It was a bad tantrum, as The Bird’s tantrums go, but not the worst. Her dad was away, her brother six weeks old, and I was trying to put her to bed against a show of resistance all out of proportion to her small body. We’d been battling for a good twenty minutes now, and we were both tired. “I don’t want you,” she hissed at me, tearing off her pyjamas for the fourth time and escaping into the February chill of the hallway. She was really crying now, shaking with it, and barely looking at me through eyes scrunched into dark, bloodshot crescents. I could handle it. It was her I felt badly for, her shuddering back and shivering limbs. Overtired toddlers get like this; they flail verbally as well as physically, and they deal in low blows. Rising above it is part of the protocol. I tried to help her to put her PJ bottoms back on, and she fought me off. “Nooo, I want,” she was saying now, desperate, but her sobs and tears were swallowing the rest of the sentence. “I want…” “What is it you want, Bird?” I asked, weary. She mastered herself enough to speak clearly, her little face contorting. She swallowed. “I want my other mum.”
At university I picked up just enough social psychology to do some real damage. I took on, disappointingly uncritically, the idea that children are blank slates, tabulae rasae, just waiting to be formed by their upbringings. You could, I thought, put the same newborn into any number of different families and produce any number of totally different children as a result. Then my babies were born, and my nurture-not-nature presumptions took one hell of a pounding. Forgive me if I get a bit crunchy here, but I had the strongest sense, in my daughter’s early months, that this was not a new life that I was shaping and moulding but a well-formed soul that I was simply somehow channelling into the world. It started even before she was born. We had an amazing ultrasound scan picture, produced at 20 weeks’ gestation, that showed just her perfectly-formed little right hand. It was crystal clear, raised to say hello, and it was not a tiny copy of my hand. The tip of the thumb curved backwards in a way that my own thumbs do not. It was a difference it would never even have crossed my mind to anticipate. Just like that, the little ball of life expanding in its warm, dark, interior world became, for me, not a little piece of myself, not even something I had made, but a mystery person, a small stranger whom I would someday meet. My favourite-ever post on the Humans of New York blog covers this idea exactly:
““Life is a miracle. It’s not a mystery to me. It’s simple. Humans can shape their environment, but they can’t create anything. All we can do is put together what is here. But I challenge any man to try to make some life. Actually, forget life. I challenge any man to try to conjure up some dirt.” (Posted by Humans of New York on Tuesday, 5 August 2014)
“Life is a miracle. It’s not a mystery to me. It’s simple. Humans can shape their environment, but they can’t create anything. All we can do is put together what is here. But I challenge any man to try to make some life. Actually, forget life. I challenge any man to try to conjure up some dirt. Posted by Humans of New York on Tuesday, 5 August 2014
Once she arrived, the sense that we had met someone, not made someone, got stronger. All newborns have inscrutable, ancient eyes and look like they’ve seen empires rise and fall. My hour-old daughter slept in my arms in the hospital, sighing and frowning, looking as though she were transmitting a sitrep to whomever had sent her. And as each of my kids has got older they have manifested all sorts of traits we can’t account for, quirks that don’t seem just to echo the way we’ve tried to raise them. Sometimes I’ve felt completely mismatched to them, as though I don’t have what these particular little humans require to thrive and grow. That February night during that tantrum, I found out that at least one of them felt the same way.
That tantrum happened six weeks ago now, and The Bird’s other mother has been with us ever since. That night, crushed by this apparent confirmation that I don’t have what she needs, I poured out my heart to the online mum group I joined when first pregnant and on which I’ve relied ever since. One friend from the group messaged me. As a young child, she remembered, she’d used to tell her mum all the time about her “other” parents, describing them and the house where they lived. Sometimes now, she said, she still felt a strange sensation of memory, of another life running in parallel to the one she lived now. I told my partner’s mother, who laughed that The Bird had obviously had a past incarnation; she’d been a Spanish infanta with armies at her command, and simply couldn’t adjust to the ignominy of living without a fawning retinue and scores of devoted servants. When she stamps her little foot, it fits. Somehow, it made me feel a huge sympathy for her: this poor little transplant into a strange and disconcerting world where nothing fits and everyone is wrong, where there’s a way things are supposed to be and it’s not the way things are. Now, I imagine another mum for her with boundless patience, with a soothing voice and a knack for saying whatever it is that The Bird needs to hear to reconcile her to her world. I imagine the mum she’ll accept cuddles from, or smile at on pickup from the childminder. When my temper’s fraying, as it does daily — hourly — I try to catch myself, try to wonder what The Bird’s other mum, the one in The Bird’s head, might do. When she’s at her worst, I think to myself, hell, I want her other mum right now. Someone else can handle this one. She’s not the child I thought I’d have, the soft clay I’d form to reflect my own interests and my own values. Maybe I’m not the mum she thought she’d have either. When I catch certain looks in her eye, when I see not my kid but a person looking back at me, grinning to me about the absurdity of the whole situation, I feel it. I half love it. Who wants a tiny clone? How much better it is to find yourself immersed not in a vanity exercise, a kind of extreme blood-and-guts selfie project, but a mystery assignment with an intimate stranger. This is not the ride I thought I was boarding. This is not the territory I thought I was coming to cross, or the travelling companion I thought I would have. It’s much more frightening. It’s much more exciting. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know where she came from. I don’t know who she needs. But I’m who she’s got, and together, day after day, we try.