Category Archives: Resisting Motherhood

Woman to (Will-Be) Woman.

Episode 4 of my new, indie podcast Hope Chest is available for streaming and downloading now. I’ve decided to suspend the practice of posting the whole text of an audio essay here, because I’m trying very hard to shape up an essay collection for publication and it just makes sense to hold the written content in reserve. But here’s a little backstory on the piece in advance of listening: in December of last year, I was hit with this sort of double-slap romantic reality check.

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It’s a long story. Like, a dates-back-16-years-to-when-I-was-21 long. But I’ll try to keep this relatively brief, because the whole point here is for me to compel you to listen, not to bog you down with a long read.

Suffice it to say, there’s “alone” and there’s alone. “Alone” is being unattached, noncommittal, and by yourself, romantically, but with partners — or the idea of partners — that you’re secretly (and perhaps it’s even a secret to you) holding in mental and emotional reserve. In my case? There were two. In-case-of-emergency-men. I’ll-call-you-when-I-need-you men. You-may-not-answer-the-call men. I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world men. Car-advice men. Comfortable-silence men. Uncomfortable-silence men. This-will-never-be-what-I-want-or-need-it-to-be-but-it’s-still-chill men.

One was my co-parent. The other was a friend I dated for a blink-and-you-missed-it few months a few years ago. In December, I had to give them both up — like, for real, for real, cold turkey — simultaneously. I don’t yet know how to describe what that felt like. They both already felt so distant; I’d thought I’d already seared all the edges off of any romantic notions for one of them long ago, and I’d been going through an interminable, years-long process of doing the same with the other. Imagine the shock I felt, then, when I felt an inverse of the emotions I assumed I would about both of them, whenever I used to envision “letting go.” It was… a lot messier than I’d presumed. A flash of heat for the guy for whom my heart had gone cold. An ambivalence about the other, who had long set me aflame. No one was more startled than I.

I’m still fairly inarticulate about how emotionally scattered I felt for the first three months of this year. I was breadcrumbs in the woods. I was swallowing myself. There was no path.

That probably won’t be what you get from this essay at all, actually, but that was the motivation for it. It’s about women taking the very necessary time to understand themselves. Our selves are constantly changing. Here’s the thing.  I may have been languishing in the same stale feelings for far too long, but I didn’t recognize it, because my circumstances kept changing. What would make me store in-case-of-emergency company as a younger, childless woman and what would compel me to do the same at 37 with a school-aged kid was dissimilar enough to fool me.

I had taken for granted that I was being honest with myself about my feelings (or lack thereof), “checking in with myself” and repeating mantras (and outright lies) to train myself out of negative emotions or pretending not to have positive ones, if I thought they’d be a burden to whomever I might express them to. But all the while, despite all the years I’ve spent single, despite all the time I spend literally at a physical remove from my exes, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was still viewing myself and processing the events of my life, through some prism that considered them and their feelings their potential reactions and all the hypothetical ways I might process them moving on with their lives.

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When the time came for all of us to actually move on with our emotional lives, with some sense of finality, I didn’t do anything I thought I would. I spent the first quarter of 2017 like an amnesiac, looking at the simplest things and wondering what I thought of them. Eating foods and surprising myself at my enthusiasm about its flavor. (Turns out I’m really partial to biscotti with anise seeds baked into it and falafel makes me smile really widely. I am not as into curry as I thought I was.) And then there were all the selfies. A crazy number of selfies. Because I needed to figure out again what makes me feel attractive or interesting or mysterious or desirable and I’d finally, finally decided not to gauge that against what I perceived as other people’s interests and preferences.

I’m still sorting it.

These months contained a thorough undoing. But they (and it) were quiet. I guess “Woman to (Will-Be) Woman” is part of what I continue to take away from how I’ve spent them.

 

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Private Black Motherhood and Public White Protest.

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1.

