I was ashamed, but I did it anyway. Over twenty years ago, I had a daughter without the man who had told me he was my best friend. He wasn’t at Union Memorial Hospital when she was born. He had moved to North Carolina to reconcile with his wife.
I have difficulty with intimacy. My relationships with men have not been satisfying.
When my daughter was born, she screamed. I knew that was supposed to be a good sign, but it was painful to hear her in distress. My obstetrician placed her on my chest. I reached for her, stroking her. Trying to comfort her, I called her, “Sweetheart.” Instantly, she stopped crying. Her little head bobbed in the hospital blanket, following the sound of my voice.
My bond with my daughter is the best one I have. For her, I devote my time, resources and affection. What I knew about parenthood was this: I didn’t want my child to be raised like I was. That is probably a standard vow that many make who have survived childhoods that lacked stability or support. Mine was fraught with the neglect of a woman who was unable to care for or nurture me.
I did not want my daughter to ever wonder if she was loved or wanted.
My daughter’s father moved back to Baltimore when she was a toddler and re-entered our lives. He took us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. To the Aquarium, downtown. To Hershey Park.
I craved him and eventually we resumed our romance. But he was still married. I told no one, but my daughter knew. She told me she could hear her father’s voice when he visited me after she was put to bed. I tried not to think about the kind of example I was setting.
Again, I was ashamed, but I did it anyway.
I had to work full time and put my daughter in day care, but we spent our free time together. We took daily walks to the playground next to the Bykota Senior Center or along a wooded path behind the Towson YMCA we discovered together. We went to Pumpkinland at Weber’s Farm. She had her picture taken on Santa’s lap in his workshop on the promenade of the Inner Harbor. At the end of each work week, we went out on Friday night dates; to Friendly’s on York Road and a movie at the Towson Commons. My daughter also rode the horses on Friday nights. She’d wave to me from the carousel, centered in the food court of the White Marsh Mall.
We spent a week’s vacation every summer visiting relatives with children – her cousins – in Massachusetts or Prince Edward Island. Twice, I saved enough to fly with her to Orlando. Before we left for Disney World, she patted down her clothes that were stacked inside my suitcase. My daughter gave me a grin I still remember, before we closed the suitcase together.
We weathered temper tantrums, of course. I remember one at the Carroll County Farm Museum Fall Harvest Days when I had to carry her to the car. We stopped at a small dairy store about a mile from the farm museum, though. Sitting on a wooden bench outside the store, we were both soothed by ice cream.
From age 10 on, my daughter was passionate about horses. I was her chauffeur, but I was not a fan. The barns smelled. They were suffocating in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. I never enjoyed rising before dawn on weekend mornings to follow a horse trailer to a show who-knows-where.
But we did most of our talking in the car. She spoke of the horses as though they were human. I’d learn about her friendships. Her schoolwork. We talked about her uncles, aunt, cousins. My parents, her grandparents.
We did not talk much about her dad. He left his wife again when my daughter was twelve, for someone else. Not me.
Last year, my daughter graduated from college. She has chosen to remain in the city where she went to school. I miss her every day and recently drove up to see her.
She called me to confirm the night before I was to come. And then she called me a minute or so after we had hung up, to ask me if anything was wrong. She said she’d detected something in my voice. “Nope,” I told her. “Nothing’s wrong.” I cherished her concern, though. She was emerging from her awkward, uncomfortable urge to get away from me. An urge I’d tried to overlook.
The summer before she left for college was the worst one for me. By then, I no longer knew all of my daughter’s friends.
One night in mid-August, 2006, my daughter did not come home. I woke at four a.m. with an horrific knot in my stomach. The pain would not subside; she was nowhere in the house. By seven a.m., I was panicked. I forced myself to make coffee, walk the dog, water my impatiens. By eight a.m. I was calling every one of her friends I knew and got the phone number of the boy with whom she went out. When I got a voice message on his line, I called the Baltimore County Police.
The officer sat in my dining room, writing on a form that was encased in a metal box. I tried not to cry while he asked me what happened. Had we fought? What was she wearing? I’d sewed one of the straps back on her white dress just as a car pulled up in front of our house. It was driven by a dark haired young man. She hadn’t introduced me to him and he did not get out of the car. Once more, shame engulfed me. I couldn’t give the police officer a license plate number or description of that car. I was a horrible mother whose daughter had disappeared with some stranger I hadn’t bothered to check out.
The officer asked me if my daughter had ever been fingerprinted. I told him she had, that a criminal background check was required when she worked at St. Timothy’s riding camp. The officer had one final question, and he cautioned me not to be alarmed. Did my daughter have dental records?
I knew why he was asking. I nodded my head, tears brimming. Forcing my fingers, I signed the form allowing access to her records.
The black techno cube on the officer’s shoulder crackled. He jumped up, excused himself and turned around. The voice coming from the box described my daughter’s white dress. And then the blessed words: She is walking down York Road.
The officer smiled at me, “Ma’am, we’ve found your daughter. I’m going to go pick her up and give her a ride home.”
The relief. The elation I felt was quickly extinguished when I saw my daughter: “What the hell!” She called me a psycho mom. None of her friends had a mom like me. I suffocated her.
A week later, I drove her to college and helped lug her stuff up to her freshman dorm room. The crush of her absence hit me as I climbed back up the steps to our house. My neighbors from both sides of my rowhouse were enjoying the beautiful summer evening. Citronella candles glowed. A grill was smoking. The neighbors knew where I had been and asked me how it had gone.
I could not speak. I simply cried. They invited me to join them and I did.
Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth … Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.” I believe that I learned to nurture myself by caring for my daughter. With her, I am content; committed. Loved.
Five years later, I drove to my daughter’s. She had introduced him to me a year before. I was pleased then that he was nervous about meeting me.
Seven months later, he spent Thanksgiving with us in Baltimore. The last time we were all together, in February, he picked up the tab of more than one hundred dollars at a delicious seafood restaurant.
My daughter chose a good man. This early spring, they sat side-by-side at a comfortable corner table. It was one of the first warm days of the year and the whole wall behind us was open to the sidewalk. My daughter’s former college roommate was our waitress. I am concerned that no one with whom she has graduated is working in the field in which they majored. I am hopeful the recession will ebb. My daughter is paying for her rent, utilities, and food with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs. I am paying off all of her college loans.
But we did not talk of money when we sat together, sharing a smile over the table. We laughed. We toasted our threesome and I ate the best French toast I’d ever tasted.
My daughter is beautiful. She wears layers of colorful clothes that I never recognize. I no longer buy her anything for her wardrobe and she has a style that exudes her originality. Her hair is auburn with natural red highlights. I was delighted to see these red strands again. She is no longer dying her hair ebony.
As I watched her, I realized with a jolt how comfortable she was with this man. And he smiled when he talked to her. Watched her when she spoke, nodding his head. The devotion was natural between them.
My daughter’s boyfriend has introduced her to his family. They share their lives; they live together.
Choosing not to lean on anyone was the only way I knew how to survive. But my daughter is taking a different path and I marvel at how well she is doing it.