Years before I had her, I snapped a photograph of a majestic, whimsical girl’s bed in a discount furniture store and immediately began to dream of the daughter whose slumber it might bear. Tiny but preternaturally strong with hair the color of starfish and sand, she had eyes that saw even when they were closed, even when she was sleeping.
The bed cost over 600 dollars. It was not worth this much. Shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkinesque carriage, its framing was forged of thin, cheap metal. It did not come with the shimmering sheers that would’ve completed its transformation into a thing fit for a dream-daughter. Still, its price forced me to imagine a life in which paying for such a thing, its fancy so fleeting as to be outgrown in five or fewer years, seemed possible.
I have never wanted to be wealthy. At turns, I’ve dreamt of life on a converted schoolbus or in a fully furnished RV. When I imagine a home, I think of modest two-bedroom apartments, of cheap and unloved houses of the type that are all but abandoned in favor of the plywood monstrosities that keep popping up and displacing the deer in my community. I dream of a dwelling that does not further alter a city’s ecosystem.
This has not changed much with motherhood. I have not been struck with a sudden compulsion to amass everything ever invented for the modern American child. Despite the occasional twinge of guilt over what material things I must forgo, I understand those things as the ephemera they are. That tiny, strong, perceptive girl I once pined for at a furniture store display exists now. And mothering her looks far different in practice than it did in my imagining.
What is sure is that she deserves all I am capable of giving her.
But what has become most important for me to give her is not a bed that will compel her to buy into our rampant princess culture, is not a life of excessive and bottomless longing. What is essential to her inheritance are the things only I can provide for her — and those things cannot be procured with mammon.
We do not yet live alone. For her whole life, we’ve had company. First, there was her granny, my mother, boarding in my one-bedroom space in the Midwest. Now we, all three, are boarding with my grandmother in a two-bedroom place back East.
This has its certain magics: that my daughter can tear barefoot ’round a corner and be caught in loving arms while I write; that at any moment, I might overhear her sharing conversation with a woman 68 years her senior; that I can leave home with her seeing me off at the door rather than from behind the walls of a daycare center. But this multigenerational home-life also has its downswings, not least of which is the feeling of deference our domicile tends to elicit.
In the homes of others, I have always assumed a silence, a compliance with the established rules and roles of the owners. And this is doubly true when I am among foremothers. I have never learned to stand steel-backed before them and say: I have grown. I am not just womanish but fully a woman, no longer a post-adolescent girl over whom one must hover, dispensing stray insights.
Among grown women, stray insights are best held on the tongue till solicited. The wisest women solicit often — but they also know when to stem the tide.
I am still learning this wisdom but it is critical to raising the girl I have birthed. More important even than finding the means to afford us rooms of our own is the ability to stand sure-footed in any room and to declare that which is and is not acceptable to say or do to me and mine.
Boldness is bought with a price I was unwilling to pay before becoming a parent. The cost of being too often disliked was greater than the satisfaction of feeling assertive. I have rarely born well the rejections of those who find themselves surprised, displeased, or disappointed with me, after I’ve staked some claim or held some ground they would rather have seen me cede. Always, respite from the expectations and approval of others has been easiest for me to find when I am farthest away. But a mother should not have to become a vagrant to infuse her own voice with certainty.
Assertiveness is the gift every girlchild needs most, that quiet self-possession that can state without tears and with total composure: this is the line you will not cross.
Yes, more than money, bedtime carriages, or even our own home, it is an unshakable sense of herself I work hardest these days to preserve, and an unshakable sense of my own self I work hardest to provide.
In so doing, I’ve discovered there is no greater need for these gifts than in our interaction with each other. For we are gazelles, alternately locking horns and spurring each other toward swifter, surer, and more graceful gaits.