Mother: What is a woman?
Child: A woman is… um… hmm…

It is a trick question. The definition will always differ, depending on the person being asked to provide it. You will define womanhood differently than I, for instance. It will mean something else by the time you become one than it meant almost 20 years ago, when I did. But I will still ask you this question often anyway. I will ask it, in part, because we are Black and this means that even though you are six, there are many adults — even some in positions of authority — who will begin insisting on your womanhood in just a few fleeting years. Depending on your height and when your curves come in to assert themselves, pressing upon all the previously flat and straight plains of your body, those adults may ogle you. They may reach for you on the street and curse at you as you run away. (While you are still a girl, always run away.) They may accuse you of something, then try convincing the judicial system to see adulthood in your still soft cheeks, your brace-bedecked teeth, the hair you’re still only allowed to straighten on special occasions. They did this to Catherine Jones in 1999. They tried to do it with Bresha Meadows just last year. You should know that some adults begin to treat at black girls like women as early as age 10 or 12 or 14. It has happened to other little black girls as early as 7 and 8. Countless ones, whose names we may never know, but whose disappearances Black mothers quite feel acutely as we look down into the faces of our own daughters and implore them, admonish them: Don’t be in no hurry. Take your time getting grown.

You must figure out for yourself what a woman is. You must never lose sight of yourself as the girl that you are and be certain that you are ready to molt girlhood when the time comes. It cannot come late enough for me. If I could, I would certainly postpone it. But it is not for me to decide. My prayer is that you will be the only person who will have a say in deciding it.

You did not speak a language I could clearly understand until the middle of your fourth year. Before that, when you spoke at all, you added -en suffixes to words where I would not have guessed they could belong. On your tongue, water became wah-den. Granny became Go-den. And for a while, without any reason I could decipher, you called Nana, your great-grandmother, Morning.

When you were two-and-a-half, I had you assessed. You weren’t talking much at all then. The women who came into our home with their folders and tote bags, jotting across their clipboard pages when you could complete a puzzle, scribbling furiously along their carbon triplicate forms when you could not, suggested that I take you to an audiologist. Within six months you were being fitted for hearing aids, with an estimated mild to moderate loss in both ears.

I believe that, the way that you hear greatly informs the way you interact with the world. It’s what led you to the language you developed. It’s what keeps you locked in to your vivid imagination, with its cast of unseen characters and its action that only plays inside your mind. And sometimes, I’ve felt that it’s kept me locked out. You have been attending school for nearly four years now but this is the first year when asking you what happened there is an action I can expect to be met with a descriptive, decipherable answer.

I have had to learn that you are on your own time. We have always been on a road where I have had to trust you to indicate when you are ready for us to pull over and ready for us to move on.

I think I am a better parent for it, at least I hope that I am. You are not a child who would benefit most from having my will imposed upon you. You are not a child whose ideas I want to mold so that they mimic mine. I am not even sure that, with you, such a task would be possible.

3.

You did not have much time here before the core of American civilization found itself deeply compromised. You did not point to television screens and cry out, “There’s Obama!” until his very last year in office. Nana told you who he was. She made you practice saying his name. O. Bah. Ma. You seemed to like repeating it, seemed to relish the ease with which the vowels swept through your throat. Like speaking out was easy.

I know you will ask me when you are older and finally see photos of other children, hoisted upon their parents shoulders or tucked safely between chest and arm: Why didn’t we carry signs? Why didn’t we go picket injustice? Cry loud, spare not, wear pink. Cuss without blushing. Why didn’t we find ourselves in the company of all those other women? Washington is so close, after all. We could’ve.

It is impossible to know if you will ever be satisfied with my answer. I am still quite unsure of decisions like these, concerning you, myself.

In truth, it may have been better for you to go. Perhaps you would have understood, on a visceral or emotional level if not yet an intellectual one, that something is amiss with all the world, and now, what has long been so is finally affecting our centuries-insulated country in ways White people no longer feel safe ignoring. Women have volunteered to lead the charge of dissent because women have far more to immediately lose than men, now that this man and his cronies have assumed the national seat of power.

Maybe, at six, that would have been useful for you to intuit, if not yet truly know.

But if I may be entirely honest — and with you, this is ever my aim —  I do not much feel like being a warrior. I want to remain the mother I’ve already fought so hard to become. And she is soft-edged, yielding, and kind. She spends her weekends wrapped in a hot pink Snuggie with her child, staving off her constant financial woes, silently keeping her existential inner conflict — about housing or untimely death or co-parenting or politics or the romance she sometimes pines for but has not yet found — in check. She frequently dissolves into giggles. She hugs hard and delivers smatterings of kisses to every inch of exposed skin. She is not carefree, neither is she careless. But she is about the business of preserving the sanctity of her domestic life. And for her, this is its own resistance. She remembers the Black women who fought in generations before her, who were forced to have children they did not want or plan, who were unknowingly sterilized or implanted with unregulated birth control without consent, or denied clean, safe, affordable housing for children they were shamed into delivering but could not afford to raise. I think of what they must have been fighting for — and it was the hope and the freedom my generation thought it had finally achieved in the eight years that the First Family was black and the Black mother in the White House declared herself a mother first and a freedom-fighting advocate second.

