by Dacia Fusaro
It’s late February and I am visiting the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena for the third time this week. My three-month-old daughter is secured against my chest in a baby wrap, her head turning left to right, craning to get a look at the scenery; the wrap’s instructions had been quite confident that babies prefer to look upwards at their mothers rather than in the outward-facing position. A pineapple sunhat shades her face and her tiny fists scramble for purchase in her mouth; I imagine our heartbeats are synchronized as she presses her body against mine. The infamous wild parrots of Pasadena fly overhead in a noisy, carefree arc, circling back before continuing west. We both pause to look up at them; she too seems romanced by their freedom. There is a loneliness to my newfound motherhood, a monotony to the days, and these botanical gardens, two miles down the road from our home, are our reprieve. I feel compelled to be out in the daylight, amongst people, surrounded by strangers. Even if we don’t converse, it is enough that the arc of our stories overlaps just in passing.
Motherhood has made me miss New York, my city of fourteen years up until our move to California two summers ago. I crave the comradery of the city streets, the ever-pressing swell of people, the strangers infringing on my personal space like cars jockeying for leeway on the congested freeways here. I miss it with a sharpness that tastes almost, but not quite, of regret. I like to be alone with people, so I bring my daughter here where nature and humanity intersect. These are the days that must happen to you says Walt Whitman and so we allow the days to happen she and I, weaving our way through the Japanese Gardens, the San Gabriel mountains stark against a relentlessly blue sky.
As a new mother, I crave a village, a community, other mothers to show me the way. In the absence of that, and with no family nearby, I take my daughter outdoors to public spaces, smiling at the people we walk by, narrating the passing scenery for her. On the days that we don’t go to the Botanical Gardens, we walk through our neighborhood, strolling by the storefronts and fancy restaurants on Lake Avenue. Staring in the darkened windows of the expensive steakhouses, I feel I am twenty-one years old again, newly in New York and gazing upon something inaccessible to me. Walking past these restaurants with my daughter makes them once again feel unapproachable; gone are the days of randomly entering a place to have happy hour Prosecco at the bar just because I could. Becoming a mother is one of those irrevocable decisions, there is a threshold I have crossed and boozy sojourns to dimly lit lounges linger on the other side. It’s not that we couldn’t do those things together but rather that the time for those things has receded. There is a new purpose and breezy afternoons with no responsibilities no longer hold the same gravity they once did.
An elderly Asian woman behind us in line to enter the gardens remarks on my daughter’s appraising stare, “She’s so alert. How old is she?” When I reply, she notes that my daughter is advanced for her age. “She’s determined,” she finishes. “I know that look. She will be very successful.”
My daughter was born at 6:38 am, three days before Thanksgiving and four days past her due date, after an unscheduled induction. She was brought into this world alongside my husband, our doula and my mother who had flown in the day prior, anticipating I would have already given birth. My husband jokes that he was hopeful I could hold out a few more days so she would be born a Sagittarius instead of a Scorpio and despite my unwillingness to give credence to astrological signs, she seems to bear all the hallmarks of a strong-willed Scorpio. The elderly woman at the Botanical Gardens was correct: she is very determined, a trait undeniable even in infancy.
Thus far, my daughter has presented herself as the anecdote to my timidity, my unassertiveness. She came into this world with a solid set of preferences and a willfulness I hadn’t attributed to newborns, imagining in my naiveté instead that all babies were born drifting in and out of a hazy sleep, perhaps cooing gently in the corner. My daughter made a mockery of those assumptions. My husband and I were left scrambling to recalibrate our expectations, reading her infantile ways of communication like Morse code, surprised by how much she was able to communicate without words. Learning to speak the language of another is humbling, sacred work and to learn how to soothe is perhaps the most intimate of gifts we can bestow. With time and patience, the three of us are creating our own language, the rhythm and words forever changing and evolving.
The morning after my daughter was born, my hands instinctively went to my newly flattened stomach, searching for the familiar round shape which had become a seemingly permanent part of me. I ran my fingers along the newly uninhabited skin as though tracing constellations, jarred by a sudden sense of loss. I could still feel my baby’s persistent kicks, the way I’ve heard people feel a phantom limb. I ached for those movements despite the fact that the feet which had delivered them were now cradled in a hospital bassinet beside my bed.
