How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

1381721_10151732123098527_489875250_n

She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

Breathe Into the Bag.

Sing invented songs for every action. Hold toys utensils clothing foodstuff at eye level and label it — every time. She counted to twelve in the morning. Make her draw straight lines — both vertical and horizontal. Make her draw circles. If she resists, place your hand over hers and guide her toward it. She looks deeply into my eyes and says with firm convention things I cannot comprehend. Hand her her clothing; putting on her clothes is a 28-month-old skill. In August, when summer starts its slow, hot last hurrah, she will be three.

Here is yet another yellow carbon; read every line, as it reiterates what they’ve told you. Decide on whether she will go to school in the fall; it may be prudent to place some of the impetus for acquiring these skills on a classroom, a teacher, on interaction with other children. She jokes; she laughs at appropriate moments; she says, “Delicious!” “Mmm, yummy!” “That’s not funny!” She says tons of moderately discernible things, knows the alphabet, identifies letters out of sequence, has the patience to wait for the resolution of a story. Note that this yellow carbon has been careful to credit her for what she does well: uses catch phrases appropriately. Picks up visual cues fairly quickly, is excellent with rhythms. Appreciate that no one who visits your home is condescending; the women seem duly charmed by your daughter. Do not assess their genuineness. Try not to be fearful of her upcoming ear test, though one of the women has mentioned that some of the children she visits have needed their adenoids removed, have — like your daughter — never had ear infections, but may still have standing fluid in their ears making it difficult to hear.

Do not spend every waking moment wondering what is wrong. Make knots in the rope, at each interval where you’ve already been given a solution; use those to climb. She sings hourly; her voice, a modulating lilt, is rarely off key. She plays the piano for over 30 minutes, rarely choosing to hop down from the stool. Imagine her a virtuoso. Imagine her an American Sign Language interpreter for the UN. Imagine her in a concert hall, bringing up a well of sound and pitching it forth with her whole body.

Do not be so quick to cry when your mothering feels micromanaged; no one believes you are bad at it but you. (But would it hurt to hear that you’re good at it from the people who see you do it most?) Do not be ungrateful. Articulate your need to discover more of this on your own; becoming a grandparent — even a live-in one — does not mean re-parenting your own child. Do not take advantage of the other caring eyes and hands; she is yours, and the memory of her daily needs is yours to initiate. Meet them before you must be reminded.

When you are not with her, do not leave so much of yourself at her feet. But also avoid giving the same fathoms of love to those you’re with; the bottomless concern, fierce protectiveness, and doting adoration with which you parent are not owed to anyone else. It will likely be misconstrued. Who could ever understand the rawness of it, save perhaps the single father, save perhaps the man who mourns?

Meet the home visit teacher at the library, to join the special playgroup. It will be good for her, she says, and it will be good for you. You will meet other mothers who are going through this. Do not think the phrase “going through this.” This is not a malady, just a difference.

Go back. Start short and slow. Do not overwhelm her. Forget sentences for now. Forget enunciation. Forget how we treat our children like thoroughbreds. Forget whatever inadequacies you’ve developed as a mother and a daughter and a lover and a friend. And just sit with what is happening. Quiet your raging, voluminous insecurities. Tell God you’re sorry; He will know for what and why. She likes farm songs. Cow is one of her clearest, most confident words. She does animal impressions. Imagine her the next Temple Grandin. She likes sky; she is a budding Mae Jemison. Imagine no one else. She is herself herself herself. Do not compare her. She is herself herself herself. And she is mine. 

Mother as Mountain, as Sky.

When he surfaces, so long after you’ve abandoned imagining that men like him exist, you are flummoxed, but only fleetingly. You do not realize at first how ready you’ve been.

You thought you would be more hesitant, that your years since becoming a mother had morphed you into martyrdom, a voluntary consignment: its length the duration of your daughter’s childhood, its berth too wide to breach.

He enters into view and as you regard his easy grin, it occurs to you how long you’ve been blocking your natural flow of endorphins, denying estrogen surges, enabling a kind of psychic sterilization.

You believed you would spend a full 18 years depriving yourself of new love.

But in that flash between flummoxing and pardon, an iron gate has unlatched. You, remembering suddenly that you are all woman, as well as all mother, hear an echo, a flutter: I am no martyr.

If you were, you wouldn’t be hastening toward him. You wouldn’t be brushing your cheek against the course range of hair on his face and purring like a cat who’s found a home. You wouldn’t entrust him with your hands, wouldn’t gaze down at the half-moons scalloped under his fingernails and wish on them.

