Friday, May 22, 2020

The Quickening

It’s sometimes called the quickening, that first flutter of life you feel inside your belly when you’re pregnant. I remember clearly that first quickening, with my first baby, lying in bed on my back one July afternoon in 2007.

I was just starting to feel human again; that month I finally wanted to eat something besides lemons. It was a small but distinct & perceptible jump, definitely not indigestion. It was new—the unique sensation of life and otherness. And it was surprising in an odd and almost distressing way, like a swallow bouncing off a window in mid-flight. 

As she grew it was so strange, I remember, to feel this other body rolling around inside of mine. Stretching her arms, her head down and firm like a bowling ball in my pelvis, her feet stretching up against my diaphragm, already a person with her own agenda of movement.

Everything since has felt like an extension of that quickening. An unspooling of this human being over whose life I like to believe I have agency and control, while actually having neither. I am agog at how I put this person into the world and, knowing that so much of who she is is already encoded by DNA, all I can do is help her maximize her best traits and minimize her challenges and obstacles.

She will be 13 at the end of this year;
 a year already marred in its own infancy by a pandemic, natural disasters, and a fractious and battered national psyche. She is handling these "unprecedented times" with aplomb: converting to virtual learning; accepting with circumspect resignation the cancellation of long-awaited trips and plans; finding new ways to interact with friends; going for morning walks; cooking and baking; cleaning her room; reading; making tea.

So we decided at last to dive headlong into that 21st century parenting murder hornet’s nest and get her a phone. It was precisely because she wasn’t nagging for a phone that it felt okay to get her one.

Especially in quarantine, I was growing weary of being her recreational and academic intermediary, and I knew she was missing out on some much-needed peer interaction. The independence and executive streak that had made her a difficult toddler now matched her abilities, and she was occupying herself with (mostly) helpful activities and good clean fun. Her instinct for self-care and her tendency to tattle on her little brother for the slightest infraction, I knew, meant she could handle the responsibility and rules of a cell phone.

But as always with these things, it wasn’t the thing itself, so much as what it signified. 

“I don’t even want a phone anymore,” she wailed as we tried to navigate some frustrating technical issues. Upon probing further, though, it was clear she was crying simply because she did not want to get older. 

If she got this phone, she knew, suddenly she was a big girl (already taller than her mom anyway) with real responsibilities. A girl who made her own plans and exercised her own judgment. And although I knew she was ready for it, she didn't want to be.

As her mom, I felt both ready and not ready for this little milestone that came upon us a bit unexpectedly. If quarantine has given me anything, it’s more time to think. I’ve been thinking about the kind of girl my daughter is, and the many ways I hope she will be “better” than me, and already is.

I was so maladjusted at her age. I was consumed with what other people thought about me. I tried to win the friendship of toxic, broken girls. I had a bad relationship to food and exercise. I constantly sought validation from boys. I was alone a lot of the time. I put enormous pressure on myself to succeed academically and athletically. I felt inferior to my own mother. I was afraid of everything. 

My daughter, fortunately, is mostly none of these things.

And as an adult, I’m not much better to be honest. I’m still a validation junkie (obvs). I say and do so many of the wrong things, so much of the time. I often chase the rush of my own brazen self-destructiveness, which masquerades as courage or fearlessness. I shudder to think of the damage I would have brought on myself with a cell phone at her age, considering the amount of damage I’ve managed to do with it as a grownup.

I wouldn’t have thought a simple device like this would feel like some major landmark moment in parenting, but yet it’s served as a reminder that my daughter is ready to handle a lot more than even she realizes.