Memoir: Daughter Dearest

A wild, consuming passion drove Kathryn Harrison to have a third child at the age of 39. Little did she know that this time, motherhood would plunge her deep into the mysteries of her past.

By Kathryn Harrison
mother and daughter at beach image
The author with her daughter Julia on Iron Pier Beach, Long Island, 2002.
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

THE CONVERSATION always ended with my husband staring, as he tends to do when he has run out of things to say, at the blank white page of the ceiling, his head resting heavily on the back of the couch. Sometimes I waited for him to make a definitive pronouncement; more often I got up and wandered into the kitchen. It was never a fight but a question I’d been raising, and my husband deflecting, for years. I wanted a third child, and the line we’d drawn between us and the possibility of Down syndrome or any other blight visited on a woman’s aging eggs drew ever closer until, suddenly, it was in sight: my 40th birthday.

Wasn’t it greedy to ask? Wouldn’t we be punished, my husband suggested, with whatever portion of misery might descend on the parents of two healthy offspring who petitioned God or the gods or just plain luck for another? “It’s not as if we have two boys or two girls and are holding out for the unrepresented gender.” The point didn’t dissuade but provoked me in its symmetry. Let’s shake things up, I thought, let’s get uneven, let’s have a baby. I wanted one, I wanted one, I just did, and when I pointed out that it wasn’t as if he’d felt ready to have either of the first two, my husband was politic enough not to challenge me. We both knew there was no discouraging this desire.

Our daughter was five and our son three when I began my campaign. If anyone had asked me to articulate my insistence on a third child, would I have admitted the reason? I wanted emotional insurance. I didn’t imagine myself a woman who would soar once her nest was empty. What I foresaw was closer to a plunge. If we had a third, when the older ones went off to college I’d still have a middle schooler, and by the time that child went to college I might have at least the promise of a grandchild.

My husband reminded me of the cost of raising children, not just financial but psychic. Would we have the energy to give a third as much as we had the first two? Maybe more, I argued, as by the time the third arrived, the others would be so much older, almost a set of junior parents. Usually the one firmly on the rational side of any marital disagreement, my husband reiterated his fear that having “already won the lottery,” as he referred to our having been blessed with the two children we had, if we asked for another we might be punished by the fates. I relayed his superstition to my doctor.

“Are you kidding?” he said. He leaned forward, having just told me I was “perfect and beautiful”—which might sound creepy, given that the assessment followed his having peered with a bright light at what neither I nor my husband had ever seen. But he was an obstetrician; the beauty he saw, fertility. A couple who had had two healthy babies, he said, was that much more likely to have a third healthy child.

“But I’d be so many years older this time around,” I said.
He smiled. “That’s what amnio is for.”

 

“WOW,” FRIENDS SAID when they ran into me on the street, and they said, “Congratu—” but most of them never finished the word before silently doing the math and arriving at a new conclusion: accident. They kept their eyes averted, seemingly stuck on my swollen midriff. I could have rescued them. “Oh, no,” I could have said. “She was planned.” But I liked watching them struggle, their discomfort announcing that this pregnancy was different from the earlier two. And it was, but not in ways I could have anticipated.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a negative role model,” my analyst had said when I was pregnant with our first child and fearful I might be less than the good-enough mother. Every dream we dismantled was a nightmare. My mother, 18 when I was born, moved through all of them like a vampire, pale and deadly. “You were supposed to ransom me,” she said, reporting epiphanies from her own sessions with a therapist, too few and too late. “Another daughter to give my mother, to replace me so I could escape.” By then it had been seven years since she’d moved out of her parents’ home, looking for a life she never found. I saw her on the weekends, each visit reminding me of my young mother’s misery, and its cause. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that all she wanted and didn’t have—college, career, husband (for she considered me baggage discouraging to potential suitors)—I had taken from her. She made me understand that I was the thief of her happiness.