Your gait is neither measured nor wary; you rushed to him. It has been too long since your heart hoped for more than the half-love that co-parents can sometimes rekindle, for more than the comforts of a companionship not unlike broken in boots or limb-stretched sweaters. You’d nearly forgotten how it felt to steal away when all was quiet and whisper feverish nothings to someone who does not yet know you well enough to discard or destroy you.

It is new, the nerve endings snapping to attention again, the trail of thoughts that lead far away from nursery rhymes and apple juice boxes, and even the guilt you feel at leaving behind the illusions you’d held so long of one partner, one family, some structure you’d hoped could be retroactively whole, the guilt at shattering what’s left of the glass.

It is all so new.

When you tell your ex, he is stunned; he could no more foresee it than you could. You realize you were grasping at the selfsame straws. You realize how empty of half-moons your hands have been.

There are fears you are holding at bay, but rather than repressed, they must be purged. You will not enter this new house haunted. For your daughter must understand her mother as a woman who can handle complexities, who can cast an alchemy of friendship and motherhood and romance that sates us all. She must understand that we do not only receive one chance, one love, one faltering per lifetime. We are a species that thrives amid opportunities; it is only when we bar ourselves from seizing them that we truly fail. She must know that love can be the most nourishing opportunity of all; the more you let in, the larger you loom–and right now, her mother is a mountain, is a sky.

The Ripple of Reelection: Thoughts on Voting as a New Mother.

I am imagining a teenage future. In it, you are inches taller than I, your WNBA-length fingers hovering over the hologram-enabled screen of the latest palm-sized tablet. You are engaged in no fewer than six conversations, aside from the one I am about to initiate. I will not know by looking at you if you are ready to listen.

We will have this talk two years before you’re old enough to register. My hope is that whoever has taken office then will bear some cultural, ideological, or experiential resemblance to the man we re-elected last Tuesday. If she does, what I have to  tell you will seem less like a tall tale or a fable. If he does not and if your memory is less than keen, you may believe I’m romanticizing an invented past.

The truth is: when you were two, we voted for Barack Obama to reclaim the highest office in the land. I pressed a decisive finger on the electronic ballot screen, with you in my arms. You were as still and as quiet as you are when we first enter sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

You have always understood when a moment calls for reverence.

By then, we had been standing in the hallway of a local middle school for two and a half hours. We were part of a serpentine trail of mostly brown bodies, a community very clearly comprised of members of the working and middle classes. The air around us pulsed with purposeful energy.

Though some complained at the length of the wait — projected, at first, to be three hours —  most were either patient, but steely, or bursting forth with optimistic banter: It’s good to see so many out, exercising their rights– and look at all these young folks!

The youth vote is cherished. Earning it makes us feel calmer about the imminent state of the world we’ll leave behind. An eighteen-year-old, regardless of whether she is won over by rhetoric, emotion, or careful study of each candidate’s platform, is a sapling in a marshland, a newly hatched chick in an aviary for the endangered. For the parents, the middle-aged, and the elders, you — more than any candidate or speech — are the hope of our nation.

I did not know this at your age. I’d heard it, but only as saccharine sentiment, as lyrics in a chart-topping Whitney Houston pop cover, as so much white noise amid the drone of my own angst. Even at 19, I could not be convinced that my participation was integral to the maintenance of a functioning democracy. But I still began to vote that year, like the dutiful descendant of a people once considered three-fifths human that I am.

It seemed a moral obligation, if mostly a ceremonial one, every ballot cast a pouring of libation for the brothers and sisters who are no longer here.
I wasn’t sure what it meant. Between the influence of the electoral college, the fact that my state rarely yielded close-call election results, and my general ambivalence about candidates and their concern for the needs of people like us, voting did little to make me feel less insignificant.

This changed, of course, with the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama, then a mere Senate candidate, delivered his iconic Audacity of Hope address. I suspect that, by these, your teenage years, this speech will have been canonized in history texts and delivered ad nauseum in youth oratory contests. But you will no more grasp what it meant to hear it in real time than I can ascertain how the marchers felt on the Mall, as the musings of Martin Luther King Jr. billowed around them like a baptismal tide.

For better or worse, politics that engage the emotions are most effective with the portion of the electorate whose attitudes most resemble mine. Political agents with the power to move you will always be able to compel you to act, even when you can’t entirely comprehend why. What moves you, however, is more a reflection on you than on them. And this election, this battle to retain incumbency, was a prime example of that.

