Friday, July 18, 2014

Tricky Business: A Mother's Touch

The other day I was nursing my child to sleep. It was an early summer day -- the humidity had settled into our apartment and the air was still and we were damp with sweat and we smelled of the metal playground.  Even the curtains looked drowsy after hours of beating back the sun. We melted into each other's arms to seek the refuge of air-conditioning and an hour's rest.

I noticed my daughter's curls had gotten tangled and one stray lock was hanging in her eyes.  I went to sweep it off her face so that she might be more comfortable. She flinched a bit and  a chill ran down my spine despite the sticky heat.

I know that flinch. I've flinched in just that way.  Don't touch me without asking. Don't correct anything about me. Don't make assumptions about how I want my hair or what is bothering me. Don't meddle. Don't keep an attentive eye trained on me. Don't cross a boundary that exists here, suddenly, in this moment.  

My daughter was happily curled into my arm while we rocked and sang to sleep. She visits me all over the house "to have a little chat" and tells me that she misses me even when we are together. The bathroom door, as any parent knows, is no barrier to a child's visitations. She even likes to read to me while I take my bath. Perhaps this is precisely why a mother's touch can be an annoyance. How do I break free of this desperate need for my mother? the child wonders.

When I was a child actor, my mother made sure my feet were firmly planted in the ground. I learned early the difference between  flying by the seat of my pants and being a hard-working, trained professional.  A child actor's performances  depend solely on talent and luck. My mother had little patience for vanity or unearned confidence.

Inevitably, I was conflicted about my mother's presence on set. By state law I had to have a guardian, and it was always my mother who was available to fulfill this requirement.  I always felt her eyes looking out for me and looking at me. She was not a stage mother. And yet. She worried when the camera wasn't set up on my better angles. She worried that a producer of a miniseries clearly preferred another child actor on set. She worried when I looked pale and sallow next to a cherubic classmate at my sixth grade holiday choral concert. I'll never forget the car ride home that Christmas season evening. Mom said she felt guilty that her child didn't shine the way the other girl did. She fretted over how to fix it. For my sake, I truly have no doubt. Yet it was not good for me.  A mother's touch extends not just from her fingers but from her eyes and her words and, at times, from her own insecurities. A mother's touch can damage as much as it can heal, even if the touch is always protective in its aims.

I confess I'm glad when my daughter picks out a dress or pants that match her socks. I confess that I prefer her blue shoes to her pink ones and I confess I take too many photos because she is my jewel and seems (to me) to shine from every angle. I confess I'm glad when she makes aesthetically pleasing sartorial choices because they make for better photos and show off her inner winsome charm. Most of us have some measure of stage-parent tendency. The trick is to shut it off.

 I take a deep breath when she doesn't choose the shoes I wish she would wear. I take a deep breath when she wants a ponytail though I want her beautiful curls to fly free as she runs down the street. I exhale and wet the hairbrush in the sink so I can brush those silky curls into the smooth bun she wants: the bun that hides her lovely hair. I take a deep breath and I don't let myself hide her favorite dress, a bright bubble gum pink one, which is not a good color on any living creature or inanimate object, because I know she loves it. I have taught myself to love the dress because she does.

We all want to be touched. We all want to be left alone. We all want boundaries and we all want limitless love. I think we can achieve this, even with our children. Let them attach and detach at will. Let go. Let go. Let go. At birth, if you are lucky, your mother and then both parents and then a whole extended family are not only your universe, but your very identity. Gradually, you sprout an identity of your own and differentiate. If you are very lucky, so unshakable will that initial attachment be that you will take it for granted. You will not hesitate to build the highest walls when you want to, and you will not hesitate to tear them down when it suits you. It seems to me there is no greater gift I can give my child than the assumption that our fort can weather the storms of differentiation.  I want my child to take me for granted. For now and for a good long while.

I am not allowed to touch my daughter when she doesn't want to be touched. For my own sake, I never want to feel the flinch. The first one on that hot summer afternoon was a warning tremor.

Go to Neverland without me, darling daughter, whenever you are ready. The home fires will be burning when you return.

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