Interesting what sends the past bubbling up and burning. We’re at a soaking pool one evening, my husband and I, identifying tropical plants around the perimeter and steeping like leaves of jasmine. A woman enters with her husband and two sons, one a baby with less than two months under his little elastic waistband. My eyes gravitate toward this infant the way my eyes gravitate to all the wrinkly heads and unsteady necks of infants, the shattering beauty of their animal-ness and vulnerability. But at this baby, I cannot stop staring. He looks exactly like my own baby at that age. Gorgeous, almond-shaped dark eyes and a thin pelt of brown hair. Olive skin. Heavily creased forehead. Round face and dainty mouth and expressive eyebrows. An amalgam of features replicated exactly as they were in another. This baby is beautiful, but that is beside the point. This baby is my own baby, or at least looking at him is like seeing her again, twenty-one years later. And in the love I feel for her, I am almost submerged.
My daughter is now a hilarious, warm-hearted young adult, tall and bronze and Romanesque as a statue, who—thank the Graces—turned out well. Yet given the chance, I would change almost everything about her infancy.
Seeing the baby at the pool, I feel the crush of hunger to go back and fix things I can’t, because I love her, because I wish I’d done better. I was twenty one when my daughter was born. The age she is today.
No matter how natural motherhood, how instinctual, it is fraught with danger, a nest of vipers.
When my daughter was born I was three years into an abusive marriage I would not leave until she turned two. I’d been sickly in the years before her birth (my teen years, really), an over-user of antibiotics, and I suspect this caused her gluten intolerance, her allergy to milk and tendency to illness—her woefully inadequate intestinal flora. In her second year, her father was building a fiberglass car body in the small garage attached to our tiny house, and I suspect the omnipresent cloud of toxic fumes caused her learning disability. At the time, I thought myself powerless to stop it. But I wasn’t.
These are only the glaring failures. The chemical failures that shine under her skin, their shelf-life longer than her own.
Each summer my daughter has worked on summer staff for a camp, and the group tells “life stories” to one another. This year, she and most of her staff-mates were twenty one. She told me how she started her life story; she thought I would like it. She said: “Think about how old you are right now and the things you care about and worry about—clothes maybe, concerts or your boyfriend or girlfriend—and think about how it would be right now to have a newborn. When I was born, my mom was our age. And she had to raise me. So even though she didn’t do things perfectly, I can understand. I can’t imagine having a baby right now.”
Bless her bold, forgiving heart.
I live in a wild place. Miles of uninhabited woods stretch beyond my house and for miles in every direction beyond my immediate neighbors. I observe nature’s cycles from my porch and windows, from the garden paths—birds, mice, and chipmunks, trees and bees, being born, giving birth, and dying in proper time to make room for the next cycle. Each year I observe the way these processes play out successfully, with little apparent effort. They just happen. And nothing seems to screw them up except humans. I see evidence of this in road kill on our rural highway, in small animals maimed by my house cat, in the impact of clear-cutting on populations of bear and elk and on the health of our streams.
Sex, birth, child-rearing are all wild, natural processes. Yet we humans botch them again and again, even when we’re doing our best. We all fail, so what’s the point of regret? If our failures are inevitable, why even acknowledge the longing to undo our failures, such as my longing to hold that baby again and, this time, protect her?
I think the answer’s in the emotion I felt at that pool. It wasn’t fear or sadness that I felt. It was love. I loved that baby so deeply I cried to think of the failures. If I didn’t love her so completely, I could deny them, even laugh them away. But love requires us to tell the truth.
As I exit the locker room after swimming, I see the mother standing outside with her baby. She’s fumbling with the waist-buckle of her baby backpack and looks straight at me. “Can I get your help with this? … Would you latch the buckle?” She holds one plastic end and points me to the other clasp, which is tucked under the warm bundle of her baby’s body, out of reach. I smile and approach the woman, happy to help. As she takes the baby’s weight into her hand, I grasp the ends of the buckle and latch them under her breasts. She thanks me.
“Your baby looks exactly like my daughter did,” I tell her, stepping back. As soon as the words cross my lips, I am buried in emotion.
“Really?” the mother asks. “How old is she?”
“She’s twenty-one,” I say, fighting the on-rush of tears.
“Wow, and where does she live?”
“In Newberg. I live a couple hours away from her.” I turn my head so she doesn’t see my eyes going wet and reddening. I put my hand on the baby’s back. “They’re all pretty sweet,” I say glibly while turning back to her.
“So you’re all done with this?” she asks, meaning child-rearing, and I nod. “Well, I’m a little jealous,” she adds lightheartedly as I step away. This mother’s my age—forty-something, and likely has decades until her nest will empty.
As I turn to go, I am crying. “I’m jealous too,” I tell her, turning and smiling through the tears. She cocks her head, a gesture of compassion, and blesses me as I walk into a crowd of parents and kids.