The Feminist Breeder, who just gave birth to her own daughter this morning (congratulations, Gina!), recently launched a “Letter to My Daughter” guest post series. It ran on her blog from March through April.
I intended to respond to TFB’s call for submissions with my own piece a couple months ago, but couldn’t synthesize my thoughts quickly enough to keep up with the horde. So, assuming there isn’t anything proprietary about the concept, I’m offering up my “letter” here, instead.
There were congratulations. But, mostly, I remember stunned silences, cautious questions testing the water: “How do you feel about … this?”
All their unchecked enthusiasm had been spent on your brother, who was born a little more than a year before we learned that you – or some incipient, translucent-skinned version of you – existed.
Stuart’s arrival narrative seemed to have been plucked from the Middle-American Domesticity Playbook. The main players, then, were your father and me: a two-years-married couple living in a cozy, shabby, one-bedroom apartment, wishing for a baby. And when we had one, people were happy for us. We were happy for us.
We could still live, cozily and shabbily, in the one-bedroom apartment with your brother; it was still a “romantic” kind of hand-to-mouth existence. But when we bought an abandoned house on the cheap and spent our evenings and weekends renovating, baby chewing his fist on a yoga mat while we made the neglected lath-and-plaster walls persimmon and cocoa and robin’s egg blue – well, people were even happier for us. We were “growing the nest,” “building sweat equity.” Everything was delicately balanced. But we were doing it the Right Way, the careful, considered way that didn’t raise eyebrows or make waves. A small, young family, teeming with optimism and determination, snug and insular like the Three Bears from a fairytale.
That would make you Goldilocks, I guess. You ate the porridge. You upended the chairs. You rumpled the covers on the family bed.
Except, you weren’t, and you didn’t.
I took a positive pregnancy test on Valentine’s Day, 2008, after, in the depths of winter, I started feeling familiarly nauseous.
“Do you think you could be …?” your father laughed, nervously.
It was a funny thought. Gallows humor, I remarked, wryly, in retrospect. I hadn’t had a period in nearly two years, and, remembering how we had tried and tried for months to conceive your brother, charting temperatures, trying to divine the subtlest signs and symptoms — pregnancy struck me as the least likely explanation for my sudden food aversions, my sensitivity to certain smells, and my bone-deep exhaustion.
Yet there, on the test, were two Valentine-pink lines.
As we started sharing the news, some weeks later, we responded to those stunned silences and cautious questions with, “It was a ‘surprise’!”
That was our diplomatic slant, side-stepping the awkward details. “Surprise,” we thought, conjured up birthday parties and Easter eggs and errant five-dollar bills found in the lint trap. Good things.
Still, we heard a lot of replies cautioning, “Don’t ever tell the baby that.”
They meant we shouldn’t tell you that you were unplanned, and, by extension, “an accident.” Or, even worse, “a mistake.”
The thought makes me heart-hurt.
You see, even though I’m not a fatalist — far from it — I believe that you were meant for our family, that, in the end, we needed you. I, especially, needed you.
Stuart was first, was my only point of reference for having a child. So comparisons are hard to avoid. Please don’t mistake that for meaning he is the gold standard, though. You are each other’s complements and foils, and were since the day you came home (your brother, unable to pronounce your name, simply calling you “Bébé” with an inscrutable French lilt).
And do you want to know a secret? I enjoyed your babyhood more. Because I was more comfortable the second go-‘round, sure. But also because, while Stuart wrested himself away from kisses and howled inconsolably for hours and ineffectually pummeled the air with his angry little fists, you were a serene-faced observer: my little piece of luggage. I guiltily sent Stuart to daycare most weekdays while I was on maternity leave from work, and you and I would make a nest of pillows on the couch. You nursed and burrowed into my body, and I tucked you under my chin and we both slept the sweetest sleep.
That is one way you helped me. You gave me some absolution for the times I had cried along with Stuart; for burning out the motor on a blow dryer when its steady, white noise roar was all that would calm him; even for blearily letting him tumble off of the nursing pillow after dragging myself from bed for the twentieth feeding of that interminable stretch of brightening and darkening hours that everyone else flippantly called “a day.” (We were both shocked into alertness. And, again, we cried, together). You showed me that I wasn’t the source of this, that I wasn’t to blame for being anxious or unproven.
A doctor on his rounds when I was discharging from the hospital after Stuart was born told me, in a failed attempt to reassure, “Not everyone is a natural mother.” At the time, I thought that my ineptness was so transparent; I was so unmistakably a lost cause.
You showed me that what the doctor should have said is, “No one is a natural mother.” Maybe some play the part more convincingly: more fluidly, with fewer false starts. “Nature” – inherency – neglects the two-sidedness, the give and take of burgeoning relationships, though. The parent has the advantage in terms of years logged on Earth; the baby is putty-like, primal. But, nonetheless, both have to stumble into the dance, negotiating the rhythms of each other’s personality. Stuart and I flailed and staggered for weeks, months before we reached that accord. The moment you and I locked eyes, it seemed were gracefully in step.
Now? You are two-and-a-half and a firecracker. You take off running, head down, hurtling forward and not stopping for anything. You pretend our cats are babies that you are defending from werewolves on the prowl. (You extend your arm and mime “shooting” them. “Do you have a wand?” I ask. “No,” you reply, “A gun.”). Combing is not on your agenda, so we keep your hair short and disheveled. You love unsentimental Children in Trouble movies; Spirited Away and Coraline are your favorites. The parents are ineffectual and the girls are impudent and brave. I probe your preference for deeper meaning – because that’s what I do.
I want to keep you this way: so fully yourself, and unafraid. You might grow your hair long, and wash the slick of raspberry jam from your chin, and start thinking that spelt cereal and black coffee is a more judicious breakfast choice than “chocolate waffles and marshmallows.” Those things don’t matter. It’s that real kernel of you-ness I want to preserve: the one so easily stifled in girls.
And, yes, your being a girl is the fulcrum, here. For years, I have read about the fragility of girls’ identities – or, to reframe, the unrelenting assault our society wages on them. Studies and anecdota, all commenting, grimly, on the waxing and forced waning of girls’ sense of autonomy. Not to mention that I was a little girl once, too. It only seems real and menacing now that I have a coltish, feisty girlchild of my own, though: threatened, yet blissfully unaware.
It is, I think, is your greatest gift to me. Just your existence has made me un-lazy about redressing all of this mess – doing it, of course, by making sure you know how extraordinary you are … but also by striving to model self-acceptance. That isn’t something that comes easily for me at all. Nonetheless, being your mother is making me realize that if I value the individual beauty of other women and girls, if I want their intellect and ideas to be treated with deference, if I believe their passions are worthy of being pursued, if I know that their emotions are legitimate, I need to believe the same standard applies to me, too. Whether I like it or not, I am your Adult Woman Archetype. Every off-handed swipe at my own competence and worth has the potential to register as a hairline crack in your sense of self. So, simply, I am learning to be kinder to myself: for you and because of you.
That is why I am going to flout those warnings and say it, plainly. MaryAlice, you were a surprise.
You were a surprise better than a birthday party or Easter egg or five-dollar bill. You upset complacent balances that needed upsetting; but you also threaded your confidence around the weaker stalks of my own and made us both more resilient.
Keep the surprises coming.