Monday, January 24, 2011

On Fatherhood

The message in my inbox, sent from, said, "A Gift from Daddy." I was skeptical. It isn't like my dad to buy me presents online, and it's even less like him to send me something directly to my inbox. It's just a little too...2011 for his tastes. But there it was. I clicked on the email.

When I opened it up, I saw that he had purchased the mp3 of "Free to Be, You and Me," the record I listened to over and over and over again as a kid, wearing it out and necessitating a new copy. I can still sing most of the words from memory, and they still remind me of hours spent on the brown couch, belting out the hippie tunes along with Marlo Thomas (and Friends). I was touched. My Dad bought the bean a song! So I forwarded the email to Matt and told him that we should download it when we got home from work.

Two minutes later, my cell phone rang. It was Matt.

"Hi Sweets," he said. "I'm calling with some news that I hope won't burst your bubble."
"The song wasn't from your Dad. It was from me. To the bean."
"Sweets? Are you okay?"
"Yes! I'm more than okay, I'm, I'm just, I...YOU'RE the 'Daddy!' You're going to be a Daddy!"

I was crying and laughing at the same time, sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, marveling at a fact that had somehow escaped me despite its obviousness. But it was in that instant, in that one perfect, bright moment, that I realized, from the bottom of my toes to the top of my head, that Matt is going to be a father. And not just anyone's father, he is going to be this little bean's father. This very little bean that has been growing and changing inside of me for 33 weeks, this little bean whose heartbeat we first saw together as a tiny little pulsating lima, who he reads stories about his favorite superheroes to at night, who he wakes up every morning to cuddle, who he kisses goodnight and says, "be good to mama." He is going to be this little bean's father. He, this man I married, this man that I love more than anyone in the world, is going to be the father of this baby, this little creature that on some level, some strange maternal level, I know that I already know.

Here is what I want to tell them, these two great loves of mine: you two are perfect for each other. My sweet boy and my precious bean. You two are going to be so great together, and I already know just how lucky you are to have each other.


All of the women in my family have always called their dad, "Daddy." My mother told me this when I was a little girl, and it stuck with me, part history, part admonition. I was pretty young when she told me, and I remember thinking that I couldn't imagine my grandmother calling her father "Daddy." But that's because it was hard to imagine my grandmother even being young enough to have a Daddy, especially when the only image I had of her father was a picture she kept on her bureau of a serious-looking and handsome young Russian man in a uniform. But it was also because in my mind, my own father was what it meant to be a Daddy, the man who made me oatmeal in the morning, took me "flying" in his Z-car, and would occasionally wake me up early on a school day in the winter to tell me that we were skipping school and going skiing instead.

Either way, the rule was written: fathers are Daddies. To this day I still call my dad, "Daddy" when I'm talking to him, typing that word into my gmail contacts when I want to send him an email, scrolling through my phone to find his number listed under that word. He has also abided by the rule, always signing his cards and emails appropriately.

I remember the day when I was too old to hold his hand when we crossed the street. I don't remember which one of us was more sad about it. I remember the day that he taught me to skip. Wildly, recklessly, in front of strangers. People might have laughed at us, but I don't remember them. I only remember feeling like I was flying. I remember learning that my dad could roller-skate backwards, a fact I learned at my 8th birthday party when he took my hand during the "couples skate" and twirled me around the bright yellow rink while all of my friends looked on, their faces showing the same surprise that I felt.

That's what Daddy means to me. There are other lessons associated with my father, times when I slammed the door and called him Dad, times when we were disappointed in each other and couldn't manage to communicate. But when I think of "Daddy," I think about oatmeal and a fast car, falling asleep on the way home from the Poconos. I see the disco ball from the roller rink throwing tiny little lights around the smooth oval while I'm holding tightly to his hand because he's a much stronger skater than I am.

"A Gift from Daddy," said the email. There it is, in my inbox. A gift from my husband, from my husband to his child. Somehow that's amazing and strange, and as life-changing as many of the other moments of these 33 weeks.