Those moved toward the idea of a diverse and inclusive America, wherein citizens and lifelong residents can carve their home-shaped space, voted for progress and forward motion, voted with an eye toward an inevitably altering national landscape. Those wistful for the days of fewer liberties for all and a glut of power and wealth for those who’ve always held it cast their vote for the man who promised to redeem what they believed they’d lost. And more than in any other election during which I’ve been eligible to vote, the distance between those movements widened.

An hour after we’d entered the voting line, I looked down at you, absently smoothing wisps of your hair, and worried that you wouldn’t hold up for the slow march toward the school cafeteria.

But regardless of how long it took, you rallied. You played foot games with the elderly man behind us, got a cluster of first-time-voting teens to join you in a game of follow-the-leader. You peeked around my legs as though they were pillars and used them to hide your face from the family five feet back.

It occurred to me that, as a people, we have always known when to wait. Even when restless or resistant, we can intuit the import of tarrying. It  mean the difference between triumph or a trap.

Then, as has been the case with so many things in my life after you were born, my reasons for voting became crystalline. As we stood on that line together last week, I realized just how greatly what we were doing as a precinct, as a city, as a state, as a country would impact how you live, how you’re educated, how you’re employed, how much debt you’ll acquire, how high a tax you’ll pay for the life you lead, how you’ll retire, how you’ll view equality….

The ripples were endless.

Someday soon you will apprehend what it means to be American. It is to feel at once horrified and resplendent. It is knowing that your life is, in many ways, a summation of your country’s choices. Until then, vote for whichever reasons you wish. Wait until the revelations come to you.

Jump at De Sun.

You have unassailable rhythm. This is a characteristic we noticed, even before you began to develop fine motor skills. You were three months old, and you could hit a drum with a mallet. You could keen your ear to cadences. The small cymbals of a tambourine shook under the strike of your infant palm. You hummed melodies before your mouth could form the ovals and planes necessary to pronounce lyrics.

Like so many children, you possess a raw musicality, a boundless curiosity in all instrumentation. But I also see an inkling of discipline in you, a commitment to practice quite unusual in two-year-olds. It is the rare day that passes without you asking to play your great-nana’s electric piano. Once you’re lifted onto the stool, it is difficult to coax you down. The praise you receive is too rapturous; the power you feel when the pads of your fingers elicit a chord is too intoxicating. We know that, if allowed, you would stay there for more than an hour as long as we were also there to laud you.

As your mother, it is my imperative to nurture this quality in you, even as it awes and unsettles me. My charge is to propel you toward each zenith for which you’re brave enough to press, while also making myself a nonjudgmental net to catch you when you fall. I mustn’t betray too colossal an expectation, too devastating a disappointment. Your pursuits are your own. Any joy or sorrow I feel as you set forth is mine to manage.

Increasingly, I am coming to understand the act of mothering as a cultivation of temperance. It is a holding-in-check of our most outsized expectations, a delicate calibration of all that we want for our children, all that they are capable of achieving, and all the moments when we each will need to accept a reality that resembles none of those possibilities.

But darling, you make this temperance difficult. How can I filter these bright beams of expectation when you glow so incandescently with promise? How can I allow you field of grass-skipping girldom, when with each day, you invent new reasons for me to spur you toward the sun?

It isn’t easy to wait for the coming years to unfurl themselves like a story quilt and reveal how you’ll evolve. But I will not anger God (or you) by rushing time. Its glacial inching is a grace. I will sip you slowly and relish each talent expanding. My every affirmation will be liberally and patiently seeded. I will make it my aim to know who you are, at any given moment, rather than to trouble us both over all the wondrous things I imagine you’ll become.

Reconsidering Mary, Mother of Jesus.

My mind can finally fathom Mary. Not her bypassed virginity nor the angel that quelled her fear, not her courage, her confidence in God’s peerless, perfect will nor the charm it must’ve taken to cajole her husband into journeys and mystery and a cessation of questioning.

It is in but one way that I can access her—finally, after all these years of believing her to be beyond my grasp—and this way seems the most significant of all.

I know her by her surrogacy, by the way it feels to give birth to a child to whom she believes she can never stake full claim. I recognize the oddness of feeling a strangulating sense of impermanence, even as I bathe her, feed her, infuse her language with manners, even as she becomes a warm somersault in her sleep, her tiny hard-heeled feet using my body as her gymnast’s mat. Even then, in her sleep, when she feels closest, if only by proximity, I never settle into an impression that she is entirely mine.

Instead, there’s a strangeness, an isolation, in loving a small, breathing parcel who feels so unfamiliar, so separate, so intended for a purpose that sits apart my own, so certainly on loan, and so expected to grow impatient with my heart as her holding pattern, as a velvet-lined cage with a door that will surely stick.

