you thought I didn’t really notice. But I did. I wanted to high-five you.
Yesterday I had a pair of brothers in my store. One was maybe between 15-17. He was a wrestler at the local high school. Kind of tall, stocky and handsome. He had a younger brother, who was maybe about 10-12 years old. The…
A child who protests when her parents leave can’t be unusual. It’s logical, really. The bond between us has been nourished by hours of rocking, holding, singing, settling, playing, of just being together. This bond is strong and meaningful. This baby is my life. Yet, I have an other life too. So does her father. Our lives apart enable our life together. These things are linked and enmeshed — our life is plural. It seems only sensible that our child, now older, more determined and aware, should recognise and prefer more strongly her parents to any other human beings offered her. But the routine of our emotional separation at daycare is intolerable and constant. Her resistance is strong and voluble. I wash in guilt. I recognise the authenticity of her need, the sincerity of her cries for us to stay, to not leave her. Even though these women are wonderful, and at other times, she speaks their names lovingly and says goodnight to them in an evening recital, they are not her mother. They are not her father. This bond we have been building between us, between parents and child, this bond we have been caring for her whole life sustains through these separations. She is not angry or distant when with us (as a book I read recently suggested would be the case—thanks Christopher Green, you twat). But it still hurts to leave her while she cries.
I wrote this on an undated piece of paper, but it must have been in about April of this year (six months ago now!), when S was getting used to new carers and friends at the daycare. She’d moved up an age group, and it was an exciting but emotional time. We all kept brave faces for her, but by the time I got to work I would be in tears. Aching from leaving her, stressed at the workday ahead, I would ring the daycare to check and be assured, in kind and helpful voices that made me want to weep even more, that she had stopped crying very quickly after we left. It only made me feel slightly better. It took a few weeks for her to adjust, for us all to adjust. But adjust we did, and ‘Toddler house’ is as much a part of S’s life now as going to the park or the beach – and something looked forward to just as much as those special places! She does not cry anymore, not even a little bit. It’s astonishing in some ways, the degree of her adaptation. The staff tell me of other kids who never adjust to that moment of separation—years of morning tears. I am grateful for her strong spirit, for the faith in our bond. I am grateful for choice, even if sometimes it means our tears.
My daughter recently checked out a book from the preschool library called “My Working Mom.” It had a cartoon witch on the cover. “Did you pick this book out all by yourself?” I asked her, trying to be nonchalant. Yes. We read the book, and the witch mother was very busy and sometimes reprimanded her daughter for messing things up near her cauldron. She had to fly away to a lot of meetings, and the witch’s child said something like “It’s hard having a working mom, especially when she enjoys her work.” In the heartwarming conclusion, the witch mother makes it to the child’s school play at the last second, and the witch’s child says she doesn’t like having a working mom but she can’t picture her mom any other way. I didn’t love it. I’m sure the two men who wrote this book had the absolute best intentions, but this leads me to my point. The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield.
The photos on my computer don’t feel real. I mean, you know, real as in, like, printed (not real as in actually real, because photography is only an aura of reality, umm). It’s the same problem I’m having with digital books. I love my e-reader, it’s fantastically portable so I take the dozen books I always need when I’m travelling (I have a short attention span, also, indecisive) on the plane without the usual trauma of which essential clothing items to leave behind so I can make the carry-on weight. But I don’t generally pick up my e-reader when I’m at home. When I need something to read I turn to the towering stack of unread books above my bed. I tend to have three or four books at least on the go at once (see above) and sometimes I need reminding that I haven’t finished this or that book, which a bookmark jauntily protruding does.
I am a browser and fondler of books (not to mention a scribbler and bender-of-corners). I judge a book by its weight and the texture of its pages. I like straightcut pages and smooth paperbacks. I am seduced by beautiful cover art. And as much as I am grateful for my e-reader, and as much as I like its little stylus that lets me highlight when I’m reading a book I am working with, I defer to the paperback. I can just see it better. I know that sounds odd. Case in point: I was thinking about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and that bit, early on, where Winston Smith takes his diary out of the drawer and starts writing awkwardly and self-consciously and then, as though marking the page has unleashed some long-suppressed fury in him (which it has), he starts to write frenetically, DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER. I wanted to quote it in something I was writing. It’s out of copyright so right away I found the bit I was looking for just by typing it into Google. But, then I found my hardcopy and I realized that even though it was kind of obvious in the online version that this bit is at the start, it’s actually about twenty pages in. Which is later than I’d actually thought. And then I realized I’d been visualizing Nineteen Eighty-Four as quite short, like a novella, when it’s actually quite a long book, over 300 pages.
Anyway, the point is, the physical book is important to me, and so (tah dah – the point) is the physical photo. I mean, I have been known to turn up the music, pour a
bottle glass of wine, and spend an evening with my photo albums.
So I’ve decided to print.
Innocuous though it may seem, this is MAKING ME VERY ANXIOUS. There are just so many photos. Hundred and hundreds of the suckers. Photos of my daughter comprise a good third or more of the entire collection—not unexpected, but a little daunting. And then there are all those photos that I like, but are they good enough to print? I need to put a dint in the mass somehow, but I’m finding it very difficult to be ruthless with the dozen snaps of Sylvia turning her head just so in the afternoon sunlight. My husband’s photographic aesthetic is that the bad photos are sometimes the unexpectedly good ones, the ones that you show what was really happening. So he takes lots and lots, just in case. Sometimes these sequences create really cute stop-gap animation type sequences if you scroll through fast enough.
