by Elyse Fenton
The photo in my daughter’s passport isn’t her. I know this because the other day I dug it out of the drawer where it’s resided for years, flipped back the still uncreased spine, and came face to face with a baby. A Buddha-cheeked, drool-sheened, male-pattern-balding baby. The baby in the picture looks startled, too. She stares back with a certain vacuous worry, lower lip tucked slightly into upper, eyebrows arched way up into her thinning hairline.
Who are you? she seems to wonder.
Who are you? I wonder back.
But okay, yes. Give it a moment and I can mentally photoshop the baby fat from those cheeks, scribble in the uneven bangs over the (delightfully) melon-ish forehead, mold the nose into a more prominent bridge, and get the shape of a face I know. This is my daughter, after all. Or it was, before she became the attuned-to-everything, angular, almost-kindergartener that she is.
When I look at that picture a second time, the recognition comes easier, and with it relief. A surge of goofy and nearly incapacitating tenderness. (Those wide eyes! That cantaloupe forehead!) But it’s not just the long whiptail of nostalgia catching me between the shoulder blades that’s making my eyes well up. It’s the aftershock, the lingering residue of that first encounter.
And it’s something else, too. It’s the understanding that, in the awe-panicked moment of estrangement, when my daughter was not my daughter, I got a hint of one of my husband’s deeper apprehensions made manifest.
My husband does not fear much, at least not the big things. I say this not out of pride but as a matter of fact: he’s just wired that way. This doesn’t mean he’s particularly reckless or a daredevil. True, he’s a veteran, an Army medic who spent a year deployed in Iraq, and while that experience widened his perspective on the world’s ills, his own good fortune, and how the latter can slip so easily into the former, it certainly did not forge it; that understanding was already there. The fact that he signed up willingly in a time of war is evidence of his ambivalence toward personal safety, a readiness to accept whatever imminent harm.
But of course, having a child tilts the picture. Gives him apprehensions, the precursor of fear, like an umbrella he holds out over our heads while he splashes around, getting soaked. It’s airplane travel without him that gives rise to the biggest of these apprehensions, though perhaps not the way you would expect. He’s unconcerned with the safety of the actual planes and could care less about delays or the latest viral scare. Rather, he has never had faith in TSA officers to make the instant recognition that I am Mira’s mother. Especially when she was younger, he worried we would be seen as strangers, that I would be deemed a kidnapper, that Mira would be told I was not her mother—that psychological stripping of a sense of belonging. All the hassle and fallout that would ensue.
The child tilted the picture, yes, but not like that.
Peenesh is Indian-American and brown. I’m white. My daughter falls between us in skin tone, pretty much splitting the difference. Her hair is a few shades darker than my own medium brown, and her eyes just about equal her father’s in darkness. And perhaps most saliently, she shares a last name with her father, which is not the same as mine. A passport, the only official documentation I carry for her, is evidence of citizenship not kinship. Nowhere on her passport is there proof that Mira is my kin.
How will they know who she is to you? my husband wonders.
How can they not know? I wonder back.
Before Mira turned two—and phased out of the ‘lap child’ stage—s he and I took about ten plane trips together without Peenesh. Perhaps there is, in German or Swedish, a word that gets at the gestalt of it, that combination of tedium and triumph, the harrowing mundanity that is plane travel with a babe in arms. I play the scenes back to myself anyway, those hours, the bucking, squirming, tooth-chipping baby of dubious dampness, and recognize—thankfully now—that this is no longer my child. On flights these days, we can kill a good hour drawing pilot whales and crabs, another reading Charlotte‘s Web. It feels like a luxury. Or no: it is a luxury. Five-year-old Mira, it occurs to me, would be as much of a stranger to the bedraggled mother of baby Mira as the baby Mira in that passport photo is to me now.
It’s apprehension, not fear, that I use for my husband, and that he uses for himself. He has apprehensions; I have fears. When we talk about it, that difference seems conclusive, seems right. But then the dictionary blurs the lines, calls apprehension “suspicion or fear especially of future evil,” and these sound like different possibilities. Doesn’t suspicion imply knowledge, some agency? That you might be validated when something goes wrong, that you were, at least, correct? “Fear of future evil,” on the other hand, sounds like a life of cowering—the fear of having something always to fear—and that’s not it at all for Peenesh.
Still, apprehension or fear often act on us the same way: they estrange us, separate us from our steadier selves. When Peenesh tells me he was always worried about those flights, that they made him apprehensive, I have to put down my water glass and study his face. The set of his eyebrows, the particular flex of his jaw. His eyes calibrated at some unmatchable middle distance. I want to recognize this face registering the possibility of fear. This face that takes the place of the one I know.
When she was born with thick black hair, a curtain of eyelashes and surprisingly articulate eyebrows, Mira was the genetic showcase of my beautiful mother-in-law, then entered that awkward middle-aged man stage, then came smoothly out the other side looking a lot like, well, herself. And still, yes, her father. Of course, her demeanor is mine—my mother recognized her intensity and relentless squirm at about day four—and she resembles the pictures of my kid-self, the shape of the cheeks and something in the smile, but the TSA officers don’t know this.
Of course, not in any of our travels together has anyone doubted Mira was my child. No one ever pulled us out of line for interrogation. I never expected anyone to doubt our relationship in that particular context, and no one has. Isn’t that the way it works? One parent’s reasonable is another parent’s worry.
But I see, in other contexts, how others wonder. And I understand the leaden density of the truth, that thin razored flake that resides at the core of Peenesh’s apprehension. It has something to do with vulnerability, yes. His, mine, our daughter’s, and the general condition of being human in a world where loss is inevitable and hardship is inequitable. It also has to do with the way our allegiances and sense of belonging can be second-guessed and undermined by strangers. How we can be unmoored from our beloveds, from ourselves.