My daughter came out crying and continued to cry for the next eight weeks, a persistent, incessant wail that we would hear ringing in our ears long after she had lapsed into an abbreviated sleep. It was a lusty cry, my mother proclaimed, more than a hint of mischief apparent in her eyes. Rather than despair, I understood my daughter: she was an aquatic creature thrust from a home she could never return to, landlocked and longing for the sea. I knew what it was to desire being lulled to sleep at night on the crest of salty waves, pining for a warm ocean to call my own. We had shared the same body for months, she and I, only to be pulled apart through the violence of birth. A bond had been broken for my daughter; it was up to me to show her it hadn’t been severed, merely reconfigured. When I mentioned to our pediatrician that my daughter seemed to sleep only when cradled in someone’s arms, she said, only half-jokingly, “I sleep better in someone’s arms too.” It seemed we all understood each other.
In my past life as a teacher for students with behavioral issues and in my more recent life as a therapist, my currency lies in helping people discover what’s broken. I help them define what they need and together we find their missing pieces. It is a collaborative effort, dependent upon patience and trust. Through this lens, I viewed my daughter’s tears as just such a situation, requiring curiosity and compassion. With my clients, I contain their secrets, their self-loathing, their fears; with my daughter, I knew that I could withstand her discomfort, unearth what it was she needed, and help her find peace within her new home. This is what it is to be a mother. She had chosen me because I was strong enough to be what she needed; there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t recognize her as my own. Holding her tight, I think about mirror neurons, imagining my calm state running through me and into her, alleviating her distress. As the days pass, she cries less and less, smiles replacing her tears so that those early sleep-deprived days of confusion are rendered a distant memory. I tend to her the way I hope I was tended to as a child; I know it is only through proper attachment and attunement that we are set free.
I study her more intensely than I have ever studied another, memorizing the stork bite on her left eyelid, the curvature of her tiny ears so reminiscent of seashells along the beaches in Maui where I used to live, the way her long lashes rest on her cheeks. Lashes she has inherited from her father. Lashes so long that my friends joke that, knowing what they know of me, they wouldn’t be surprised if she was wearing lash extensions. Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone I whisper to her as she slumbers, a phrase I have stolen from a book I read that seems to speak to the unspeakable connection we share, her face in repose so different from the face she wears while awake. As she sleeps, I kiss her lips, delighting in how they pucker up automatically in response. I pop her tiny fingers and toes in my mouth, marveling at the miniature bones that wove themselves together inside my womb like seams on clothing. I think about how much of love is untranslatable, muddied by things with origins in this lifetime as well as a distant past that spans generations. How much of this sleeping child will remain unknown to me? The mystery of her soul I will never fully comprehend. The sense of proprietorship I feel is merely a chimera; she will never truly belong to me. I am to shepherd her through her days, releasing her into the wilderness of life a fully-fledged, independent woman in some finite future. The loss I already feel about this renders me inarticulate, chastened.
I kept a journal of my pregnancy for her, trying my best to immortalize with words the joy and attendant feelings of hope and anxiety I felt when I envisioned who she would be, who she would become. The biggest impact on a child is the unlived life of the parents says Carl Jung, so I try my best not to weave my own shortcomings into my hopes for her, but I do; I hope she doesn’t inherit my insecurities, my adolescent feelings of inadequacy. I want her to be curious, kind, and wise. I want her to know the meaning of unconditional love. I don’t want her to be apologetic for things that are not her fault. I hope she never awakens in the midst of some deep, dark night, lonely and unable to fall back asleep for all the fears haunting her unconscious as I did throughout my twenties. I want her to know her worth.
At night before bed, we read her poetry: Rumi, Neruda, Whitman. I hope those words set fire to a passion inside her as they do for me. I want her to know only love and poetry. I long for this, knowing all the while that in struggle too there is poetry. She will know suffering and loss in her life no matter our intentions and she will be better for it. As I witness the gradual graying of my own heroes, I wonder who her heroes will be. I wonder what the world will be like for her in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement. My husband says we are witnessing the death of democracy as an ideology. I wonder what comes after democracy and if it will be better.