I cannot imagine raising Jesus. This is where Mary seems preternatural. This is our point of departure, for I know that even with a husband who loved me enough to completely overlook that his firstborn is a changeling whose presence is owing to a God he’s never actually seen, and even with the other, more normal children I could pin to the ho-hum, incontestable work of biology, I would not have known how to behave like a mother to him. I wouldn’t have known how to chastise him, wouldn’t have believed I needed to, him understanding God and thus understanding His expectations far more fluently than I. I wouldn’t have known how to love him with reckless abandon.

This is difficult enough with my daughter, who came to me in the most undramatic of ways. No tangible angel preceded her. No voice from heaven boomed. She is not the Son (or Daughter, as it were) of Man and so I can’t possibly feel the pressure Mary must’ve felt to get raising her “right.”

But I feel pressure just the same, not to smother her or to grow too dependent on her company or to make myself her barnacle. She is happy and well-loved; of this I make certain. And she cannot know how motherhood feels, not like an all-encompassing state, not like an eclipse of the light that shone before it, but at times, like only a sliver, like a condition that constantly moves so that it is difficult to pin down, to apprehend, to treat.

And so, I suspect that I do what Mary must’ve done. As often as I can, I abandon the morrow and ignore, for now, the woman I see in the eyes of the girl. I listen to her, noting the cadence and questions that lift at the ends of her prattle. I listen, so that I might know her and, in knowing her, earn her lifelong confidence. When she is ready to flit off into a life I cannot imagine, I believe I will understand why. This is far more important than feeling like she is a wind that I can possess.

I invest, for even my shortcomings have something to teach her. I warn her of the world that awaits beyond my arms and our door. And more than a daughter, I interpret her as an ally–for this is a relation that can remain unwavering. This is a kinship we are never meant to outgrow.

In Light of the Casey Anthony Verdict.

Story is now 11 months old. She inches her way around the perimeter of our apartment by placing her pudgy palms on knees and toys and furniture, then beams up at me or grins to herself, radiating pride.

She is beginning to communicate intent. When she wants to play or be held, she crawls up, raises to her knees and either pulls up on my pant legs or presses her hands to my shins, looking up expectantly. When she wants to be put to sleep, she lies across my knees.

We share food. I can no longer consume a meal without breaking morsels and passing them to her, like we are sharing the hallowed sacrament. And in my two-seat car, she always rides shotgun, mostly in silence, while we listen to songs from my iPod as though they are reports from a police scanner and we are actors in a buddy cop movie.

I can no longer fathom a life without her. In these long and home-employed summer months, she is omnipresent. I am rarely away from her.

I know what she enjoys, what she can do without, what infuriates her. And in all these ways, she is mine. She belongs to me.

But I do not always feel like her mother.

Fleetingly, in a nanosecond’s passage, I’ll look at her and forget how she grew–pound for pound–in my womb. I forget her delivery room diaspora from the space I’d made sacred and warm for her. And I think, “What a lovely little girl.” As though I’m admiring someone else’s child at a mall or a petting zoo.

It is an unsettling sensation, and as quickly as it rises, it disintegrates. I see her father’s eyes, my lips, her own gapped and scalloped teeth. She touches me or I finger-comb her hair and there is an instant reclamation.

In this manner, I am beginning to understand the complexities of motherhood. It is not as instinctual as we prefer to think. My bond with my daughter has been forged through the repetition of the commonplace; in the ritual of rocking and bathing and feeding, she has become someone I could not move forward without strapping to my back. She has become someone I would willingly relinquish my mind and my freedom to protect or to avenge.

Were I not with her every day of this 11 months, were I to prioritize the pursuit of men or strong drink or of other, errant pleasure, I would be able to conceive of her as someone else’s responsibility. I could leave her–with a parent, a neighbor, an imaginary nanny named Zanny–to pursue my pre-child dreams of a Fulbright or of simply living a life of lonely leisure.

That these are reprehensible ideas rather than palatable ones has more to do with the ritual of presence than the imperative of biology.

I couldn’t follow the Casey Anthony case. I never allow myself to recall to mind the acts of Susan Smith. And I wince whenever Sethe’s “liberation” of Beloved wafts into the foreground of my consciousness.

It is better for me, as the kind of mother I’ve become, not to contemplate the kind of mother I could’ve been, were the chemicals in my brain imbalanced or the condition of my heart compromised.

Instead, at least twice a month, I openly weep, with my daughter in my arms, as we dance across the carpet to a soundtrack of worship songs, and think: there, but for the grace of God, go I.