A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about a study she’d just read, which concluded that people without children were happier than people with children; or, to put it more precisely, despite what conventional wisdom holds, the study found that having children did not increase anyone’s happiness.
At which all I could do was burst out laughing. Because, well. Duh.
Only an academic would undertake a study like this, defining happiness as something along the lines of “satisfaction with life” and “feeling rewarded by your work.” If there’s an occupation more likely to make you feel incompetent and unrewarded than being a parent, I have never heard of it.
If you weren’t an academic, you might define happiness as the experience of being fully alive. To know grace, and despair, and the kind of hardness you have to learn to stand against; to watch your family fail you when you need them the most, and have your ex-husband look around, shrug his shoulders, and hold out his hand to help you up again.
Right. Your ex-husband, so that you can learn a bit of gratitude, just enough to appreciate him, which you didn’t manage the first time around.
These are things you’d never know if you hadn’t had your daughter. Things you wouldn’t have had to know, and learn the hard way, bitterly.
If the medical resident hadn’t sat down while you held your baby girl in the neonatal intensive care unit and said, “Your daughter’s brain is massively deformed.”
The daughter you loved even before she was born. When she was an abstraction, a positive sign on a pregnancy test, before she kicked you in the ribs, long before she ever drew her first breath. Love you did not know you were capable of feeling, primal and angry and powerful, you would kill ten men and Satan if you had to.
But the universe doesn’t ask that from you.
When your daughter is nine months old, a neurosurgeon will say to you, “We believe resecting the left side of her brain will help control the seizures.”
The seizures that she has all day, every day, dozens, hundreds; she was born with a massively deformed brain, what did you expect?
You think a minute, and you realize the doctor is saying they are going to take out half your daughter’s brain, and throw it away, so much trash, and you’re supposed to sign the consent form for this.
And after the surgery, when the seizures come back, you will sit across the table from the man who is now your ex-husband, the man you adored, but life can kick the ass out of any romance, even yours, and you will order a very large glass of tequila, and you will say, “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”
And you hope the answer is going to be about slaying ten men and Satan, because you’re capable of that. Yes. Heroic action? You are totally down with that. But the answer is, you are going to go home and do the best you can to make a life out of what you’ve been given.
And no one is going to give you any instructions, or any feedback, so no matter how well you’re doing, or how badly you’re screwing up, you won’t know either thing until maybe – maybe – at the end of your life, fifty years from now, you’ll be able to look back with some perspective and go, “Eh, should have done that differently.”
So you do the best you can. You raise your daughter, and she is three years old before she learns to walk, seven years old before she learns to use a toilet, and mothers all around you are blathering their worry that their babies aren’t talking by twelve months, and you don’t even know what universe they live in, because in your universe, you had surgeons take out the left side of your daughter’s brain and throw it away.
You just got back from the hospital the fourth time or maybe the sixth time your daughter’s shunt has had to be revised – that is, yanked out and a new one put in because it stopped working, which means the pressure builds inside her skull, which could kill her – and the man (the man, you weren’t picking any goddamned boys this time, this time you found yourself a man) he says he’s not ready for someone like you. It’s just too intense.
What he means is he can’t deal with your daughter. This is a story you will go through more agonizing times than you can count, with friends, with family, with work, with other men who don’t trust you when you say all you really want is to just get laid. They will all say it differently, but you know why they’ve cut and run. Hell, you would have, too. If someone had told you ahead of time what was going to happen now? Baby, you would have been on the next plane to Bolivia and fighting extradition every step of the way.
But they didn’t tell you ahead of time, and by the time you figured out that being her mother was going to make your life look like a nuclear bomb had detonated in the middle of it, it was too late, because she’s your daughter and you loved her even before she was born, so you’re a little biased and you can’t always see her clearly, and what you see is a high-spirited, ebullient girl with a stubborn streak, and other people see a slow-moving, cognitively-impaired kid who can’t be budged once she makes up her mind.
Well, screw them.
You say that a lot. Screw them.
So, no, most times you’re not thinking about how happy this is making you.
Sometimes, in fact, you’re thinking about how a long time ago, you were kind of a charming young woman who read a lot and married a nice guy, and you planned to go to Paris.
And you never got there.
And somehow, maybe during the thirteenth hospital stay, or perhaps the fifteenth, your life had narrowed down to a few good things. Your work, and your daughter. Your three old friends, who knew you way back when you were kind of charming, and your three new friends, whom you refer to as the one who calls you “hard,” the one who calls you “contentious,” and the one who calls you “inflexible.”
