The arrival of our firstborn stripped me of the defenses I’d painstakingly acquired. Now I knew what only childbirth could have taught me. I belonged to the life I’d summoned into being; I was my daughter’s as much as she was mine; the bond was irrevocable. How—it did not seem -possible—how could a woman let go of her child? All through the year in which I carried my daughter in my arms, and the one in which she toddled and spoke, and the next, when I dropped her off at nursery school while carrying her brother on my hip: Over and over motherhood returned me to a place that looked a lot like the land of the unrequited. Had there been something wrong with me after all, a thing that made me different from my children, lacking the power to command a mother’s devotion?
My mother hadn’t wanted me, and she hadn’t loved me. I knew she hadn’t, felt it more keenly with each year and its turning seasons. Summer afternoons at the beach segued into picking pumpkins and making Halloween costumes. When winter held us indoors, we visited the dinosaurs at the -natural-history museum or stayed home to bake cookies. One art project at a time, my children destroyed the mahogany dining table at which I’d done years’ worth of homework, never marring the finish because I knew better than to defy my grandmother’s dictum to cover its surface with a pad before laying so much as a pencil on it. I loved playing with my children, and I loved ruining that beautiful table I’d inherited, eventually replacing it with one I liked better, one on which we spilled milk—and paint, and glue—without crying over it. But all this happiness inspired an equally unexpected emotion: resentment. Before I had children of my own, I hadn’t known, exactly, what I’d missed. When I was a child, the longing I felt for my mother was amorphous and encompassing, a wound whose limits I couldn’t fathom, its contours invisible. Now I saw them, and what I saw sharpened my grief, and my anger.
AND THEN CAME the longed-for third child, my husband having chivalrously joined me in what hadn’t been his idea, even if he did try to claim it the moment she was in his arms. But three was the bargain, not four, and immediately upon Julia’s birth I had a tubal ligation, the one form of contraception that redefined menopause. Now I wouldn’t have to dread infertility. Julia was the third, and she would be the last. I marked first words and first steps with the awareness that I was bidding them good-bye forever, even as I added them to the sepia-toned gallery in my head. I saved one bottle of breast milk at the back of the freezer, hidden under an ancient bag of frozen peas, and from time to time I’d take it out to feel what preserved it, hold that chill tight in my hand. Years passed; the bottle remained under the peas; Julia grew. Nursery school. First grade. Chapter books. Once again, the tooth fairy secreted her currency in my desk—a cache of golden Sacagawea dollars. Before they were spent, our older children were in college, and I had a 10-year-old who was, of course, far more than the child I’d imagined. Then, Julia had been an idea, a picture of myself at 50 with a child beside me, a picture meant to eclipse the one that frightened me, of myself, at 50, drowning in peace and quiet.