tell him that I am not exempt from human flaws and from making mistakes. I will tell him that in order to understand and respect me as a person, he will need to broaden his perspective beyond my role as his mother, as I had to do with my own mother. I will admit that I once hated her. My son will have to learn, as I did, the difference between fantasy and reality. I will tell him that the sooner he takes responsibility for his own suffering, the more peace and love he will ultimately find. 

    It is not an accident that I’m raising my son under my parents’ roof. Overcome with shame and unable to forgive myself or Jay’s father, I couldn’t absorb the reality of my life and make peace with my past on my own. Buddhism helped me to understand that the way we relate to the world creates our circumstances. Living with my parents and being dependent on them for financial assistance and child-rearing is sometimes hard on my ego. But when I watch my son laugh and play with my parents, I remember my own happy days playing at the feet of my father, and I am overcome with gratitude for their help, and for his happiness.  I never experienced the terror my mother did at my own birth. I have only known the reality that his life has been fulfilling to mine.

    Living with my mother isn’t always easy. The undercurrent of our old fighting playbooks still runs deep sometimes. But my understanding of and respect for the decisions she made in her life has deepened considerably because of my own experiences. Pregnancy and new motherhood certainly qualified as one of my most precarious moments, and when I needed her most, she came through with a large dose of maternal intensity. Now I am the one who hopes to earn the respect and understanding of my mother.

    Navigating Jay’s first year with my nuclear family instead of a partner was incredible. I didn’t have to nurture a marriage while raising an infant and adjusting to motherhood––my mother could put any licensed lactation consultant to shame. And my father, long past struggling in a new job, was damned near impervious to being overwhelmed. His insight and devotion were breathtaking in those first few months. He often sent me to bed with a sandwich while settling Jay on his chest for a rest. He watched me carefully for postpartum depression, reminding me that every new mother struggles to feel comfortable in her skin again. We still argue occasionally, and some of those storms are still worth naming, but grace is as sure as the dawn.

    Grace is what had been missing from all of my failed relationships. Grace is what felt so elusive in my relationship with my mother. Grace is what had been missing from my relationship with myself. The only hope love has––between parents and children, between lovers, between friends––is grace, and I learned the hard way that a lack of grace is the biggest difference between attachment and real love.

    I slowly adjusted to the social sphere again and, prideful though it sounds, I admit I still stop traffic occasionally. But my beauty and physical strength reside in a full awareness of their impermanence, rather than in their unconscious manipulation in order to fulfill a fantasy. Funny, but turning heads is flattering now that I’m unconcerned about turning hearts.

    Oddly, reality these days isn't too far from my happily ever after. The squirrels are coming within three feet of me. I spend my days playing with my son, and I write something nearly every night. There are plenty of sundresses and barefoot cooking. Not much cuddling with Prince Charming, but all the sweet somethings I ever longed for. Belonging is still unfamiliar territory. I haven't quite yet found my place in the world. How could I? I've only just woken up!

    I’m happy to say that my own love-worn copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is on my son’s bookshelf now, where it belongs. He slides it out of his way whenever he reaches for "The Story of Ferdinand."

More Versions of the Tales of Sleeping Beauty


Author info: Catherine Wells

    Catherine Wells and her son live in Asheville, North Carolina with her family. She recently shuttered her personal website in favor of exploring conversation on social media platforms. She is a practicing Buddhist and writes about that spirit journey and discipline on her Blog.


The photograph by Bill Knight at the opening of this article is of the sculpture, Summer Flower - (Soapstone - H: 35cm, W: 35cm).

About the Sculptor, Anne Curry

    Born in France, educated in Bordeaux (Institut des Sciences Politiques), Paris (Sorbonne) then Oxford University (Doctorate in Egyptology). Worked in publishing in Paris, then settled in England. Started sculpting in the late eighties.

    She is a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. She has established a reputation as a portrait sculptor and one of her more prestigious commissions includes a portrait of the former Prime Minister John Major for the House of Commons in London.

    Out of bare fields in her home in East Anglia, she has created an exceptional garden which is at the core of the inspiration for her monumental sculpture. She is profoundly struck by the mathematical rules which underpin the process of growth in the natural world, and strives to translate in her work this inner energy. Her large sculptures have been exhibited widely in the UK and in France.

Link:  Anne Curry