Learning to Mother Someone Else’s Child
Is it strange for a child to have years more experience being a daughter than her caretaker has at mothering?
I met her in the middle of fall. I walked from the subway, my breath glowing yellow under the streetlights, my feet crushing leaves in various stages of decay. I focused on these details in order not to worry; I hadn’t prepared. How to talk to children, I’d typed several times in the Google search bar. Each time I erased it before pressing enter. I felt ridiculous.
“Hi there,” I said finally when she answered the door.
“This is my friend Emily,” James told her. “Can you say hi?”
“Hi. Goodbye.” She flopped on the couch and pretended to sleep.
James began, “Now that’s not—”
“I like your nightgown,” I interrupted. “Is that Rainbow Dash?” She opened her eyes. “Some of my queer friends are really into My Little Pony,” I told James. “It’s kind of a thing.”
“My favorite is the purple one, because of her cutie mark,” she said, and he grinned.
I can’t recall if we colored horses, but I know we colored turkeys. I remember because I said, “My turkey looks pretty ridiculous wearing pants.”
And she replied, “You should never say that to a real turkey.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess that would hurt his feelings.” And it was then I learned, or remembered, how to talk to children.
So much of caring for children is remembering. It’s revisiting your own childhood. It is also, for me, revisiting the desire to never have kids. I’d thought of myself as an unlikely mother, though I know that’s closer to an oxymoron than a modernism; in the post-pill 60s and post-Roe 70s society still expected most women to have kids, and now, with advances in reproductive technology, the rest of us women – lesbians, sex workers, trans women, upwardly-mobile career-focused yuppies, the chronically single, the heavily medicated, women with infertility and disabilities – have been variously graced and burdened with the possibility of motherhood. If an unlikely mother exists, she would probably be one of ‘the rest of us’ who also had a pathologically-rooted and continuously-proclaimed desire to never have children. Yes, that was me.