I am not yet finished pretending I can afford myself the same luxury. I, too, want to be the mother I have fashioned myself to be, first. I want to fold my activism into this existing model. For me, this means figuring out how best to support the other mothers who feel so far removed from the idea that a poster and a chant will reunite airport detainees or close the miles between them and their stranded, visa-less children. It means thinking of and praying for them in a somber and meditative space. It means writing and writing and writing, because for me, writing is more effective than marching at making my efforts feel less futile. I would rather teach you what’s at stake by explaining that your school, with its large percentage of students from immigrant families, is filled with classmates who are facing a far different set of challenges and odds than you.

But so far, I haven’t told you anything. Nana no longer beckons you to the television when the president begins to speak. She has not taught you to recognize him, has never encouraged you to utter his name. For now, I wish to keep it this way.

My wish for you is that you will stay right where you are, so often locked in, by your unique way of hearing, the vestiges of that language you invented when you were a toddler, the lingering barriers of communication only those who love and protect you can currently breach. At present, I believe you are safest there. And as in all things, I will look to you for my cues. You will tell me when you need to know more.

You will have so, so long to be a woman. And, for as long as men like this president and his mostly male team hold political sway, fighting for your basic rights — human, racial, gendered, reproductive — will be as disheartening as it is essential. If you are like me, you will grow weary of demanding what should have been yours by right of birth.

I am more than happy to do this for you. I will defend you, myself, and others in the ways I hope I can be most effective. As a woman, I know how important it is for a woman to lift her own voice. As your mother, I know how vital it is for your to find yours. I can imagine how much time it will take and how distinct it will sound. This is not a process I intend to rush. I suspect that there will be plenty left for you to fight, when your time has come; and I believe we will find ourselves in highly capable hands, however you choose to do so.

Busyness, Business, Birthday, Buzzfeed.

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I haven’t been able to blog here in over a month and I miss it. I didn’t want anyone who follows me here to believe I’ve abandoned this space. It’s my sanctum. But I’ve had the very good problem of being swamped with paid writing work — in so much that some of the things I might’ve written here have been placed — or will be placed — at very cool websites.

Writing on deadline and being increasingly line-edited by people committed to making the work better than I can make it on my own (disjointed as my trains of thought have become with the noise of my toddler, the relocation of her dad to town, after years living on the other side of the country, and the demands of raising a child while working a day job from home) has been rewarding and humbling.

October was a rough month for me. My life felt racked with big, disconcerting change and I wasn’t sure how to adjust to any of it. I’m still figuring that out, but I’ve had experience. I have to remind myself that, in the years since my daughter was born, I’ve transitioned out of adjunct college instruction, moved from Michigan to Maryland, navigated the IEP and pediatric audiological processes with my daughter, written for various national publications, started an online community for single parents of color, and scored a fellowship in social media community engagement. I’m constantly criticizing myself for not being “further along” in my career, but sometimes, we’ve just got to stop and assess the ground we’ve already gained. In fact, if we don’t take the time to do that, we’ll reach a point where it’s difficult to know what’s left to conquer and which direction to turn in order to pursue any of it.

In less than a week, I’ll turn 35 — and it’s a good age, a good time. I’m not at all where I envisioned myself, when I was younger and strained to imagine what it would feel like to be just five years shy of 40. But I’m making my way and it’s been an incredible trip. The past month in particular has been teaching me things I’ve actively avoided learning:

