You were born in a Grand Rapids hospital, a midwesterner by birth but not temperament. You spent infancy in Michigan — the full first year of your life — but Baltimore is where you have grown into a semi-autonomous girl. It is the only place you remember living. We have been back here, in the city where I was raised, for nearly nine years.
This was not my initial intention. I thought we’d remain here a year or two at most, long enough for me to regain my footing as a worker in an East Coast market, long enough to transition away from the bowels of academia (which is where a full-time adjunct will surely languish, for as long as she lets herself), long enough for me to figure out how to earn more while being present enough to parent you.
Baltimore is where I learned how to mother, to the extent that I have learned how to do it at all. Good parents, I believe, are always a bit uncertain. We know better than to get comfortable; our children never do. You’re always changing, always extending yourselves further into a world where we will not be able to protect you, elasticizing. My role as your mother, at this point in your childhood, is so much less about cradling and shielding than it is about making the discomfiting stretches toward adolescence and adulthood stop just short of causing you to snap. It is complex in its own way, distinct from what it’s been like to teach you to walk or speak or read or listen. Now that you speak, you must learn to masterfully communicate. Now that you read, you must learn to understand. Now that you listen… well. We’re still working on listening.
Life is full of risk. You will hear the adults in your life say this often, but when we say it to our children, we are often only thinking of ourselves. We do not want to imagine what risk looks like for a generation with more access and proximity to imminent danger than we could ever comprehend, do not want to ruminate over the intricacies of risk assessment for children whose technology surveils and records and talks back, children who can glean information at a rate much faster than they can healthily process it.
We are far more comfortable thinking of our own leaps and landings; at least the impact of those on our children is something we can delude ourselves into thinking that we can control.
You and I have been so fortunate to have grown up as mother and child in a household where risk was low. We were not the only mother and child at home. My mother was with us and hers was, as well.
It’s true that when we moved to Baltimore, it was in part because I could no longer afford my one-bedroom apartment in Michigan, while trying to support a newborn and my mother, who’d lived with us to help me care for you, in the long 13 months after you were born. But it was also about an ever-inching fear that I couldn’t handle raising you alone, that I’d too often retreat into myself and my silence, that I’d make you as melancholy and quiet a child as I was.
I thought I needed all the help I could get, and whenever I need that kind of help, I seek out the women who raised me.
But the home of a mother’s youth is no place for her at middle-age. The home of a mother’s youth is not necessarily where she should raise her children. Not for long, anyway. Not for nearly this long.
I somehow forgot while I was away in my 20s that home is a runway from which you are meant to launch but it can just as easily become a holding pattern around which you may ceaselessly languish.
We have been circling and circling. For nearly all of 30s. I’d convinced myself we were safer on the ground.
Though I spent most of it underemployed, the decade has not been inert. I grew as a professional in Baltimore. Attended conferences and trainings held at MIT, Duke, and Yale. I traveled to New York to hear my work performed by an actor, to speak on panels with people I’d never imagined I might meet, to retreat with the some of the country’s most heralded artists. I’ve gone to Oregon to get serious about writing a novel. I slipped into the side doors of the Smithsonian’s many museums, to tell audio stories. I’ve worked on a national public radio program for just over a year in D.C. I even returned to Paris.
At home, I do not mention much of this, though I often wonder how much of it I would’ve been able to accomplish if I had not lived at home, if there had not been somewhere I believed was as safe as my womb to leave you for the week or the weekend I occasionally spent away.
I imagine how many opportunities I would’ve had to decline if I’d moved away much earlier, to a city where I knew no one and had no family.
I suppose I will find out now.
In three weeks, we will relocate. We will live in a city where I know very few people and have no family. I have, at last, found a full-time job and, better still, it seems one I will actually enjoy. I can leave the precariousness of part-time and freelance and contract work behind.
Friends have asked if I’m excited, but it is hard to feel anything much, from under this avalanche of relief.
When I told you about moving, I worried. I thought you would have grown too attached to your school and your friends, to the stable rhythms of our matriarchal home, to everyone we have within the distance of a short drive here in town: your father and stepmom, your paternal grandparents and relatives.
But we will not be very far from them, a few hours by car, a flight that takes 40 minutes at most.
And it turns out, at least on the surface, at least as far into your truth as you’ll allow me to peer and to know, you are even readier than I am to go.
I’ve made promises to you, you see, and it is time for me to make good on them. I have told you you would have your own room before you entered fifth grade. I vowed that we will travel together. I have said that, when I earned more, you would have access to more.
It is, for sure, a retrofitting. Just as it is ideal, whenever possible, for couples to have worked out their relationships with one another before becoming parents, it is also ideal, whenever possible, for them to have a home of their own before having a baby. I understand the first ideal because I’ve not quite lived up to it. I understand the second ideal because, at least for the first year of life, I did.
We are headed farther south, which I never would’ve imagined before now. The northeast corridor has long been my comfort zone. It is beautifully Black in Baltimore, strange and mercurial in its beauty. During this most recent stint living in this area, I’ve been in no great rush to leave it.
But about six months ago, I began concentrating my job search beyond Baltimore, DC, and Virginia. I started thinking of what life might look like if I stopped believing it had to occur within quite so confined a physical (and emotional) radius.
Just what would it look like if I my eyes left their level? What signal would I see if I’d only look up?
I took the steps and weighed the cost and wondered.
I might’ve known this much earlier if I’d not been quite so afraid. I might’ve discovered it sooner if I weren’t self-doubting, so presumptuous about what would happen if I took you away from our current circle and tried to create a new one.
But up above our heads, the signal had long been there, blaring and unanswered.
Up above our heads, we were always cleared for takeoff.