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.