The first time someone asks when your baby is due, during the middle of your second trimester, is the first time you truly feel motherhood begin. Not when your gums become so tender that a piece of floss can draw a river of blood. Not when your back burns from the burden of your newfound weight. Not even when you wake one night and catch your husband tracing your nascent network of varicose veins with his finger.
It isn’t until you’re waiting for your ultrasound in the Radiology department, distracting yourself with the Home and Garden network, and the pregnant woman next to you asks, “How far along are you?” that you finally feel a part of something bigger than yourself, a member of an elite section of society: a mother.
And later, when you and your husband stare at the sonogram screen—the black-and-white contour of your child, the grainy background like television static—and the technician congratulates you both on your baby girl, you feel this is only a formality, a confirmation of what the woman asked you, something you already knew. You are changing. You only hope it’s for the better.
She arrives exactly on her due date. When the doctor finishes the C-Section and hands her to you, umbilical cord and all, the first thing you think of is the scene in Alien when the monster bursts through the man’s chest. You can’t help but laugh and suspect it’s because of the anesthesia, though they only numbed you from the waist down for the procedure. Still, it makes you giggle, the fact that this little creature—this person—came from your belly and is alive in your arms, that you’re responsible for protecting her in an entirely new way now.
The laughter stops when the doctor finally brings the clamps down and severs the umbilical cord, because then you know, with more clarity than you’ve ever known anything, that this next part is going to last a lot longer than a simple nine months.
This is when she needs you most. You take pride in breastfeeding her, in being the one to check on her at night, in giving her life and sustaining it.
She rewards you with a quiet, reverent love: no crying at night, relatively simple diaper changes, gummy smiles. You wonder if those watery blue eyes see you, understand you, know who you are instinctively. You hope so.
Though she won’t remember it, you decide to throw her a birthday party anyway. You spend the morning impersonating a whirlwind: opening the oven door and hanging the streamers and tying together balloon garlands and filling bowls with edible glitter. No one can accuse you of being a bad mother and using non-edible glitter in your daughter’s presence.
You treat yourself to a glass of white wine, your first since the baby was born, and savor the fruity aftertaste. Then you treat yourself to another.
At the party your friends point to the highchair in the middle of the room where your daughter quietly sits and watches, regal and solemn as a queen. “What’s your secret?” your best friend Kelley asks, her voice somewhere between awed and desperate. Her son is almost five months old. “Matthew cries nonstop. Check my eyes if you don’t believe me. I’ve probably got enough bags to start my own line of Louis Vuitton knockoffs.”
The other mothers nod empathetically.
You wish you could commiserate, wish you could recount a story about your daughter biting too hard while nursing or crying so loud during the night that you pitched the baby monitor across the room, but the truth is this: there is no secret, no way of knowing what you did right or wrong to produce such a silent, independent child. A part of you wonders if you’re missing out on something.
Toward the end of the afternoon, after you’ve all sung Happy Birthday and your husband is coaxing your daughter into blowing out the candle and making a wish, she leans forward in her seat, reaches for a handful of chocolate cake, and says her first word: “Dada."
Her voice soars through the room, flutters around your ribcage like a lark. Your husband—your dear husband, who didn’t help bake or set the living room up or mail the RSVP letters— has already stolen her heart. He grins and helps her blow out the candle, then lifts her up and holds her close.
Later, when you’re collecting the discarded wrapping paper and vacuuming the stray flecks of glitter, you’ll wish that your daughter had never spoken at all, and you’ll hate yourself for that.
One day Kelley calls your name in the supermarket, and you don’t realize until the third shout that she’s speaking to you. It’s been so long since you’ve been called Tabitha, or Mrs. Wolff, or anything other than “Mom.” It’s a multipurpose word: a role, an occupation, a name. It’s even wormed its way into your husband’s vernacular, supplanting “sweetheart” and “dear” and “Tabby.”
“My, you’re getting big,” Kelley tells your daughter, who is sitting awkwardly in the grocery cart.
Your daughter, who has transformed into quite the chatterbox since your father won her love, shouts, “I’m three!”
Kelley smiles. “I see that, young lady. Soon you’re going to be just like your mom.”
You feel your heartbeat falter, feel yourself drop the loaf of bread in your hand. A chill creeps through the store. Someone tells Kelley that you two have to go now, though you don’t recognize the voice. Only when you return home do you realize you have no way of making sandwiches.
In the mornings now she pours her own Frosted Flakes, drenches the dining table with wayward low-fat milk, chews with her mouth open. You clean up after her, blotting soggy placemats and coasters with paper towels, dumping half-eaten cereal down the garbage disposal. You resolve never to teach her the word “maid.”
While she’s away at school, you try to regain who you were long ago, before you became a mother.
You try to bake chocolate chip cookies but the silence of the house, rare as gold, hypnotizes you like a siren song, and when you open your eyes again, the heat ripples and the smoke detector blares.
You peruse your shelf until Jane Austen’s name appears but find your attention span for reading doesn’t last longer than a picture book anymore.
One day you find your harp collecting dust in the garage. You tell yourself that you’re going to stick with this hobby. You wipe it off and try plucking a few notes, but the sound isn’t what it used to be, and your calluses have atrophied. Though it’s painful, you bumble your way through a few songs, just in time to pick up your daughter. In the car listening to your daughter screech about her day, you tell yourself that you’ll work your way back to where you were, that you’ll even teach her how to play the harp.
The next day, you decide to revisit gardening instead.
