This morning I stepped outside into the early dark. A light rain hung in the air. It smelled like a Blue Ridge Mountain morning. It smelled like North Carolina, it smelled like so many mornings I've known. I took deep breaths, filled my lungs and longed a little for my childhood home. Something in that deep familiar made think of my strong and beautiful daughter.
I always wanted children. As a child myself I tended dolls, carried cousins on my hip and helped my neighbor make bottles for her baby on Saturday afternoons. After she poured the formula mixture into the sleeves I’d created by pulling plastic liners over hard-formed bottles, I’d fit nipples through twist bands and lock them tightly. We’d make eight at a time and I still remember the sour smell of formula on my hands and the orange rows of bottles on the refrigerator shelf.
When I was thirteen I changed my brother’s diapers and at nineteen I rocked my sister to sleep on our front porch swing. I remember the weight of her small, curled hand in my lap as she slept. This is what I want, I thought, not now, but some day.
When Eliza was born more than ten years later, as any mother will tell you, I never knew I could love someone as much as I loved her. By the time she came along we’d had a few false starts that ended in drives to the emergency room and months of sorting out why. So it was also with deep gratitude that I held my baby close in those early months.
It’s strange that I could not have known then that we’d be so deeply tied because I’m sure that’s when those bonds formed. My breath and hers tangled together in the early morning hours to create something beyond either of us and we didn’t even mean to. She’s my first child and sometimes she feels like an extension of me. She has the curve of my face, the color of my eyes. She stares at other people in restaurants, just as I do, trying to figure out where they’ve come from, who they are. She’s compassionate and sensitive. If someone is unkind to her she wants to know why. That sense of justice is raw and unwavering.
The other day I saw through the glass door of her classroom an interaction with another child. I couldn’t hear what happened but I didn’t need to. Eliza said something to him, he shirked her and turned away. When she turned her face, I saw the disappointment there. I don’t understand written across her lowered eyes.
We have passed beyond the threshold where everyone is supposed to play nice or check in with a friend who has hurt feelings. I know this. I also know these schoolyard games will continue. But when I see the effects of rejection on my tiny child I try to pick apart her experience from ones I’ve known and I have a hard time separating her feelings from my own. I feel what she feels, for better or worse. This is one part of motherhood I didn’t see coming.
My daughter lives in a netherworld somewhere between boy and girl. She plays rough, climbs trees and digs in the sand. She’s not interested in swinging with the girls but sometimes the boys aren’t interested in playing with her because she is a girl. They are kindergartners and these things matter some days. They are starting to realize that there are differences between boys and girls but they are not mature enough to realize when they really matter. Sometimes my daughter gets caught in that crossfire.
I nurse my own sense of rejection as I watch her grapple with hers. In fifth grade when Allison and Laurie told me they wanted to best friends, in seventh grade when it seemed I had no friends, in college when I didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Even as an all grown up mother of two in conversations that make me feel isolated and alone, it’s there.
Standing in the hallway that day I thought of ten different ways to address Eliza’s disappointment. We’ll change schools, we’ll home school, I’ll pull that boy out by his ear. But I suppose none of these are the right answer though the need to do something was nearly overwhelming. Eventually she saw me standing at the door. She smiled and ran over. I scooped her up in her camo pants and light up Spiderman shirt.
"You're amazing," I whispered in her ear.
She wrapped herself around me and held on tight. In that moment we had what we both needed.