One evening my husband and I put our daughter to bed and drink a bottle of Prosecco, sent as a congratulatory gift after her birth. The effervescence goes straight to my head and amidst the nostalgia and sentimentality that ensues, I am reminded of my single days when I used to pine for what I now have. Blessed are they who remember that what they now have they once longed for says a line from one of my favorite poems and I remember. Out of all of the phantom lives I may have led, this is the life that has claimed me, and I am so grateful I have been claimed. But the part of me that will forever remain a daydreamer can’t help but feel a yearning for all those other lives I will never know, all those people I will never become. During my single days, when life got difficult, I relied on thoughts of the future to distract me, fantasizing about the lover I would meet, the children we would have, the new horizons we would conquer, the life we would share. But now, having chosen those things, I am left unsure what to daydream about when all of my visions have become real. It is not that I miss the hardscrabble days or the loneliness, rather I miss pining for something that was just around the bend, just about to present itself as I waited in a state of anticipation. The steady anchor of my daughter’s eyes forces me to live in the present, to be thankful for these everyday blessings. If I had to go back and relive the past, I would make these same choices an infinite number of times, yet I can’t help but mourn for those other choices left unmade, now reduced to ashes.
Many of my friends’ narratives about children take on a romantic, rose-tinted glasses hue as though once one crosses the threshold of motherhood, every sigh, every interrupted stretch of sleep, every cry from one’s child is sacrosanct and life-affirming. “I just love every minute,” gushed my girlfriend who had her daughter three weeks after mine. She said of her three-year old son that he still woke up every two to three hours at night and that she couldn’t wait to cuddle him back to sleep because she knew there would come a day when he would no longer need her to do so. This said so unironically that my sarcastic response froze in my throat, only to later be granted reprieve when repeated with disbelief to my husband. That I love my daughter goes without question, her smiling face in the morning steals my breath, but I don’t even love every moment with myself so how can I thrill about every second spent with another? So many of the woman I know hold their identity as a mother to be their strongest defining characteristic. I feel guilt for wanting to be defined by more than that, yet I know the path is different for each and I will be a better mother by continuing to pursue my own dreams.
Despite the differences in sentiment, experience, and geography, I feel a universality with all mothers. Motherhood makes me think of my own mother, the sacrifices she made, the fears she must have felt. I feel the urge to reach out to the mothers I once nannied for while attending undergraduate school in Manhattan and ask them how they balanced work and family. I pick up the phone far more often to call my friends back home, many of whom had children right out of high school. I feel connected to them by an invisible thread I didn’t have eyes to see before. I think of the flow of migrants at sea, the mothers living with their children in refugee camps, all the mothers who have lost their children, their songs unsung and it becomes unbearable for me to imagine their pain, their loss. Motherhood makes me feel a heightened vulnerability, not only for myself but for anyone with a child, unable to control the whims of a capricious fate that leaves the destiny of our children outside the realm of our control. I have become more charitable, more magnanimous; I see fellowship everywhere. The people beside me at the Botanical Gardens all once were cradled in someone’s arms, requiring a tender touch to soothe them to sleep.
In the mornings, my daughter and I listen to Eva Cassidy singing “Fields of Gold” and I dream about life in a rural, northern Italian town. My craving for a simple life blooms as I envision more children to follow. I see us swimming in alpine lakes, eating meals prepared with fruit and vegetables fresh from our garden. Gradually I have come to realize that these hopes are my new visions. It has taken me time to adjust my daydreams, to see that there will always be daydreams to follow. Now when I fantasize about the future, it includes the life I have created, the man I have chosen; to have my daydreams populated by my family becomes the new normal. I dream of a life of simplicity for us. On certain afternoons we hear the wild parrots through opened windows and go outside to marvel as they fly by, the ordinary rendered extraordinary through my daughter’s new eyes.
At the Botanical Gardens, my daughter and I pause in the Australian Gardens section, the least populated area of the park; distant voices are dwarfed by the sounds of birds chirping in trees. I sit under a bottle tree, reading her the Latin name and she smiles as I fumble with the awkward pronunciation delivered in a cartoonish voice for her benefit.
I wonder what it will be like to bring her here when she’s two years old. Will she run around, tearing the blossoms off of flowers, will she throw herself on the ground and temper tantrum? What will it be like when she’s fifteen? Will she be a moody teenager too caught up in her social life to indulge her mom in an oft-repeated stroll through these grounds? Will I have the privilege of her company when I’m old? Perhaps she’ll guide my stooped and frail body down the hills leading to the Chinese Gardens, a reverse of our dynamic now. I daydream about these future incarnations of her for a moment then pull myself back to the present. For now, being here with her, the scent of acacias and eucalyptus on the air is enough. It is enough to be here now with her, allowing time to pass, the future as of yet unwritten.