It is good to be prepared. I've rarely been prepared for anything in my life, and in general find myself shocked by most of the situations I find myself in. But motherhood, that was something I felt equipped to handle, thrive in and even excel at.
I don't know why. Maybe it's a gene. My sister has six kids and I was a nanny for ten years as my side job. Obviously we like mothering. I don't know who passed this gene on. I know my mother loved us but she also told us that she was never interested in babies; she wanted children because she looked forward to the conversations, rich and full, in the later years. She loved to tell people that she was at the Saks Fifth Avenue glove sale two days after she gave birth to me.
I recently began to look over the pages of the first two years of my daughter's life in the photo album of my mind. My cherub running toward the water lilies in Central Park. Our walks in the fall by the Ramble. Her sleepy body face-down in a pile of yellow leaves, protesting her lack of exhaustion. Nursing her as a newborn while reading novels and memoirs and a true crime novel about a serial killer in Paris. She slept on my lap for hours while I read and dozed and stared at her.
I have been preparing. I have been waiting for the moment to come and even though it has–at last–I find myself in a dark wood with no flashlight. My daughter and I managed a perfect harmony long past our fair share. And now she must, by turns sudden and sharp, while running back for sustenance and the pretense that it isn't happening turn her back on me.
My daughter had a long late nap today. She woke up confused and disgruntled. She called out for mama. I was asleep on the couch and my husband, working from home, went to get her. There had apparently been some discussion of an outing to a summer carnival in Central Park called Victorian Gardens. I quietly reminded my husband that it was 95 degrees outside. He instantly realized his error and told our cherub that it had best wait until Friday, when the air would cool to a tolerable degree.
She wailed piteously. Mama, Mama…This primal cry is an automatic distress signal, going back to the days before words, when only the breast or the smell of mother could calm her inarticulate anguish. I thought up some ideas.
“Why don't we take her to that ridiculous place where they make mugs and you can paint them?” I suggested to my frazzled husband, the architect of his child's sudden woe. We'd never done it before; it's a hideous waste of money and about as creative as a coloring book. As a nanny, I'd disdained the place for years. But it's a heat wave and my silly husband mentioned Victorian Gardens and my child rarely cries when plans change and it felt important to make it right this time, rather than hand down a lesson in coping with reality.
She loved the idea. And then, as we got dressed to go, she said, “I don't want you, Mommy. Only Daddy can take me.”
I took it on the nose (and in the stomach, heart and soul.) I got quiet.
“Okay. It's not polite to express your feelings so bluntly, but it's perfectly fine if you want me to stay behind.”
I saw a flicker of remorse–good–we await the growth of conscience in our children the way we do fingers and toes at each ultrasound during pregnancy. Still, she stuck to her guns and was pleased I had backed out graciously.
It will continue now. There will be more begging for cuddles followed by sudden rebukes. She must free herself of this all-encompassing mutual admiration society somehow, for god's sake. She must rip off the Bandaid. It’s just that I was certain I was prepared. I was wrong.
I know she'll be back. And we'll have something stronger and more profound as the years go on. She'll ask me what I think of a book, a movie, a hairstyle. We'll talk. I'll do my best to answer only questions that have been asked and to otherwise keep my distance. She'll tell me when she needs me. Having had a mother who depended quite desperately on me emotionally for most of my life, I can't bear to think of my own daughter finding me burdensome or obligatory for even a moment. I want her to have in me an example of a person who stands on her own two feet and has obligations to her own dreams: passions beyond nuzzling her child's sweaty neck after she has gone to bed. Even if sometimes she doesn't.
I wept when they left. I wandered a maze of memory, starting with my running down the hall to the hospital nursery when they told me she was crying. She was two-days-old; I was alone, my husband having been forced out by nine each night. They wouldn't let me keep her with me in my room alone, because I had had a c-section. They didn't allow running down the halls either, but I couldn't care less.
They brought her out of the nursery and handed her to me.
“Mama's here.” I said. “Mama's here.” She went right to sleep. We were one. She slept in my arms for the remainder of my hospital stay. She still sleeps there most nights.
I felt resentful tonight and stewed in some sharper-than-a-serpent's-tooth juices.
And then they came home. She rushed toward me, cheeks glowing, and breathlessly presented me with a gift. It was a ceramic angel, coated in glitter and painted bright red.
“I made this for you, Mama!” She squealed. “Mama, it's an angel, you see? Daddy and I painted her and I chose the color and it's for you. I made it for you.”
I couldn't help but laugh. Here was my angel, giving me an angel, painted a devilish red. She couldn't have written a better metaphor if she knew how to write or knew what metaphors were.
I held her in my arms and she told me how pretty my hair looked tonight and asked me if I was tired. Could I give her a bubble bath?
At story time, her father came in to give her a kiss.
“I need some space, Daddy.”
How very cruel a two-year-old can be. More and more she reminds me of The Little Prince, abandoning his home planet because he cannot handle his feelings for his rose anymore. It's just too much to feel and there are other planets to be explored.
I put the red angel on the mantle. She can visit it whenever she comes home. It was her gift to me, and I intend to keep it.