  1. Forgiveness from afar looks different than forgiveness up close. And sometimes you think you’re over things, simply because you’ve enjoyed a great deal of physical distance from them. But there’s always a closing of that distance. There’s always a day of reckoning.
  2. I’m not my best self when I’m afraid. And it’s incredible how quickly and drastically fear can make you regress.
  3. It’s an honor to be receiving an increased number of requests to write. But it’s also okay to decline those requests when I’m overextended or just going through something that’ll compromise the quality (or punctuality) of the work. Not everything is about “writing through it,” and you don’t always have to push yourself. Or, I don’t, at least. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else there.
  4. If you sense that you’re plateauing, you probably are. Take on assignments that won’t be such cakewalks for you. (For me, that’s meant scaling back my unfiltered, unedited blogging here and letting my words go under other writers’/editors’ scalpels. It’s changing the way I compose and making me less certain of where a piece is going — which can be pretty thrilling (if also terrifying and debilitating).
  5. At some point, it can’t hurt to find yourself a therapist. I’ve never had one; finding one will probably be my birthday gift to myself. There are things I need to work on in the next five years that aren’t career-specific or even particularly measurable — social and emotional things — that I don’t think I can handle anymore without help from an objective outside party.

My performance of adulthood has sharpened in my 30s. Like Nicole Richie is saying in the gifs above, I’m finally ready to declare myself a grown-up. Mostly. I’m definitely still living like a glorified commuter student in a lot of ways. And that’s okay. Mostly. There’s no one way to live, no single set of social markers that we have to reach in order to declare ourselves mature or well-adjusted or highly-functioning. We just have to keep going.

So I plan to greet my next year of life, incomparable gift that it is, with contentment.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in Buzzfeed. Twice. Here, I’m talking about mothering and empathy. And here, I’m talking about Bill Cosby’s pre-Huxtable persona and how it leaves me feeling less shock and betrayal about the “good” doctor’s alleged bad deeds.

Also look out for a short piece on The Hurston-Wright Foundation I’ve penned for the Jan/Feb ’15 issue of Poets & Writers, a piece in The Guardian (hopefully; I’ll edit to embed a link when/if that goes live), and a long feature on black fatherhood in Colorlines, scheduled for publication in the upcoming week.

What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose.

As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' presents, Hushpuppy's  limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.
As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ presents, Hushpuppy’s limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.

The little boy who used to live on the second floor, the one with the cornrows grazing the back of his neck and the owlish glasses, never stayed indoors. He was always running, chasing the family cat or asking around, home to home, if a new child in the neighborhood could come out to play. He was nine or so, polite and precocious, always noticing things. You dropped this. You’re forgetting that. He held the lobby door open for my grandmother, my mother, and I whenever he saw us coming.

A boy like that catches the eye, out of doors as he so often is. It was easy, then, to notice that his mother hadn’t entrusted him with a key to his family’s apartment. We knew it because sometimes, he’d linger too long outside the locked, intercom-activated lobby door. We knew it because, while walking up to our own third floor residence, we too often noted that his family’s door was kept slightly ajar. He was either rushing in and slamming it or waiting downstairs for someone to open it when he’d locked himself out.

It was risky, his mom opting to leave their whole apartment vulnerable rather than giving him a key. It was risky, too, to reserve comment and to let them sort through that decision and its consequences alone.

But I remember being nine myself and in need of a key after school. I remember losing it too, on many occasions, and begging the rental office managers to let me borrow their spare. I asked so often they would finally have to inform my furious, frustrated mom.

The memory was what kept me quiet on the days when the neighbor boy sprinted confidently up to his cracked door and slipped inside — and it was also what made me ask if he needed to use our phone or wanted someone to wait with him when he was in the lobby alone.

Latchkey life is a series of covert missions, held precariously in place by a cardinal rule: don’t get caught.

Debra Harrell was charged with "unlawful conduct toward a child," after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.
Debra Harrell was charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child,” after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.

I thought about this code when I heard about Debra Harrell, the 46-year-old South Carolina mom who let her nine-year-old daughter play in a park for three days while she worked her shifts at McDonald’s.

If I’d driven by and spotted Debra’s daughter braiding tall grass at 1pm, then passed by again to find her eating fruit under a shady tree at 4, I would’ve thought little of it. Even if, as in this case, she was there for three days in a row. I may’ve asked, as the concerned observer did in this instance, where the girl’s mother had gone. But if she’d shown me the cell phone her mother had given her in case of emergency and if she seemed safe and unbothered, I would’ve moved along.

Just as all who wander are not lost, all who play outside alone — even all day — are not abandoned.

When I moved into my grandmother’s third floor apartment, my daughter was two and noisy. She was not sleep trained and sometimes she’d let out a squeal or leap across the carpet well after 8pm.

