I am always allowed to ease in, a toe-swirl, a finger under a temperamental spigot, a cube of store-sample cheese in a paper cup: trial before the error inherent in commitment.
This has been no different.
The child slides out of you, glittery with water and blood, and that should be that. No slow dawning, no grace period, no casual distance.
Single mothers are typically dropped right into the throes—in medias res. Before the baby, there was languidness, was leisure; now there is chaos and combat.
But this was not the case for me. I’ve had my mother. First, she moved into a home I had other help to make, with its rooms meant for one and its meager resources stretched thin, and when the bough broke there and the cradle did fall, we moved in with her mother, where we remain.
We are a kind of convent, a cloister: three women, one girl, all sequestered. The role of Mother Superior vacillates with the caprice of wind. There is something each needs from the other. An electric support, high voltage and warming but open and crackling, is conducted between us.
This way I am raising the girl is also the way I was raised, generations of doting women, tending her needs in a home absent the filament of fathers.
I am allowed to fail here, allowed to gingerly approach the hot and whirling core most mothers eventually capture. I am not required to run at it, top speed with flailing arms. I need not be singed and disoriented, do not have to isolate my daughter through a series of miscalculated scoldings, an irreparable tangle of hair, an insomnia born of my inability to sleep-train, a tantrum escalated rather than quelled.
There is always someone here. I am never alone. This is the cure and the curse of it.
Now that she is nearing two, I want more of her, more of the deference to a mother’s voice than I have, more of the adoration she sections and cores and passes in equal share like a snack made of apples in preschool. I want to be the lead matriarch in this as-yet-unfinished play, but often–especially at night, when after I’ve scrubbed her to a lotion-slicked gleam, she scurries away to be rocked into slumber by my mother, or when she awakens irate and our standoff is decided by my grandmother’s anticipation of a need I have yet to recognize (breakfast)–I feel relegated to understudy.
Of course this is vanity, is ego. It’s unimportant who’s on first if she’s healthy and tended, and she most assuredly is. And there is no way to calculate whose voice she heeds first, whose heart she holds dearest, whose arms she’ll seek out before all others when in distress. She is dearest to us all: I passed her into the world; my mother cut her cord; my grandmother shelters us, each one.
I shudder to think what our relationship would be if I’d been left alone with her lo, these 21 months, forced into a crash course in motherhood that wouldn’t have been aided by instinct.
I am not much of a test-taker. And the relationships–their inception, their solidifying, their maintenance–do not come easily to me.
I am grateful for women, for mothers, grateful for her father’s frequent phone calls, grateful for time, for do-overs, for concave nets and cushioned mats into which I can topple, if need be.
And I know that the day will come, as it did for my mother and hers before her, when I will be pushed from the nest, darling girl in tow, and expected to rebuild a residence of my own. There will be no reading a novel while she meanders into other occupied rooms, no writing while my mother braids her hair, no child care without fee while I teach, and no escaping her impatience at my clumsy attempts to pacify her.
Soon, this play at boot camp will be over. And I will be wistful for their graces when the true battles will come.