A visibly mixed-race brown child and a brown parent together make some sense in our culture. They read. The mixed-race child is seen as brown, the absent parent is presumed white, the question of parentage basically answers itself. A mixed-race brown child and a white mother on the other hand read, yes—probably, depending on the reader and the place—but they raise more questions, more unknowns. Brown what? Which kind? Brown how?
There’s a stutter, a brief little snag in the silence I feel sometimes when another adult is taking us both in, when a question is forming. Now that my daughter is an articulate, overhearing, independent creature out in the world, people are less likely to voice their questions about her birth origins but I’ve also gotten the standard (“Where did you get her?” and “Where did she come from?”) and the slightly less standard (“What’s her [gesture of a hand circling the speaker’s own face] ….blend?”) and the absurd (“Do you tan her?”). And I’ve kicked myself for my silence, for pretending I haven’t heard, for not trotting out any of the obvious responses. How long have I held the unvoiced rejoinder, “sperm and egg,” ready in the cup of my tongue?
Sometimes there’s another snag, a delay, before my own humor or bemusement kicks in, before even that adrenalized stew of righteous indignation and cynicism comes roiling up, only to be lidded down by the opposing impulse not to waste too much headspace on a stranger’s lack of acuity or manners, not to worry, not to go around arming myself for imagined skirmishes. In the space of that silence is its own honest question:
Who am I, again? And who are you?
I’ve girded myself for these playground interactions, these doubts, and I’ve gotten them, but not as frequently as I expected. Mostly, people don’t notice or care, or are polite, or some combination of the three. And even if they do ask, they’re not challenging the authenticity of my relationship. They’re likely just trying, awkwardly, to understand.
Still, I bristle with the desire to be seen for what I am, as my daughter’s biological mother, which feels suspiciously like asserting some kind of propriety, which feels in turn like wrongful bristling, which is attended by shame. Why this need to be recognized? But I can’t help it. And maybe I don’t always want to.
I was at the park not long ago with my daughter and her friend, who is white, when another woman came up to ask if my daughter had left her water bottle by the swing. But Mira was holding her orange water bottle in her hand, lifting it, in fact, up to her lips.
“Isn’t this your daughter’s?” the woman asked again, insisting, prompting me with a nod toward the white child she thought was mine.
And now when I’m out in public with Mira and a white friend, I find myself touching Mira more, laying my hand on her back, making her squirm from the sloppy heaviness of what is both a maternal need and a gesture, maybe, of selfish defiance. Yes, this one here: this one is my daughter. Sometimes I call out to her just to hear her yell back heartily across the playground, “What, Mama, what?
Just to hear her affirm my claim.
The majority of Mira’s travel has been domestic—since her birth, we’ve resided in four states on three coasts. In that time, Mira has traveled from the state of her infancy into this new state of childhood, and while the border between them is sometimes porous—about as lax as 1995 Canada, say—and just within visiting distance, that original state already feels a little foreign.
Mira is, has always been, fierce, and quickly moved to tears. She gets, as my husband notes, The Feels, experiencing a grief as sudden and sledging and unpredictable as, well, grief. She mourned for a week over her discovery of the death of Sully the Pilot Whale, whom she knew only from watching the marine biology show Jonathan Bird‘s Blue World. She honored Sully with daily portraiture and insisted on a herring dinner.
At the dinner table the other day, The Feels arrived as they do, seemingly out of nowhere. One of us made an offhand comment about when she was a baby, and her eyes were already erupting over.
“What is it?” one of us asked, after she’d caught her breath and wiped her eyes and nose with the dinosaur on her shirt.
“I will never get to meet baby Mira,” she sniffed with a profound and strangling desperation. “And I want to know her so, so, SO much!”
“You do know her,” I insisted lamely, my hand brushing back her kid bangs from her baby forehead. “She’s right here, too.”
But she was not convinced.
We carry our passports even though they don’t really look like us, even though they hardly reveal anything at all. But here’s what they do: if we get ourselves to the border, they let us cross. And they remind us, at least superficially, where we’ve been. Of course, I don’t need an outdated (or bad—I’ve got one of those) passport photo to know that I am sometimes a stranger to myself, that we are often strangers to the ones we love best in the world.
It happens with my husband and me all the time, the offices of our own experience redistricting us so that we have to renegotiate the tracts, understand each other’s particular terms and legislation anew. My nostalgia runs over onto the slope of his stoicism. His pragmatism retains the sprawl of my stubbornness and passion, that mess. Sometimes, yes, fear threatens our best efforts, its faults rupturing the surface and ruining the map, but we understand now that the borders shift. And we know how to get back home.
As a parent, as a mother, it’s disorienting to see the rifts widening, the space in the body a child takes up or takes up no longer. But I’m trying to come to terms with those gaps and distances, to court them, to see them as the kind of dun colored plains that yield, on closer inspection, whole microcosmic ecosystems blustering with life. I just have to gawk and squint a little, trying to get the focus right.
Author‘s Note: I‘m still the bearer of Mira‘s passport when it‘s all three of us traveling together, when we make most sense. She gets the window seat but she‘s gracious about it, moving aside so her father and I can smush our faces up against the plastic window next to hers, cheeks companionably bumping. We follow her lead, smiling exaggeratedly at each other and frowning and pointing and nodding, amateur mimes trying on silence for the first time. We‘re high enough in the atmosphere that our ears pop, then fill with the part-troubling, part-euphoric clank and whoosh of all those engines at work. Fearless, or close enough.
Elyse Fenton is the author of two poetry collections, Clamor and Sweet Insurgent (2017), and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize for Literature. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, and is at work on a novel.