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.

7 responses to “In Light of the Casey Anthony Verdict.”

  1. “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.”

    You know, I bet this is the kind of thing that is true at some level for every mother, but that very few are ever honest enough to put into words*. It struck me because I think that’s what happened to my stepsister. Her mother was a wild teenager when she gave birth, and between partying and working overnight in clubs to provide financial support, she essentially ceded J’s care to her mother and grandmother for eight years, until she moved in with and married my father. I can’t speak to what my dad’s wife feels, but observing her with J there are few to no traces of the kind of relationship you describe having with Story- it’s been something like six years, but whatever could have been there seems never to have been recovered. This is not to suggest that anything approaching what happened to that child would ever be done to her.. just additional anecdotal evidence that the mother-love we think of as ‘instinct’ is really much more than that, and is not a given.

    (*Have you read ‘The Mask of Motherhood’? It is about this very thing, the silence or lack of truth-telling between women regarding the range of experience, thought, and emotion involved in bearing and raising children.)

    • I haven’t read The Mask of Motherhood, but I’m definitely familiar with the silence (which, I think, has been reversing itself in the last decade or so). I’ve heard and read a lot of brutally honest admissions from mothers since I’ve become one–insomuch that I was like, “Man. Is *anyone* genuinely happy to be doing this?!”

      Re: your anecdote, I often wonder just how much emotional ground can be recovered after a parent’s long absence. Without a great deal of context and conversation, there are few ways for a child to translate physical distance as anything other than emotional rejection. And rejection’s residue is really hard to wipe clean from a slate.

      • I think you’re right about the breaking down of the silence- in fact, I picked up that book on the recommendation of a blogger who, in her own writing, makes no bones about the ambivalence she feels toward the parenting gig, and there are many such writers out there. Hell, we’re living in a moment in which ‘Go The Fuck To Sleep’ is a #1 bestseller, and though that’s a male voice, fathers are definitely not the only ones who have embraced it. (And all of this is great on one hand, but on the other hand I can totally relate to your reaction, because when people are honest, boy are they HONEST.)

        Thanks for this post.

  2. Absolutely! It is by God’s grace alone that we do not become one of “those moms”. The potential for that kind of evil is within all of us.

    I also have those moments where I feel like I’m watching someone else’s kids – that weird momentary disconnect. And I cannot bring myself to follow these cases as others have. Even hearing the name Susan Smith still makes my stomach turn.

    • I think if all of humankind would accept its capacity for evil, we’d be far, far more empathic and far better equipped to relate to people whose problems seem so distant from and so heinous compared to our own.

      I’m so glad I’m not the only mom I know who gets those random moments of, “Wow, look at that kid….” And you’re a vet. So that totally assuages my concern. lol

  3. Excellent post.

    There’s a Mexican ghost story that every child knows. The story of La Llorona, or the weeping woman, is about a mother who drowned her children in a nearby river or lake — it’s always close by, no matter what part of Mexico or even the US you’re in — after being left by the father. She wanders around the lake/river crying and saying, “mis hijooooos!” (my children). Kids are warned to stay away from the lake/river at night lest she grabs you up thinking you’re one of her kids and drowns you too.

    My mother never told me this story. She finds it much too macabre. Instead, I heard it from other kids. It baffles me that this story is in the national consciousness of all Mexicans. In a society of mother worship (see: Virgen de Guadalupe), one of the most common ghost stories is about a crazy mother drowning her children. I guess we all know something can go horribly wrong.

    • Excellent *comment.*

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard of La Llorona, but I’ve heard of similar folktales. You’re right; what profound irony.

      Meanwhile, I think I would’ve been petrified of water forever, if I’d grown up with that tale….

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