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My Little Girl, the Mother

There’s a song by Ben Folds called “Gracie Girl.” We played it for the father-daughter dance at my oldest daughter’s wedding last year. It begins:

You can’t fool me, I saw you when you came out
You got your momma’s taste but you got my mouth
And you will always have a part of me
Nobody else is ever going to see
Gracie girl …

It was perfect. Our oldest girl is named Grace, and the song is lyrical, lilting, wistful, and a dozen other things she is. 

I had no idea that within a year, I would be singing that song to my younger daughter’s baby. I wouldn’t have dreamed it, because she’s my younger daughter. Younger, as in, eighteen and unmarried. She was still living at home and going to school. 

After the initial shock of hearing Kat’s news had faded, the next seven months passed by quickly. Before we knew it, baby Cato was home from the hospital and holed up in his mother’s room, along with his very hands-on, invested, and earnest teenage father, who was spending more and more time at our house. 

We have this same room on video, with toddler Kat and her little dark curls, roaming around and exploring shortly after we moved into this house. The closet where dresses hung on pink plastic hangers is now stuffed with tiny cardigans and boy clothes on little white hangers.

Like a young wolf pair, Kat and John retreated to their den with their little cub. For the most part, they came out only to forage sporadically, retreating like shadows when any of us got too close.

I was left to stand in the hall, figuratively scratching my head and thinking, this is not how I thought it would be. Everyone had implied (if not coming right out and saying it) that my life was over. You watch, those kids will pawn that baby off on you, and don’t you let them do it. I had known that was mostly wrong, even early in her pregnancy. Kat wanted this baby far too much to give him up—to me or to anybody. But I did think that she would need me more.

Where were all the questions:

How do I swaddle him, Mom?
How do I get him to latch on?
How do I do this or that?

The questions were never asked, let alone “pawning off” baby Cato on me.

The very first week was when I made my big mistake. Kat and John had come out of their lair to sit with the rest of us at the dinner table. Kat and John ate avidly, but were clearly tired. They had begun to lighten up a bit, laughing at the younger kids’ jokes, when a thin little wail began from their room. If I’d had ears on the top of my head, I’m sure they would have perked up into perfect points. I looked at the young parents—they ate doggedly on. My heart overcome with pity, I thought, “Aw, they’re exhausted and starved. They deserve to eat a good home-cooked meal in peace.”

Joyfully, I jumped up, went to Kat’s room, and looked down at the delicious little morsel of humanity wiggling around in the bassinet. I picked him up, came back to the dining room table, and sat down, cuddling Cato while I listened to the end of another one of my husband’s long and rambling stories.

To my shock, Kat came around the table, grim-faced, and took Cato from my arms as if taking back a swiped sweater. Without a word, she retreated to her room, followed closely by John. My husband and I stared at each other, while the two younger children looked confused.

Over the next day or so, I cried, wrote in my diary, vented to a friend in an email, broke down, and confided in my older daughter. After all my patience and love, running her to and from doctor’s appointments, was this how I deserved to be treated? Really?

That night, lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling, my mind went back to the time I brought Kat home from the hospital. Mind you, my daughter and I had completely different birthing experiences. Mine was (except for bringing home a beautiful healthy baby girl) pretty rotten. I was a patient of the local health department, and nobody there seemed to give a damn about me one way or the other. I was left to struggle on through a non-progressing labor for seventeen hours before they gave in and ordered me the (third) cesarean that I’d been begging for since I’d rolled in. Not that I’m still bitter or anything …

In contrast—Kat had a brief and uncomplicated labor attended by an angel in human form. I was able to be with my child when she gave birth, when she leaned forward and grunted and pushed like a little warrior, and sent Cato out into all our lives and hearts. I held Kat’s head for her as she pushed, and I saw Cato when he came out.

But now I was remembering something else. I was remembering how when I finally got to go home, I was nothing but an urge to be alone with my baby. My husband cheerfully noted how a nice lady from church had offered to come to our house and mop the kitchen for me and help out around the house—and I snapped his head off. 

“I don’t want her in my house,” I snarled. “I don’t want anybody in my house. All I want is for people to leave me alone.” I took Kat and went in my room—thankful that the older two were off with Grandma, and I could curl up in my bed and just be with my baby.  Looking back now, I understand that my heart was still smarting from the lack of simple human kindness I’d received from the putative doctor in charge of my case. I needed some time to emotionally recover from what had felt like a dehumanizing experience. 

Recalling all this, I was dumbfounded. Kat was acting like I had when I brought her home. I was right there when she gave birth. There was no question that, while she had gone into labor early and was not able to get to the newer hospital with its suites and in-room steak dinner for two, her experience was bliss and simplicity compared to mine. Heck, she even had an epidural, which I had longed for but didn’t have the $700 up-front the hospital demanded (stupid hospital).

Well, I decided, it really didn’t matter why Kat was acting so possessive and touchy—so independent, and so not a little girl needing help with her doll. At the end of this long day, all I needed to know was that my daughter was an attentive and loving mother to her baby. She was getting up with him at night (I knew because of the thin walls between our rooms), she was talking to him in the same loving and addled-with-blind-adoration tones I used with her (thank you, thin walls!), and she was clearly determined to be the mommy, and not just somebody’s little girl.

I got up, walked down the hall, and knocked. She opened the door, sleepy-eyed, with Cato in her arms. I said, “Kat. I just wanted you to know that I didn’t mean to step on your toes, or overstep my boundaries. I know he’s your baby. I know that. I just wanted to help. But, from here on out, I won’t just go and get him. If you want me to take him so you can get a shower or eat, that’s fine. Ask me.” I stepped back, hands up—as if to say, “That’s it,” and I walked back down the hall. 

The next morning, I went back to bed with a cup of coffee like I usually do, and was just getting comfortable under the covers again, when an exhausted looking Kat stepped in the room. “Mommy?” her voice was soft. 

“Can you take him? I’m so tired …”

Hurriedly setting the coffee on the bedside table, I reached for him, and snickered as Kat turned around and literally stumbled out of the room. “Ohh, Cato,” I breathed. Before you knew it, I had him propped on a pillow and sat cross-legged before him, looking down at all that baby perfection.

Without knowing I was going to, I heard myself start to sing to him, softly:

You can’t fool me, I saw you when you came out
You got your daddy’s eyes and your mama’s mouth
And you will always have a part of me
Nobody else is ever going to see
Baby boy ...

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