How to Raise a Daughter
The first time she shows up on that stained ultrasound screen in the minuscule doctor’s office is the moment you fall in love. Fall in love with the way she is curled up inside you, protected by all those membranes between you and her. Your surface area is large enough to keep inside you a growing ball of cells, but your heart is delicate enough to hammer loudly for the doctor to sense. You think it would beat right out of your chest. You have a little heart growing inside of you right now. The doctor manages to squeeze in a little bit of science and medicine but for you, this is all about first impressions. You regard her, your daughter, a little art you have somehow, unknowingly painted. If she had eyes she would have jumped for joy but all that her face contains are the beginnings of a smile. You have been assigned to carry all that weight around, but you carry her proudly, your back in synchronization with her fidgeting and tiny ripples she makes in the fluid where she is hung. Sometimes at night, you feel her wriggling around, trying to create more space for all her atoms. And you pat your stomach, hoping it’s her spine that faces the heavens. You envy your daughter’s cocoon; how safe is her life she has created in the apartment of your body. Yet you guard her with a protective jealousy. She’s mine and nobody else’s. And although she doesn’t exist as an individual person, you call yourself a Mother in the loneliest hours of twilight.
The birth is a roller coaster of tumultuous flips. It keeps you on your back, your spine a curved road. She’s ready, ready to face the world. You keep muttering, hoping the pain sidetracks itself, loosens its teeth. But it grows stronger. Like waves reacting to the moon, you climb into each contraction. The island you carry inside you is about to become an ocean and you battle against the tide. Rough. Wavering. Could break on touch. Every feel, every smell and every light transmitted through your eyes is abstract. Only your conscious seems to live in accordance with your body, slowly rolling itself into oblivion. You have almost forgotten about her. But only she is the reason you would bring forth blood and brittle skin. And as sudden as it was, it is soon over. And there she is. A tiny bundle of flesh and nerves. You had a dread coiled in the pit of your stomach I don’t know if I’ll love her. I mean no one loves their baby on first sight. Babies are babies. They all look alike. But you see her as if she were the sun. The labor room has faded and only her shadow stands upright in front of you. A tiny body that has somehow been through every evolution. You fall in love all over again.
You have become a force of nature. A diving cannon ball. A whirling dervish. You have become a mother. You identify each cry she emits and every tear she sheds. A loud shriek means she is hungry. A constant dribble of cries indicates her bowel is not behaving. You have never studied Morse code, but you respond to her like a response. You are a sympathetic discharge Fight or Flight. At times, you feel your shoes calling you. Your footprints itch to fit themselves into those fine lines of your boots, willing your legs to run away from it all. But you choose to fight. Two loud shrieks. You choose to go into the kitchen to get her milk.
Everyone is a mother for the first time. Yet you hassle over every single detail. You adopt a fear of killing her. Hooking up at 2 a.m. on the internet lands you on ‘Postpartum OCD.’ Reading horrifying stories of new mothers wiping out their young does not help. You are afraid to look at her. But when you do, you feel an urge to wrap her up in your arms and ward off every future blow, every stinging taunt, every defeat. But that would have to wait. Maybe the people who are to deceive her are sleeping in their cots on the other side of the earth. No one knows what the future holds. So you do what you can do, and switch off the computer.
Those are the mornings when she goes off to school. As you watch her leave, you think two thoughts:
- I wish I had her confidence. And, 2. I fear for her.
And you realize how quickly she is growing up. And how quickly she will leave you. As you feel the tears start to bundle up in your eyes, you brush their threat away. But it is not this day. Today she is here, and that is all that matters. She is a strong block of wood. Silent yet hovering. She has grown out of the skin of who she had been a few years back. Now she knows when mommy needs a nap or when it is wrong to beg for a toy. She has started a diary and every day you crack it open to pry a little into your daughter’s life. Maybe she hides something from me. But all you can find is everything you already know. The jigsaw pieces of her life. You could grab them blindly and still manage to complete a perfect puzzle. You close the diary and put it away forever.
It is time you told her about growing up. She is 11 now, a beautiful child with an open face. You fear she already knows too much and at the same time, feel glad if she knows it all.
There are some things in this world that you perhaps don’t know of. Things that might make you confused and perhaps a little excited on knowing them.
She looks at you, the expression on her face unreadable.
You see, babies do not come out of the refrigerator as I told you when you were a child. But now that you are growing up I think….
Ammi, are you talking about sex?
She interrupts you with not the slightest threat of a bubbling giggle. Her question is straight forward, like a woman. As if she has already seen too much of the world and its dance.
And you realize she is growing up. It is this silent and beautiful osmosis throughout the years. You no longer mark her growing height on the bathroom door. Or search for raisins in her cereal. You realize the world does stand still for a moment. But it waits for no one.
Where is my baby girl?
She stands in front of you, but your eyes only reflect her past.
Thank you. For listening to me.
You never realized she was speaking. Listening can only be felt when the words are heard. And you hear her. For the first time as equals.
And the epiphany comes to you in pieces- whispering little jigsaws into your ears until all you have are individual muddles of everything.
The only thing you feel are her words. And in that way, you share her universe.
It is time to let her go. Yesterday, she had been a seed, neatly sewn into the sand. She had required no shovel and no water. Today, she is a sapling. Full of hopes and dreams and ideas that will someday shake this earth. The minute she sprouted, you watered her generously. Made sure of the angles from which sunlight would hit her. Make her grow. Soon, she will require no more you. The snake of dread curled inside your stomach lifts its head and sniffs. It is time to let her go. To let yourself go.
Every love story has a beginning, a middle and an end, not necessarily in that order. And this wasn’t the end. It was a beginning. For her. For all the footprints, she has to cover in the world. But for you, it is finally over. It started with the stained ultrasound screen. Her first cry. Her first word –books. Her first steps. As you watch her leave you think two thoughts
- If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.
- If it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be yours.*
She glances back at you, that brilliant head making rainbows in the sun. Traces her steps back. And plants a small kiss on your cheek for one last time.
Thank you. For everything.
Nabeela Altaf is a 22-year old medical student, hailing from Karachi, Pakistan, currently in her final year of medical school. She has been published in several online magazines like the BOAAT Journal, Gravel Magazine, Eye on Life Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Legendary and Right Hand Pointing Magazine. She has also been published in Three Line Poetry Magazine(Issue # 29) and Jitter Press (Issue # 3).