Because it’s funny, and while they mean it, they don’t mind it, they even seem to admire it. Your friends are warped, too. Hey, it happens.
“You need to get some Mike’s hard lemonade,” your daughter says when you’re at the grocery store, because you once told her that you had one at your friend Diane’s house, and you liked it, and in your daughter’s world, if you do anything you like once, you must do it many many times, because that is wonderful.
People look at you funny when she points to the Mike’s, like you’re an alcoholic raising one, but you think screw them, and you buy the Mike’s and it stays in the fridge for three months before you throw it out, but it makes your daughter happy.
You would do anything to make your daughter happy. To make her whole, and to promise her that she will never have to go to the hospital again, but despite all the effort and practice, you’re just not that good at lying.
When you bring her to the hospital for the eighteenth time, or maybe it’s the twentieth, and she says, “I want roses, like a princess. Red ones,” you make sure she has them, even though it destroys your budget for the month. Raising your daughter makes it impossible to also hold a steady job, so you freelance, despite the fact that you’re not really cut out for writing about things normal people are interested in.
And you find out, interestingly enough, that there are so many not-normal people in the world that you don’t ever have to write for the normal ones if you don’t want to. Which is a huge relief. It’s a club and the password requires an appreciation for dark humor, and you have to have been through gut-wrenching grief to get here, and you look at the people who don’t know, and you realize, for the first time, that you don’t want to be them: innocent, unknowing, unformed, unrealized, their lives entirely unlived.
You bring your daughter home from the hospital, and she says, “Next time I want carnations,” and you know there will be a next time, and it makes your heart hurt.
Still, you are so not ready when the next time comes. It’s a mugger, and you’re not even walking after dark.
You’re at the hospital for another MRI, routine. You know all the rules by now, and the names of the nurses, and the questions they’re going to ask. And you know the MRI is going to take one hour, ninety minutes tops, because it always has.
And you know from long experience that when something deviates from the norm, the news will not be good. In the world you don’t get to live in, people get good news all the time, but not in the universe that made your daughter.
Three hours later, the nurse comes in and makes some remark about it taking a while to get the pictures, and you know she’s lying but you don’t push, because she’s not allowed to say, and she won’t.
So even though no one tells you that you should, you wait by the phone the next day, and the neurologist calls just like you knew he would, and he says, “There’s been an unexpected finding,” and even though you knew it would happen, it catches you in the gut and you sit down, hard, and you think I can’t stand it.
The sky has fallen down many times in your daughter’s short life, the sky with all the stars in it, and you have picked up the pieces more times than you can remember, and you have climbed the ladder and put them back in place, where you think they should go, and you get things in backwards and out of sequence, but you do the best you can, and you climb down off the ladder, and you’re at peace with your work. You wish it could be better, but there’s only one of you, and the sky is so vast, it takes a while to put it back together again, and you did the best you could.
And you just went through all that work, and here is the goddamned sky scattered all over the carpet again.
The neurologist describes the new problem, like having a massively deformed brain is not enough for one child to bear. You process what he is saying: there’s a hole in your daughter’s spinal cord. He calls it a channel, and he gives the medical name for it, so you can look it up on the computer and give yourself a heart attack, and then he says he would like a neurosurgeon to consult, and you say, sure, because what are you going to say? I can’t do this anymore?
So you tell your daughter she has a hole in her spine, and she takes the news gracefully, the way she has taken everything you’ve ever told her about herself, you have a massively deformed brain, you have seizure disorder, there is no cure for your disease, and oh yes, your all-time favorite surgeons took out the left side of your brain when you were nine months old.
There is one secret thing you never tell her. You never tell her how afraid you are that this is the last time. The last birthday. The last kiss good night. The last time you will ever sing the Mockingbird Song to her, the way you have done every night for thirteen years.
You have never done anything for thirteen years before.
The neurosurgeon is a pleasant man, which is a change from the usual run of neurosurgeons, and he describes what sounds to you like a horrifyingly high-risk surgical procedure, and which he calls an intervention that he has performed before. You don’t push him with questions like, How many times? Because you don’t want to know. Because it will break your heart or terrify you, and you don’t have the stamina for that. Not today.
He turns to the computer, calling up the MRI, and you focus on his hands, and you decide that he has competent hands, artist’s hands, and it’s a good thing, too, because you are trusting your daughter to those hands.
