Fourteen years ago, at a loss for love, I got a puppy. “It will complicate your life,” my sister objected. “You won’t be able to go anywhere.”
“Dogs are a huge responsibility,” friends warned. But I did it anyway.
It was true: I had to skip lunch to get home to walk her. I had to rush home after work to walk her, and, for a while, I had to get up in the middle of the night to walk her. Lily ate my new red coat and threw up on my favorite rug. There were many places in Boston I couldn’t take her. Outside of the city, I discovered that entire mountain ranges did not allow dogs, nor did miles and miles of coastline.
Those diminished choices might have diminished my life, but actually the opposite occurred. Because my puppy liked to swim, I found the few lakes and secluded beaches that permitted pets. Because Lily liked to climb, we went hiking everywhere. While she circled around their dogs, I held intimate, doggy conversations with total strangers. I began using the pronoun “we.” I was healthier and happier.
Several years later, when I began to think about adopting a baby, family and friends were supportive. “Responsibility is good for you,” they said. “Just look at you and Lily.”
I was in my early forties. I’d spent far too long waiting for the perfect package deal– husband, family, satisfying work– to fall into my lap. But time was running out. I could no longer suddenly decide to be a botanist, or a veterinarian, or a concert pianist. I floundered in dead-end office jobs and repeated old patterns in dead-end relationships while my peers worked on their careers and paired off. My best friend had a baby.
I suppose it was a midlife crisis. I didn’t want to miss out on all of life’s experiences. I wanted a family, a link to the future, and a focus for the present. So I took drastic action. I moved from Boston to a small cabin in rural Vermont. With the help of a friend from Boston (someone I’d met walking Lily), I began enlarging my house. With much trepidation and many doubts– how would I support her when I could barely support myself?– I set the adoption process in motion. A year and a half after I signed up, I brought Amelia home from China.
Such a small world
What was my life like when I first became a mother? Tiny. It shrank down to the sight of Amelia. I couldn’t take my eyes off my undersized five-month-old with the punk pineapple haircut; the long, crossed toes; the level, watchful gaze. My world shrank down to the size of her crib and to the prayer that she wouldn’t awake when I crept out of the room. My life shrank down to her needs: how, or whether, to get her to eat mashed bananas; how to change diapers and make bottles in my sleep; how to stop, or endure, her screaming in the car.
And my life opened up to hers. In the evening, Amelia would perch in her baby seat and slowly and solemnly observe the world: her hand, my hand, Lily, the lamplight on the wall, the moon outside the window. I would hold objects up for her, naming them in turn. Cup, spoon, bottle, rattle, feather, apple. “Mommy,” I’d say, getting used the sound of it. “Mommy loves you.” My life was focused, for the first time, on the smallest of details. A button on the floor, the emergence of a tiny second tooth, the formation of the simplest words. I had never imagined that parenthood would be so absorbing.
My close friend, too, fell in love with Amelia thoroughly and forever. He remains the man in her life, the father figure if not the father, and I am happy and grateful for their bond. However, and much to my surprise, I find I welcome the role not only of mother, but of single parent. Perhaps this is because I can deal only with one big relationship at a time, and my daughter takes up all the room. Or maybe I am simply unwilling to share my hard-won responsibility.
In any case, for me, it is easier doing it alone. I don’t have to argue with a partner about who will drive Amelia to school or play dates. When she misbehaves, it is I who set the boundaries and call the time-out; I don’t need to negotiate with someone whose discipline methods may differ. If we eat Cornflakes for supper with jelly beans for dessert, nobody knows but us.
Over the years, Amelia and I have developed a mutual tolerance and patience, along with sophisticated negotiating techniques. I refuse to play one more game of I Spy. “Don’t make me do it! Mercy, mercy,” I cry. She gives me a level look, sees that I mean what I say. She offers three games of Sorry. “Or,” she adds, softening, “you can read me seven books at bedtime.”
She is five now, in kindergarten, and sharing with me the growing independence that will inevitably take her away. She comes home singing songs I did not teach her. She has a crush on a teacher I barely know. She whips off hundreds of origami hopping frogs, while I labor over the most elementary folds. I try to teach her piano, but she waves me away. “Actually,” she says, “I am an artist.”
Of course, it is not always heaven. Childcare is a hassle, and it is expensive. I miss pottery workshops, the latest movies, time to read. I miss solitude. At the times when our patience breaks down, there is no one in the next room to turn to. And, of course, I worry about money.
When I became Amelia’s mother, I became legitimate, with a role in society no one could question– though it was a nonpaying position, with no time off. But once again the narrowing of options has been a good thing. In the spare time I did not have, I started writing about my house and the long journey to reach Amelia. It dawned on me: work can be satisfying. I finished the book within a year and published it. I gave up office jobs forever.
Now I eke out a living piecemeal: writing, teaching piano, doing odd jobs to supplement my income in times of need. I have a new understanding of the plight of those who are single not by their own choice, who have more than one child to support, who must rely on help from a society that places children, and child care so very low on its list of national priorities. But I am lucky. I can honestly say I like my jobs, all of them.
Fat Penguins and Golden Crowns
At the moment, I have a rare stretch alone. My little girl is in Boston for a visit with our old friend. She adores him. This is the first time she and I have been apart for a night, but she couldn’t wait to go.
The house is empty except for a new puppy. I don’t have to make lunch, or even dinner, if I don’t want to. I don’t have to figure out how to persuade Amelia to wear her boots outside or if I should let her watch Sleeping Beauty yet again. I don’t have to look for a lost shoe, and I don’t have to argue about candy. I can talk on the phone uninterrupted. I can even take a nap! This is nice, very nice. But I am relieved that it is just for two days. If every weekend stretched out so expansively, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I didn’t have my funny, determined, contrary, complicated daughter, I would be lost. Instead I now have mittens to buy, values to sort out and communicate, shoes to find, and a child to guide and love.
The puppy sniffs the carpet under the piano where Lily gasped out her last days this past fall. I burst into tears. Then I look at the walls, papered with my daughter’s artwork. Flowers she drew and cut out and then re-fastened onto a fresh sheet of paper, using up half a box of staples. A complicated origami lantern. A picture of a house with eleven windows and a butterfly as big as a tree. A fat penguin with a yellow-and-black striped scarf. And our family: two stick figures and a small black dog, carefully labeled MOMMY, AMELIA, LILY. We are smiling triumphantly, and we are all wearing crowns.