“If you don’t get that girl to be quieter, the neighbors downstairs might call the police,” my grandmother admonished one night.

I thought I’d misheard her but she went on, “They’ll say they heard her screaming or that you never have her in the bed at night. Child Protective Services will come up here and they’ll take her away from you. CPS loves to take black children.”

The warning winded me. My eyes stung. My chest heaved. I wanted to tell her how hurtful she was being and I did. “You’re saying that if CPS came and assessed my parenting, they’d still find cause to take my child. You’re implying I’m unfit.”

“I know you love your child,” she said in a voice that didn’t soften. “But I’m telling you the truth.”

It was a court stenographer’s truth, the truth of a woman who had spent over 20 years transcribing heinous crimes, tragic accidents and separations of children from parents, based on everything from hearsay to hard evidence. It was also the truth of an elder for whom the memory of being policed for playing while black — in the wrong park, on the wrong street, at the wrong hour — was still fresh.

I thought of the boy downstairs, his unlocked door, the infants in the basement apartments who wailed at all hours of night. My daughter wasn’t the only child in the building. Her noise didn’t exist in some disruptive vacuum and it didn’t seem constant enough to warrant complaint.

But I was never able to shake my grandmother’s warning. She was telling me that, as a black mother, loving my child wouldn’t necessarily stop a caseworker from recommending her removal from my custody. It would take months, but eventually, I understood that her conferral of worry was, in its way, her own expression of love.

Cases like Debra Harrell’s frighten me. They reify the idea that the rules are different for my black family. For us, noisy nighttime play or unsupervised daytime play don’t just draw annoyance or concern. They draw authorities. They draw teams of people with the power to determine whether or not our children can come home.

There are parts of parenting that are predicated on privacy, on intimate negotiations of what will and will not be able to work under our own roofs on a given day. Bedtime, dinner, and discipline choices differ from household to household. We have all had moments where we’ve considered ourselves fortunate no one witnessed us bribing our child with candy or snapping at him when a gentler word would’ve been best.

But there are other parts of parenting where privacy is as perilous as it is necessary, like determining when your child is “mature enough” to be left alone for hours at a time. It can be difficult for families with latchkey children — and the strangers who observe their decisions — to know the difference.

At what point does incurious observation become concern? At what point should concern involve intervention? And once authorities have intervened, which infractions should warrant the removal of children from their homes?

Once-there-was-a-Hushpuppy-and-she-lived-with-her-daddy-in-the-Bathtub.

Sadly, parents without access to safe, affordable child care often depend on the silence of strangers. For them, that silence is kindness. But true kindness would actually be the opposite. True kindness would be conversation. It would be finding out the full story before it becomes a somber national headline, waiting with the child until her mother arrives, offering to keep an eye on the child at play or helping the family find better local resources.

And it would be educating oneself about the stakes for black low-income and single-parent families. They are higher. More than half of all children entering foster care in the U.S. are children of color. Twenty-six percent of those children are black, which is double to the total population of black children in this country. There is a real precedent for worry that taking a latchkey or unsupervised play situation directly to the authorities will result, not in help for a mother and child, but in a mother losing her child.

The idea that erring on the side of caution can make things worse may seem counter-intuitive until you hear enough stories like Debra Harrell’s, until you have a few latchkey kids as neighbors, until you’ve heard your own family warn you to keep your toddler from being so noisy, lest someone try to take her away.

When the little boy downstairs moved away, it seemed sudden. We hadn’t seen boxes. They’d done the heavy lifting after dark. By the time he said goodbye his family’s apartment was already empty. We both stood there a little longer than we needed to. I was hoping his new neighbors would view his family’s situation as I did: as a negotiation of need, as a case where a simple, “Are you okay?” was often enough to tide the child over until his mother came home.  I hoped his new neighbors would be watchful and supportive, the kind of people who considered alerting authorities to the presence of a latchkey kid playing unsupervised outside, as a last resort.

Resisting Motherhood.

It doesn’t feel as permanent as it should. I still linger at the window; I am still expectant (though of what, I do not know. Relief? Permission?). I’ve barely shaken the sense that someone left her here, some unduly trusting soul, trying to teach me something. On occasion, I anticipate that this someone will reemerge to reclaim her. The prospect doesn’t sadden me. We have never been apart long enough for me to miss her; in her absence, I feel raw obligation to return. And I do. I rush.