Even at 24, I had the good sense to realize that you shouldn't marry a man who you couldn't see as the father of your children. Over here at the wise old age of 32, I am realizing that I will soon come to know a side of him that I have never met. But more importantly, our child will know a side of him that I will never know, and will have a relationship with him that I will never have.

Good memories and bad, the things I think about when I think about my dad are mine and mine alone. And someday, this little person will have a similar story to tell. Some of the things I can imagine, because I know Matt. But others, the ones that are truly theirs and theirs alone, will be for them to capture and hold on to, for them to remember and to pass on.


It's a few days early for a birthday post, but it seems like the time to say it: on the eve of your 33rd birthday,my love, I can say without a doubt that you are going to have one hell of a year.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Someplace Like Home

I have been straightening my hair a lot these days. It is something that I do in the winter when it is cold, because it saves me from walking outside with a wet head every morning. But it is also something that I do when I feel like I need some control in my life, when I need a change, however small, that is entirely within my purview.

I used to straighten my hair in college whenever I broke up with a boy. In high school, I would straighten my hair when I had a week that felt particularly low and I needed to be noticed. Since Matt and I got together, these are the memorable times when I have straightened my hair: when I found out that we were leaving Oklahoma to move back to DC, after we got married (almost every week for an entire semester), when I was applying for clerkships, when I finally decided to come to terms with how miserable I was in Pittsburgh, and right now.

Which is to say that my hair has always been the one thing that I knew I could rein in, even when everything else was seemingly off track.

Matt and I have spent the last three days in Hollidaysburg, PA, the place that is more or less Matt’s hometown. To know Matt is to understand that he is a man of many hometowns. But Hollidaysburg is the one place that has been consistent for him, consistent for his family since the 1820’s, if you want to put a number to it. This is the town where Matt learned to drive, went on his first date, really figured out his parents, met his first love, broke no significant rules, came to see the meaning of family, and bought his first car. In short, this is home.

So coming to Hollidaysburg was something that we knew we wanted to do during this pregnancy. It occurred to us sometime early on, sometime before we called his grandmother to tell her that she was going to be a great-grandmother. We decided to come when I was good and huge, big enough that the bump was unmistakable, not so big that I couldn’t fly. And we let Matt’s brother, sister-in-law, and parents know that we were going to be at the homestead, hoping that they would drive from their respective towns to meet us here.

Coming to Hollidaysburg is always a mixed bag for us. On the one hand, we’re spending the weekend with family at home. On the other, we’re spending the weekend with family at home. Family is a challenging concept for both of us, which is part of the reason we have each other, part of the reason we have our urban family in Boston, and the main reason that we understand the complex realities of what it means to be from somewhere. Our lives in Boston feel so different than what life in Hollidaysburg would be like. The food, the sounds, the stars, the feel, the air, the bed, the water, the lights, EVERYTHING is different.

And yet family is family. They take you out and get you to pick out fabric so that they can make a blanket for the niece/nephew they’re so excited about. They ask you to send them a book about your faith so that they can learn a little bit more about it. They goad you into an argument about things that don’t matter. They tell you what life has really been like here while you’ve been living far away in that big city. They love you for who you are, even if they don’t understand you.

My hair has been straight for most of the time that we’ve been here, for most of January, actually. And I’m ready for it to go back to its natural state, to freely curl and frizz however it wants to, to get big and puffy and wild.

Matt held up a brand new onesie, white with tiny green elephants, so small, so cute. “I’m so excited,” he said as he hugged me. “I’m kind of scared,” I said. And he tightened his grip.

The thing about family, the thing about hair, the thing about life, is that we can control little bits of it, but we can only go so far. We live far away, but we feel guilty and genuinely sad about the things we’re missing at home. We look in the mirror and know that we don’t look quite like our real selves.

And every so often, we take giant leaps of faith, because we know that even with an apalling lack of control, we’re going to land somewhere, somewhere a little bit like home, even if at first that place is unbelievably exciting and tremendously scary, all at the same time.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad

"Where are her eyes?" she asks. Charlotte is looking up at me with her soft, blond curls framing her truly angelic face.