We seem to have lots, and lots, and lots of photos.
I don’t really know how I can say this next bit without sounding like a Boring Grumpy Luddite whining for the halcyon days but seriously, it just used to be so much easier. I’d deposit my little tube of 35mm film at the developer’s and wait. I am not a patient person, but the whole lengthy process was shot through with a certain excitement and anticipation that I’m a little nostalgic about—the complicated pleasure of finding your packet of happy snaps includes a drooping, half-drunk expression or errant nipple, and there was always the unexpected pleasure of a picture you’d forgotten you’d taken. Yes, there where times when the photo should definitely not have been taken, but this was just between you and your friendly, smirking teenage photo-developer and the evidence could readily be disposed of with ceremonial burning. Unlike the digital photo that should also never have been taken but has been helpfully uploaded onto your computer, onto the external hard drive, onto a cloud storage site and commercial printing site and potentially, in a moment of random yet characteristic insanity, to Facebook.
Anyway, I’m ploughing on with my antiquated (and expensive, as it turns out) passion for printed photos, and promising myself that once I’m up to date, I’ll never let myself get this far behind again. And then I think of my mother’s drawers of photos still in their packets and her shoe boxes of decades worth of unfiled photos, and I think about the 500 photos I’ve already got lined up online to be printed, and that I’ve only caught up on roughly the last year and half so far, and that I’ve got years worth of photos still to go through, and then I stop thinking about it.
When my daughter was born and I held her for the first time, someone in the birthing room asked, ‘what’s her name’? I replied without hesitation, though in hindsight, I think the question was unfair — and poorly timed. What if I’d had more time to think? (Time to think, that is, not immediately post-birth in the fug of pain and amazement and fear and joy) We’d discussed names, but maybe my husband and I would’ve thought differently once we’d gazed for longer at our tiny beautiful girl.
Of course, her name is her now. I can’t possible imagine anything else for her and this is one of the things about naming — your name becomes you, or you become it. Maybe she will grow into another name, one we didn’t choose for her. I can’t know the turns her life will take. And first names are one thing, but what about surnames?
A few months after her birth, in the new haze of sleeplessness and wonder that defined my world, I registered for a combined Medicare card. My husband, my baby and myself would be on this card and it seemed a milestone of sorts; I remember holding the green Medicare card on doctor’s appointments with my own mother, fascinated by the official and numerated listing of my family, first name, middle and last. This new card conformed to the nostalgic memory I had of the old, except, my surname was not the same as my husband’s or daughter’s. This was not exactly a surprise, after all, though I had married her father I was completely aware that I had not changed my name, and I had been completely in charge of designating hers, giving her her father’s surname and leaving mine out. But the odd ‘me and them’ feeling I suddenly registered was a surprise. When we three travelled, I’d sometimes felt a bit funny about the tickets: two people clearly nominated as related to each other, and me. And mostly, I truly didn’t care. I’d thought about my reasons for her surname (hadn’t I?), and I’d been entirely comfortable with them. My husband had been surprised that I’d left off my surname name from her birth certificate, which I’d said I was going to add as a middle name. I couldn’t really explain why I’d done it either, except purely for rhythm: in the moment of filling in the form, the extra name had made the whole seem such a mouthful. Her name was hers; it shouldn’t be fettered unnecessarily for the sake of tradition, or nostalgia.
I’ve never encountered a moment’s problem from my daughter’s different surname, though she is only nearly two, so perhaps this is yet to come. And I’ve used Mrs where it suited, though mostly to derail cold callers and hawkers. But I’ve suddenly felt this urge to add my name to hers, with the nagging sense that I’d made a bad decision by writing myself out of the frame so definitively, so formally. Of course, in those early days, when every single decision seemed fraught with unexpected difficulty or consequence, when I didn’t feel a ‘decision’ was something I ever even made – all was emergency responsiveness, instinctive hopefulness or despair – if I hadn’t been endlessly deranged from lack-of-sleep and exhaustion, I might have realised that I would want my daughter to carry forward with her into the world some designation of myself. That I had kept my name when I married her father because that designation was important to me then and still is now, that this would be a reason why it might also be important to her. Once reasoning of this order began to return to me, I wondered other things too: by giving her only her father’s surname hadn’t I actually embraced a patrilineal tradition I’d elsewhere tried to reject? (But, where was my mother’s name? It had not figured in my choices!). Confused, I reassured myself on the rightness of my pragmatics: all the forms she’d have to squeeze an extra seven-letter word onto, what’s the point? Surely, a two surname name, even if (avoiding the dreaded hyphen) one is just a second middle name, is just pure nostalgia and possessiveness, a redundant desire for recognition as her mother, for the hard work put in, for the burnish of recognition I may gain in what she might one day achieve.
My daughter is a chatty toddler, at 21 months she strings whole sentences together and issues orders and questions with alacrity. What will she ask me about her name? How will I explain my decision to her? (Other than point her to the circular thinking in this overly-long post). What’s in a name? I wish I bloody knew.