During a camping trip in California, she almost drowns when she swims out too far in the river and the current comes looking for her.
You see things unfold in slow-motion: the shine of her hair against the rolling water, the echo of her voice against the redwoods, her hand sinking below the water like quicksand, and then she’s gone for too long. You scream for your husband, shout over and over until your voice becomes scratchy and raw. You curse yourself for not learning how to swim, not being able to protect her.
Your husband dashes from the tent, sees you pointing frantically to the water, and dives in. You hold your breath, waiting for something, anything, a miracle.
Twenty seconds later, your husband resurfaces, gasping and gulping. In his fist is your daughter’s hand, and with a quick yank, she resurfaces too. And you don’t see them return to the shore. You don’t see anything that comes next through the wall of tears. But you hear.
“Daddy,” she croaks. Then a sound like she's vomiting water. “Daddy.”
“It’s okay now,” your husband says, and it sounds like he’s crying too. “Don’t worry, pumpkin. It’s okay now.”
“Daddy,” she says again. Like it’s the only name she knows.
Middle school is the Red Sea you just can’t part.
Something changes overnight.
Your stories and recollections of her, once shared between the two of you with the intimacy of inside jokes, turn vicious and sharp as barbed wire. The word “embarrassing” worms its way into her vernacular, becomes as commonplace as yes and no. Getting picked up from school is “embarrassing” because her other friends take the bus. Going trick-or-treating is “embarrassing” because it’s asking other people for handouts.
You have yet to find something that isn’t “embarrassing.”
Naively, you assume you can win back her love, so you decide to take a week-long vacation to Hawaii. On the plane ride over, you point at the window whenever you pass an ocean or a dune or a meadow, each one the size of a snow globe town. You beckon for her to lean over and see what you’re seeing, despite the turbulence rocking the plane and the sign urging passengers to keep their seatbelts fastened. You want nothing more than to share a moment with her, the way you used to.
But she’s got her earbuds in, and she shakes her head and pretends not to hear you, though you know her cellphone died an hour ago and her in-flight monitor is black.
On the second day in Maui, the day you spend all morning and afternoon whale-watching on a boat, she refuses to listen to your advice about wearing sunscreen. Later that night she returns to the hotel rosy and blistered. She cries when she sits on the bed, then spends the rest of the week sulking in the hotel room, feasting on room service and MTV reruns.
Her door stays locked, her heart stays broken, and the phone bill stays high.
See: Age Fifteen.
She’s in college in California, out of state. You still don’t understand why she chose California last year when plenty of schools in-state accepted her, especially considering her near-death experience there as a child, but you know better than to ask something “embarrassing” like that.
At any rate, she’s away from home now, and for the first time in almost two decades, ever since that day in the Radiology department, you truly feel the burden of motherhood ease its weight off your taut shoulders. It’s just you and your husband again, the way it used to be.
But you pass by her room sometimes and look inside, half-expecting to find her as she was: ten-years-old with pigtails and buck teeth and her teddy bear collection; thirteen with her braces and black nail polish and spiked jewelry; sixteen with the hooker heels and low-cut skirts you threatened to donate to the Goodwill down the street.
You and your husband occupy your nights playing Scrabble by the fireplace. He always wins. You can’t seem to come up with anything other than four-letter words: “Hurt” and “Duty” and "Maid" and “Love.”
You know something is wrong when she calls you one gloomy Sunday in March. You’ve fallen into the habit of seeing one another on special holidays only—Christmas, birthdays ending in fives or zeros—and speaking once a month over the phone, banal conversations with questions that are answered in as few words as possible.
She asks if you want the good news or the bad news first. It shocks you that at her age there is still a distinction between them, that one doesn’t eventually lead to the other. You look out the window at the snow suffocating the trees, thick as blankets, and tell her you want the bad news.
The bad news, she says, is that she’s decided to quit college.
The good news is that you’re going to be a grandmother.
The baby’s name is Natasha. This you learn from a five-minute phone conversation, a day after she’s given birth. You don’t deign to ask for a FaceTime chat to see the baby live, and she doesn’t offer, though you do ask to hold the phone up to the baby so you can speak to her.
“I can’t, Mom,” she says. “I’m nursing right now, and I’d rather you not hear that.”
You want to yell, want to tell her that you put her on the phone when she was just a baby, but of course, your own mother had passed by the time you had your daughter. She didn't get to experience any of it, and now it seems you won't either.
“Where is the father?” you ask instead.
There’s a quick, ugly sucking sound on the other end of the line, and you can’t tell if it’s her or if she actually put the baby on the phone. You know better than to ask this question.
“I’m gonna go now,” she mutters, but she doesn’t hang up, and you listen to the drone of the hospital room in the background, the muted sounds of a television host, her shallow breathing.
“You know,” she says, quietly, slowly, “sometimes I hope I don’t end up like you,” and hangs up before you can respond.
Once, a long time ago, you watched a doctor hand you your child as though he were transferring a plate of bone china, something precious and fragile. You watched as he took his clamps and cut the child loose, let it into the world. You were numb then, just as you are now, but for different reasons.
That night you and your husband play Scrabble by the firelight. Snow buffets the windows, piles against the sill. You twirl your glass of white wine, staring carefully at your shadowed letter tiles. Your head has never been so clear. Your first five-letter word comes to you: “Child.”
Then a sixer: “Freely.”
And the thing is, that night, you win that game of Scrabble. For the first time, you finally beat your husband at something, and it feels like the greatest gift in the world.