My grandmother accepted the ransom. Her vicious battles with my mother ceased; the house grew calm; I thought I would die of grief. The person I wanted before any other didn’t want me. Years of psychoanalysis couldn’t deliver me from what I understood as a fall from grace, stranding me in the purgatory of those whose love goes unrequited, from which I was determined to escape. Love is given, of course, not earned, but I couldn’t turn away from the red taillights of her turquoise Pontiac, ever sliding away from me down the long driveway. Having arrived under circumstances that made me my mother’s unwanted burden, I looked for opportunities to prove myself worthy of love. If I could distract her from the form I’d assumed—a cross to bear—she’d see I’d eclipsed that unsatisfactory girl with a new, radically improved me.
It didn’t work, of course. Nor did her death, when I was 24, release me from the habit of wooing her: of trying to anticipate what loveworthy form I might tailor myself to fit. For a decade already I’d been the emblematic anorexic, precocious in my discovery of mortification of the flesh, punishing parts of my body before I set myself against the whole. I couldn’t balance a perfect arabesque on pointe shoes, but a burn might suffice to catch her eye. I was the good girl who got straight A’s, who hadn’t had a drink, much less sex, before college, the woman who never found a way to escape the long--reflexive habit of always becoming and never being, perpetually striving to evolve.

Shoved by therapy, I arrived at the familiar truism: It hadn’t been me who was unlovable but my mother who had been unable to love. Pregnant with our first child, I rehearsed the compressed litany that supported what still felt more like a conceit than a truth: My mother had been a child when I was born. Raised by governesses, each of whom left her, she never perceived herself as capable of sustaining a mother’s love. Resigned to abandonment, she couldn’t admit how gravely she’d hurt me without resurrecting the agonies she must have endured.

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.

What would I do without a child in the house? Because I was as firmly as I could humanly be in the role of the good mother, or at the very least the good-enough mother. Bath time followed by bedtime; eating green vegetables; not chasing balls into the street: A lot of it was common sense, I discovered, and Dr. Spock, who remained on my nightstand for decades, provided further counsel. True, I didn’t have a positive role model to apply to ambiguous situations, but I did have a formula. Or maybe reflex is a better word for my rule of thumb: Given a choice, I followed a course opposite to my mother’s and, whenever I needed reassurance, I resurrected the child I had been to consider the situation from her point of view. By the time Julia arrived, I’d navigated a decade of child rearing and had two bright, happy, confident children—apparently the formula worked. Was it all right to allow my daughter to wear her Sleeping Beauty costume when it wasn’t Halloween? To wear it on the street for months, ever more tattered under its detergent-defying stains? I didn’t care, I decided, if the dirty acetate ball gown inspired equally dirty looks. My daughter, five years old, never noticed. She was looking in shopwindows to see herself, the girl the prince was going to marry because she was beautiful and good.

No, I wasn’t ready, not at all, to stop serving the paragon of maternal virtue I’d constructed to rebuke my mother. If I couldn’t, in my thirties, articulate to myself what emotional insurance might mean, by the time Julia was in grade school, hindsight revealed me as a woman who had assembled her adult self around the persona of the good mother, the inverse-reverse-opposite of mine. I didn’t want an empty nest, because I wasn’t sure I was whole enough to survive without a child at home.

 

“MINI ME,” one of my students called her when circumstances forced my younger daughter to tag along to the college where I taught. And it was true: Our childhood photographs were as interchangeable as our baby pictures. The words stuck in my head; I couldn’t banish them. Mini me. Julia means “young” in Latin, and our daughter’s middle name, her paternal grandmother’s maiden name, is “Young.” The repetition never bothered me. My husband’s mother’s maiden name could hardly be changed, and her father and I loved the name Julia. Or had I been the one who loved it, and he’d acquiesced to the choice, as he had to my fierce insistence on having the child who bore the name? Well, too late: We’d put the two together, Julia Young, like a spell that chimed the meaning twice, turning the clock back to my young self. I worried that our physical similarity might heighten the risk of conflating my daughter with my child self, especially as it was that little girl on whom I depended to illuminate my children’s needs, and I was vigilant with our youngest, who upped every ante.

Julia was an adoring kindergartner when I caught my 15-year-old rolling her eyes at the worshipful gaze her little sister kept locked on me. “Once upon a time, you used to think I was the cat’s pajamas, too,” I said.

“Yeah, but I was never your stalker.”