I point to somewhere low on my belly, somewhere near where I think the bean's face is located these days.

"Here," I say. She reaches out a hand and touches it gingerly, smiling at me, smiling at my belly.

We are in the bathroom at her house, at her parent's house, the house where I spend most of my Sunday nights. She has been potty-trained in the past year and sometimes she wants company in the bathroom, while other times she requires strict privacy: the purview of a three-year-old. I never mind being being invited into the bathroom with her after I've turned on the light or the "air" (vent), because I relish the chance to talk to her one-on-one, even with a toilet between us.

"I'm pooping," she whispers, smiling her I-have-a-secret-smile.

"Good!" I say, "that's a good thing to do when you have to poop."

I am suddenly struck by the fact that Charlotte is 3, that I have known her for her entire three years, that from nearly the moment of her birth, our lives have been connected in some way.

I have been thinking a lot about the stories of our lives, the stories that shape who we are, the facts and the histories that round out what makes us, us. It is something I come back to often, the fact that we all have a story, that there are certain immutable facts that we live through and incorporate into our sense of self.

I first started thinking about it again when I miscarried last year, when I realized that someday, the miscarriage would be a fact of my life, something I folded into the facts of my 30s, the facts associated with starting to expand our family. And lately I have been thinking about it in terms of this little bean, the fact that almost completely independently of me and Matt, this little one will be born in Boston, always a Bostonian, and will say things in college like, "I was born in Boston, my parents were living in a second-floor apartment with their two roommates."

"Does it have ears?," she asks, pulling me back from my thoughts.

"Yes!" I say. "It has ears and eyes and a nose and a mouth and hair."

"Not yellow hair, though," she advises.

"No, probably not yellow hair," I agree.

I am a fact in Charlotte's young life. I realize it at that very moment and it almost moves me to tears. It is an emotional day, and I am 31 weeks pregnant, so there are many things that almost move me to tears. But this day is different. This is the death-day, the day when the facts of my life at 15 came to require that I fold in the fact of my mother's death.

I have written before about how free I felt when it had finally been 15 years since her death, when my mother had been dead for as long as I had known her. I felt some of that freedom this year, but I also knew that it would be different, because every year is different, but because this year I am pregnant.

"After I'm done I get to go downstairs because it's not my bedtime yet," Charlotte assures me.

"But it will be your bedtime soon," I remind her, "and then it will be my bedtime, and mommy and daddy's bedtime, and then the whole world will be asleep."

"And then we'll wake up... and Santa will not have come," she concludes, not unhappily, as though just to remind me that tomorrow is not Christmas.

"That's right, tomorrow when we wake up, Santa will not have come."

She nods.

I look at her and I realize just how lucky I am to know her, how lucky I am to get to be a fact in her life. On impulse, I reach out my hand and cup her beautiful little face, whose features are perfect to me, perfect in every single way. I am so happy right here in this bathroom with Charlotte, her toilet and my belly between us.

In that instant, I think to myself that it's possible, maybe even probable, that my mother didn't dwell on what she was robbed of in her death. Maybe she tried not to think about what she would be missing. Maybe that was just too sad. Maybe she thought instead about all of the moments we did get to spend together, all of the moments and facts of her life that included me, and by extension, all of the facts of my life that included her.

I think about it now, almost constantly, how grateful I will be just to meet this little bean in a few weeks, how lucky I will feel for those first moments, those early facts, and then day by day, bathroom by bathroom, a lifetime.

"Santa will be here in the summer," Charlotte tells me.

"Nope, not in the summer, in the winter. But the baby will be here in the summer. We'll all go to the Cape together and look at seaweed."

"Oh," she says, nodding, incorporating this fact into her life. And then she puts both hands on either side of my belly, gives it a little squeeze, and grins.

I put my hands on top of hers, give the bean and Charlotte a little squeeze, and grin back.