The first twenty weeks of pregnancy were the hardest for me. I was afraid of miscarriage, I was nauseous and I could only eat Saltines in any great quantity (torture for a any foodie). But I was also afraid that I was having a boy. Instead of confronting my feelings, I decided to believe that I was having a boy and dedicated a full 20 weeks to getting used to the idea (getting happy about it would have to come later). When we had our first sonogram and discovered that our little babe was indeed a girl, my eyes leaked a steady stream of tears for 40 minutes straight. A girl! A girl! I no longer had to pretend that my firstborn’s gender didn’t matter.
After 41 weeks, Ayla came out of the womb exactly as I had hoped. She was alert and beautiful and even at the age of 4 days, she had a smug little grin that made me laugh. With every passing day, I had more cause to celebrate. People constantly stopped me to compliment her perfect features and even temperament. Someone suggested that she become a spokes-baby for diapers and pureed carrots in a jar (No thank you!). She learned to crawl at 6 months, walk at 9 ½ months and was speaking and signing by 11 months (whether any of this is objectively miraculous is irrelevant; I thought my baby was tops). Ayla didn’t appear to have any fears, she loved being outdoors, was naturally social and so on and so on. She was everything I hoped she would be. Or, more accurately, she was everything I would have wanted to be as a baby.
And then, the temperature dropped and I saw a different side of her. Now I had to face the part of her that cringed when the wind blew (my fearless daughter, cowed by a brisk wind?) and that said “NO” to the prospect of wintry adventures. After eighteen months of us jointly digging in the dirt, jumping in mud puddles and dancing in the rain, my daughter was becoming something different than I wanted, and had expected.
I’m ashamed of my unspoken and verbal responses to her completely reasonable decision to brave the winter indoors. I engaged in name-calling (silently deciding she was a “wimp”) and threw minor tantrums (“What? You don’t want to go outside? FINE. We’ll stay in.) My mind began to do what it does best—it began to attach conditions to my love for Ayla and to try to chip away at the bond that I felt was unbreakable.
It was my first experience of involuntary separation from my child—the first time that I was forced to acknowledge that although Ayla is my bosom buddy and my best friend, we’re different people and this will not be the last time that she takes a step away from me. In fact, this is the first of many leaps she’ll make towards achieving her own identity, and with it, her independence (from me).
My job in all of this is to accept her, just as she is. No matter that she’ll make decisions that I’ll disagree with, or even disrespect. I have to remember that my role as a parent is not to form her, but to embrace her, as she evolves into herself. My brain knows this to be true, but still, when faced the prospect of loosening the mother-child bond, I’m scared. How will I ever let go of my one and only precious child?
I remember seeing a play called Flesh and Blood (adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name) at the New York Theater Workshop in 2002. Near the end of the final act, the mother character, played by Cherry Jones, is confronted with yet another disappointment from her daughter (who later commits suicide). For thirty years, she has comforted and supported her children through their decisions to love people who didn’t love them in return, to run away from their problems and to punish themselves instead of loving who they are. With each revelation, she has never strayed from her unconditional love. Then, finally, her daughter presents her with something that she thinks she cannot bear to accept (I won't say what; I don't want to spoil it for you). Cherry pauses, and along with her, the entire audience holds it’s breath. If a mother cannot love her child through everything, then what hope have we got for the future of the American family?
Cherry looks up into the blackness, knowing she has a choice. She can take her daughter in her arms and love her, but she has ample justification to turn around and walk out the door.
But ultimately, she is a mother. And she cannot reject her child—not for being who she is. The doors of her heart burst open. The daughter begins to cry, because her mother’s acceptance is the deepest affirmation of herself...of her beautiful, fallible self.
I didn’t quite understand the play until now. Great art often takes years to reveal itself to us. But now I get it. I understand that my task is to remain open in the years and decades to come, as my child reveals herself to me, and to others. My role as a parent is to accept her whole self, and if I'm strong enough, to appreciate every dab on the canvas as a small part of a great masterpiece.