I didn’t argue. Julia might not have loved me more than her siblings had, but she did do it differently. As though the golden fluid the amnio technician had drawn from my womb had bathed our daughter for nine months in a distillate of longing, Julia answered my desire with a single-minded passion for me, holding a mirror not only to my face but also to my personality—a deeper and more threatening reflection that, in the case of my little doppelgänger, I wanted to avoid. But how could I, when I recognized my daughter’s hunger as my own? Could it have been that the ravenous desire I turned on my mother wasn’t purely a matter of nurture but one of nature, a trait, like shyness, bestowed by genetics? If I saw a friend on the street, Julia marched me in the opposite direction, so intent on preventing even a wave hello that whoever it was laughed. When, on the phone, I ignored her interruptions, she unplugged it. If I looked away, she took my face in her hands and redirected my gaze.

Eerily, as if following a script I’d bequeathed her, Julia acted out scenes that had unfolded decades before she was born. She came to me while I was sleeping and pried my eyes open with her fingers, as I had done to my mother before she moved out. Once I was up, she insinuated herself between me and my clothes, me and the coffeepot, me and the newspaper. She made sure I never closed the bathroom door when she wasn’t on my side of it. What would I have done, I wondered, if the third had come first? Impatience wasn’t among my flaws (in fact, my husband felt I was so slow to anger with our older children that it amounted to indulgence), but I’d needed a decade of practice to navigate Julia’s demands with the grace I expected of myself.

And I’d needed something only Julia herself could have given me—a way to cast off the resentment inspired by my attachment to my older children, to stop asking why love hadn’t held my mother hostage and kept her by my side, why it hadn’t made her feel as I did, that leaving was -impossible under any circumstances. Under eyes as predatory as the ones I’d fixed on my mother, I found myself no longer able, or even inclined, to judge her. Julia taught me what it was to want to extricate myself from my daughter’s hot little embrace, put her down and bolt. Sometimes, held captive, I’d feel my heart hammering in my chest, the kind of acceleration inspired by a stuck elevator, claustrophobia segueing into panic. But among the advantages I had and my mother didn’t—college, career, husband, adulthood—was this: The baby in my arms was so familiar in her needs, I never had to guess at them. I knew when it was OK to unwrap her arms from around my neck, pull her legs from around my waist, set her down and take a break. And I knew when I had to count to 10, or 50; I sensed when separation would feel like punishment, just as I knew, before symptoms arrived, when any of our children was falling sick. When a good-night kiss wasn’t enough, I left my husband as the lone host of a dinner party. If a plan with a friend fell on a night I couldn’t leave without inspiring desperate tears, I canceled it. Julia saved invitations to functions I told her I wouldn’t attend because I’d have much more fun at home, with her, adding each to her collection with a radiant, triumphant smile. And yes, I allowed her to open my eyes with her fingers, because I remembered what it did to me when my mother pushed me away and, worse, answered my wanting her as I did with anger.

The picture of me at 50, my older children in college, my youngest at home, was recast by our third child, at once the easiest, in that I didn’t worry about what retrospect revealed as insignificant, and the most difficult, rarely satisfied by anything less than my undivided attention, even when I was asleep. Would I have leaped so eagerly into motherhood a third time had I known that my mother, 18 years old and terrified of the baby in her arms, would greet me, summoned by a granddaughter she’d never met? I’d wanted to eat my mother alive, to possess every last little bit of her. I wanted so much more than I got, and losing her as I did would always inspire grief. But now the anguish I felt wasn’t so much for me as for my mother, whom I forgave without trying, my rancor like a pulled tooth. I kept looking for it, just as I’d feel, with my tongue, for that missing part of me.

I had the means, now, to reinterpret if not rewrite history. Had I been my mother, I might have left me, too. And the speed with which my taillights disappeared down the driveway wouldn’t have proved a lack of love. All it would have meant was that I’d been unequal to staying; the misery on my face wouldn’t reflect my disappointment with my child, but how torn I was, how divided against myself. All along, I’d known we were both unhappy, my mother and I. It took Julia to point out what I didn’t see, that our grief hadn’t been separate but a thing we shared.

KATHRYN HARRISON’s memoir The Kiss was recently reissued in paperback.

Click to read a mother's story about her abusive son and how she overcame the heartache to love him.

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First Published Wed, 2011-09-14 09:04

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