By Lindsey Mead
When Grace was nine she broke her collarbone playing soccer. It happened days after I wrote a piece about how I wanted my children to be physically fearless and push themselves in the world. When I watched my crying daughter, through a glass window, standing in front of the ER’s x-ray machine in her soccer uniform, I was forced to confront my own biases about parenting. Did I still believe that, about being physical, athletic, confident in their bodies, even if this happened. The truth is, I did.
I couldn’t believe how quickly she healed. The first few days were very painful, especially because she fell on day two and caught herself with the bad arm, pushing the bones further out of joint. The low point was the second night after the injury. Grace came into my room around 2 a.m., her face wet with tears.
“Mummy?” she whispered and my eyes popped open.
“Oh, Gracie!” I sat up. “Are you okay?” Matt was away so I was alone in bed.
“Will you help me get back in bed? I can’t do it.” Her face was contorted with a mix of pain and shame. She hates asking for help. I think I know where she gets that particular trait.
I leapt out of bed and gave her more Tylenol with codeine before lifting her carefully into bed. I flashed back to lifting her baby self, swaddled in a yellow blanket covered in white stars, into her crib, putting her down slowly, willing her not to wake and begin wailing. As she lay back in her bed, arm propped up a stack of pillows, she looked at me in the dimness of her nightlight-lit room and I could see that her eyes shone with tears. I sat down next to her gingerly, not wanting to jostle her body, and smoothed her hair back from her forehead. It was damp, and she felt warm. “I love you,” I whispered.
The next morning Grace was dismayed to still be in so much pain. I helped her get dressed, easing a baggy shirt over her shoulder, trying to move it as little as possible. Over breakfast, she asked me to tell her about the bones I had broken. I smiled and told her: an ankle, two bones in one arm, multiple fingers and toes, and several ribs. Her eyebrows shot up as she chewed her toast.
“Well, I’m not going to break any more bones. Ever. It hurts too much.” She shook her head.
“I don’t know, Grace. It’s going to happen sometimes when you do sports. I’m pretty sure there will be more injuries to come in other games.” I hesitated. “I think it’s part of the deal. But I promise,” My eyes swam with tears, but my tone was suddenly firm. “I promise you it’s always worth it to play.”
Within a week of the break she was just taking regular Motrin a couple of times a day. Within two weeks she was annoyed with her sling and didn’t want to wear it anymore. The bones had already begun to knit together. The doctor told us that while she would always have a bump, it would become less and less noticeable as she grew. Then he looked at us both and said, with a shrug: “So? Everybody’s got bumps.”
* * *
Everybody does have bumps. I think of that doctor’s offhand comment all the time. In fact we have matching bumps now, Grace and I. I separated my left shoulder just months before she broke her left collarbone, so we both have visible protrusions by that shoulder.
I wrote my thesis in college on the mother-daughter relationship, a detail that now seems full of portent. It gives me goosebumps to think back to my 21-year-old self, hunched in a small carrel in the library, writing about questions I would intimately inhabit almost 20 years later. Specifically, I wrote about the mother-daughter bond in the lives in three 20th century poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin. I called them the first generation of true mother-poets and asserted that in all three cases their work was both haunted and enriched by the long shadow of the mother-daughter relationship and specifically by the interplay of identification and separation that marks this bond.
I chose this topic for my thesis with what I remember as an almost utter lack of deliberation; I just knew I wanted to study those poets and to explore these topics. I went directly into the heart of the relationship between a mother and daughter, and spent six months deeply immersed in psychoanalytic theorizing as well as close reading of poetry. I researched and wrote and felt my conclusions fiercely, a fact which amazes me now because I realize how little I knew about the topic. Of course I was a daughter, with a mother I loved dearly, but my real understanding of the fertile and complex layers of relationship between generations of women came only after I had my own daughter. I am struck, not for the first time, by how the perspective provided by the arc of years illuminates choices we made long ago. From those months of work I understand intellectually that the separation of daughter from mother in adolescence is critically important. I know how painful and violent it can be, but also how transformational. Now I am living it.
Grace has begun to wade into the whitewater of emotion that swirls around adolescence. The uptick in her moodiness and frequency with which she’s mad at me are harbingers, I know, of what is to come. As is my pattern, I turn to the page; hoping that writing down my experiences, my observations, and my hopes will somehow help me through this period of dislocation and difficulty. I dread what lies ahead but simultaneously feel great guilt about that very dreading; so far, parenting has surprised me by being better and better every single week, month, and year. Is that golden uphill climb over? Have we, now that the summit is in sight, transitioned to a speedier, less joyful downhill slide? Oh, I hope not. But the truth is, I don’t know. There is so much that lies ahead. I want fiercely to make it through to the other side of this transition with my cord that I know ties my heart to my daughter’s intact, though stretched, of new, different dimensions.
Here we go, Grace and I.
Read more of Lindsey’s work in This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.