It is unromantic.

When this someone comes, to determine if her trust has been ill-placed, an inspection will occur, making clear just how many of my duties I perform not with particular joy but by rote. I mother because I must, not because I am given to throes of euphoria while doing so. This, I suppose, is common. But there is something else, equally obvious: I had been waiting.

I am glad that someone has come.

*  *  *

You need to make her be quiet. The neighbors downstairs will hear her jumping and laughing at this hour, and they’ll call DHS. DHS loves to take black children.

*  *  *

It has been 40 months. No one has come. It is possible, now, that no one will.

I fill the hours with embraces and photographs, kitchen karaoke and dining room dance parties. Frequent I love you’s. So many kisses. The aphorisms hold: being present, relishing the moment, slowing, rather than marking time — it all helps. But inside, a second skin is twisting against rope. Tightly bound, it is burning.

*  *  *

They are going to tell you medicate her, if you can’t learn to make her keep still.

*  *  *

Motherhood is an overlay, sheer and clinging. It obfuscates appearance, makes pre-child passions opaque, but it does not alter what lies beneath. What I cherish about my daughter is what I would’ve cherished, had I never become her mother: her boldness; her mercurial heights and depths; the scent of her freshly bathed skin; my nose in her parted hair.

I am still me underneath.

But motherhood cannot be peeled away. It wraps around, becomes a top-lying dermis and, over time, we are meant to forget its artifice. At times, the urge to lift it away from the skin begins to pressurize. There is too little air; there are too few opportunities for new breath.

Here is the truth that helps, that slices through this whaleskin and lets in a slip of light: children are not so life-changing. They are like many other things and persons adults acquire and decide they cannot live well without. Their needs are not so different: tenderness and tending. They are complicated bliss. They are blessing and barnacle.

But they are not all we are.

*  *  *

Maybe you, and your missed days of prenatal vitamin intake, lie at the root of this behavior, this delay. Maybe you need to be reminded, during your every resting, writing moment, of what you need to do.

*  *  *

It is best to pretend that I do not need silence, that nothing essential is eroding inside me without it. I smile in pinched ways that I hope my child and others understand. I am here. I find this enjoyable. No, there is nothing behind my eyes that is stricken with panic and wanting to run. If you see this, you are imagining it.

The first two parts are not lies. I am here. I do find this enjoyable. But I am also acting. This is a Method performance: I am always in character, always awaiting the time when it will be apropos to step out.

There are reasons: my only-childhood and its resulting inexperience with children; my summer transience, three months of each year spent hundreds of miles apart from home; the far-reaching tentacles of too much free and isolated time. And I am also too accustomed to things ending, especially the things someone I love has insisted never would.

*  *  *

You need to learn to do more. This — working, bathing, clothing, preparing foods, feeding, reading, entertaining, coming straight home, rarely asking for non-work time to yourself — is not enough.

*  *  *

A lifetime spent holding a part of yourself in reserve does not resolve with the birth of a child. We mothers are still entitled to unknowable parts, if we want them. We protect them by snatching time. Demanding it. Allowing ourselves to love someone other than our children — with ardor, not apology. Reading books that are not written on boards or filled with crude drawings of talking cows. Letting something extracurricular lapse. Listening to ourselves — and making sure that what we are saying isn’t always about mothering. Everyone is talking to us about being a mother; the irony is: we only get great at it by holding onto what we loved about ourselves before becoming one.

Mothering isn’t selfless. Quite the opposite.

*  *  *

I did everything myself, so no one had the right to criticize my parenting.

*  *  *

If you are an introvert, you will be reluctant to go out and away; you are happiest at home. But what you need now is counter-intuitive. Instinct says to envelop the child, make her as essential to your happiness as being alone has always been. This is a flawed approach. If you must be incrementally alone to feel whole, then you must find ways to be alone.

It does not matter if you will be harshly criticized; that is all the more reason to leave. Aloneness allows you to quiet even the cruelest critics. In silence, you must take hold of yourself, unbind the ropes and tend to the burning skin, the ancient skin, that which was with you before you were born. You cannot let it fester; it will bleed into your mothering. Something will always be pulling apart.

Mother, you must protect yourself. It was you that you watched for at the window. You are the only Cavalry coming.

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

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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?