Some Thoughts on My Daughter’s 20th Birthday

Twenty years ago, on August 24, I gave birth to a daughter. Frankly, I had never thought myself particularly capable of such a thing, but the pregnancy – with the exception of one miserable heat-wavy week in July when I didn’t leave my bedroom as it was the only room in our Park Slope apartment with an air conditioner – was almost a pleasure. All the ice cream you could eat! People gave you wide berth (literally) on the sidewalk and the subway! You always had an excuse to put your feet up! Apart from some preeclampsia, which ultimately led to a C-section to get my 9 lb., 2 oz. “big baby” out when inducing didn’t work, I didn’t mind at all the thing that I had dreaded back in my twenties, when I swore I would rather adopt than ever put my body through pregnancy.

The next fear, though, was how to deal with this tiny little screaming, pooping creature. I hadn’t known too many babies in my life to that point. I did do some babysitting when I was a teenager, but for older children and I was usually there after they were already in bed (which was a perfect excuse to invite a “friend” over for some rumpus in the rumpus room). I was the first in my family and in my circle of friends to have a baby, so none of them knew anything about infants either. My mother was around in those early days although she wasn’t as hands-on as I had hoped she’d be (judging by the stories I’d heard from family members growing up, my mother’s gag reflex made changing diapers my father’s and grandmother’s job), and also my mother-in-law, who actually LIKES babies, but she lived a good distance away from Brooklyn and couldn’t come out to take care of everyday tasks like baths and burping. (The less said about breast-feeding, the better. Despite my having larger-than-average mammary glands, they proved to be utterly – udderly? – worthless.)

I remember the day we brought Darian home from the hospital. My sister and I were having such difficulty dressing her in a newborn baby gown (which may have been a tad too small for my “big baby”, which made the exercise even more challenging), entirely too tentative and scared, enough so that my roommate – who had just had her second child – rudely pushed us aside with a “Seriously, ladies? Get out of the way! The kid will be having her first birthday by the time you get that on her!” Things got a little bit easier after my C-section scar had healed enough so that I was able to actually get off the bed or couch by myself instead of rolling around helplessly like a turtle on its back, but I never truly felt comfortable picking her up, or holding her, or putting her down, or buckling her into her car seat, etc. I was always afraid I would break her somehow. But I did enjoy the late-night feedings, sitting with her in my beautiful wooden rocking chair adorned with carved swans – a gift from our friends Wendy and Claude and Wendy’s parents – by the light of wee-hour TV, especially the talk show of a woman named Penelope Leach, who had all of the child-care answers that I was seeking.

In the first year of my daughter’s life, we moved three times – first to my mother’s house in Seaford for a couple of months, and then to Charlotte, North Carolina. My mother and I drove down in our Jeep Cherokee, with a dog and two cats and the baby in her car seat precariously surrounded on all sides by an overload of STUFF. It was a sunny January day as we drove, but the very next morning after arriving, Charlotte was hit with its worst ice storm in decades. The city was paralyzed and my mother had a difficult time getting the train back to NY, but there we were in our rental unit: We didn’t know a soul, so it was just me and the baby while my ex-husband went out to learn the realtor ropes.

Our third move that year was into our very own home in a new-build community in Indian Trail, a suburb of Charlotte, called Lake Park. It was quite pretty, and I loved putting on my headphones and taking Darian for long walks in her stroller. Those walks were the highlight of my early parenthood. One day we were attacked by a black swan that rose up threateningly out of one of the lakes for which the community was named, but otherwise our jaunts were uneventful and pleasant. I lost some baby weight and she slept. Without those walks, my worst struggles were at naptime, when Darian would scream bloody murder and freakishly stiffen her body in an effort to avoid lying in her crib. I was afraid that my neighbors would think I was abusing her (“Yes, officer, I was subjecting the child to nap torture.”).

But then, I had to go to work, and Darian had to go to day care, but when the relentless ear infections started, I had to entrust her to basic stranger babysitters. Being a parent – sometimes a single parent, when her dad went back to NYC for work – wasn’t all that enjoyable anymore.

In subsequent years, after moving back to New York, first law school and then my legal career kept me away from my child. Yes, I made sure to make time for soccer games, and parents’ nights at school to meet her teachers, and extravagant vacations – a Disney Cruise and Hawaii, for starters – but I felt like I was away from her more than I was with her, and that kind of broke my heart. What happened as a result was the spoiling. Shopping was the panacea: If she wanted it, I bought it, because clothes or a toy or whatever she wanted would have to take the place of me.

Predictably, there was some misbehavior, but thankfully nothing permanent or disastrous. High school was not a priority for her, which was something else that was completely alien to me, as I had always been a dedicated student; not only did I enjoy the act of learning, I also loved school because that’s where the boys and my friends were. She wasn’t terribly interested in school sports, so we never went to football or hockey games. I was a little worried when she wanted to graduate a semester early. There was no prom or cap-and-gown ceremony, which disappointed me more than I thought it would.

By then I was home more often, having adjusted my schedule to work from home a few days a week. In retrospect, perhaps it was having me around in the daytime, or maybe it was the result of a natural maturing, or it could have been that she didn’t like seeing where some of her friends were going (i.e., nowhere fast). But unbeknownst to me, while attending her basic classes at the local community college (which was a boon for my pocketbook, I must admit), she had applied to some of the SUNY schools and ended up being accepted at SUNY Buffalo. After a year there, she determined that she wants to work in the area of wildlife conservation, so she would need to transfer to another school that had a broader course offering in that field. Ergo, West Virginia University, where she’s now a junior (see last week’s blog post for a recounting of move-in weekend).

Somehow, my daughter has gotten herself on the “right” path at last, despite all my missteps and inadequacies. But I must have done something right. I once heard someone say that, on your birthday, you should really honor your mother, since she’s the one who did all the work and all you had to do was show up!! I have to say, this mother is overjoyed to celebrate 20 years of having my daughter in my life. I am so grateful that she’s well on her way to becoming the person I’ve always dreamed she would be –happy and fulfilled, kind hearted and globally aware and, most of all, true to herself.

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