He wants you to look at the image on the computer, but the image makes you want to throw up, you don’t want to look at it, but the doctors always make you look.
And you see the place where they took out the left side of her brain and threw it away, and he shows you the hole in her spinal cord that goes on and on and on, tracing it the length of her spine, and you can’t stand it anymore, not even to be polite, so you stare at the floor, and you notice your sandal is scuffed and you wish you wish wish wish he hadn’t made you look, and you hope you can hold it together until he leaves, and you can bolt to the nearest bathroom and be sick.
He smiles kindly and schedules surgery for August 10th, which is too soon, much too soon because you can’t even conceive of what he is going to do, and it is going to take you a long time to wrap your mind around it, and it’s also too far away, much too far away, because you would like to sleep until it’s over, and there’s just no possibility that you can get away with staying in bed that long.
You look up at your daughter, and you see her face is stark white, and you know she is scared out of her mind, she has understood everything that has taken place here and it was so much easier when she was little, and she didn’t, and she would just smile at her hands and coo.
Her father is barking questions at the surgeon, agitated and pacing, and the surgeon answers him patiently, prefacing each response with the phrase, “That’s a good question,” along with a nod and a smile, like your ex-husband is a good student, while you sit there, a lump, bovine, you couldn’t form a question if it would save you from a firing squad.
You are trying to think of what to say to your daughter, and all you can think is I don’t want to lose you, baby girl, I don’t want to lose you I don’t want to lose you lose you lose you.
Which doesn’t seem particularly helpful. So you shake hands with the doctor, and before the nurse starts asking all the questions on the H&P, you tell your daughter that the surgeon is going to try to keep the hole in her spine from getting worse, and that means some surgery, and maybe five days in the hospital. And you must do a good job of not communicating your deep dread and fear, because she says, “Okay. Will people bring me presents?”
Yes, you say. Yes. It will be required. You hug her, and she says, “You have your stars on.”
Those are your earrings, and the very first time you wore them, your daughter exclaimed with delight, “Now we can wish upon a star every day! Twice!”
And so you wish upon the stars, right there in the examining room, that you will live happily ever after, and have good work to do, the wishes you always wish, and then you’re ready to face the nurse, and to answer the questions she has, knowing how gut-wrenching it is to go over your daughter’s medical history with someone who doesn’t know her, knowing that your daughter will pepper you with as many questions as the nurse will.
At home, you try not to think about August 10th. You know it will come too soon, and not soon enough. You make a note to buy more crossword puzzles, because that is all you can do when your daughter is undergoing an intervention the surgeon has performed before, and you didn’t have the courage to ask him how many times.
At dusk, your daughter says, “Time for fireflies!”
And you know the drill, that you can’t watch the fireflies without a snack, so you ask if she would like ice cream or a cookie, and she says, “I would like ice cream and a cookie, and some Diet Coke, and I will want my princess figures, and I will get the door for you,” and you don’t even try to argue about the ice cream and the cookie, or suggest that milk would be better than Diet Coke. What if this is the last time you look at the fireflies together? You don’t want to be the jackass who screws it up.
She gets the door, and you bring the cookies and the ice cream, and go back for the Diet Coke and the princess figures, and she settles onto the patio chair with a sigh of contentment. And you look up at the stars in the sky, and you wish you knew something about astronomy, because then you could tell your daughter which one was the evening star, and you would tell her that that is the star to wish upon. But you don’t know; they all look alike to you. And maybe it’s better that the stars you wish upon are the ones you can see whenever you want to, wherever you are, even if it’s the intensive care unit on the fifth floor of the children’s hospital.
“I see a firefly!” she shouts. “The first one tonight! How many do you think there will be?” Before you can answer, she says, “Where do fireflies live during the day?”
You admit you don’t know, and she says, “We will look it up on the computer tomorrow.”
And you do, and you find out that fireflies are rapacious predators, but nothing shocks you anymore, not even that. You don’t tell your daughter this finding. And the calendar moves one day closer to August 10th, and the number of times you go into the bathroom to throw up increases by a factor of two.
A long time ago you stopped raging at the universe for doing this to your daughter, and years before she was born, you stopped believing in a benevolent god, but right now you would like to hurl some curses at a supremely powerful being, to have the satisfaction of getting an answer back. You would take on Satan and ten men, but no one asks you do to that. No one has ever asked you to do that.
They asked you to do this instead, this infinitely harder thing. And you think about that study, and you laugh out loud again, and your daughter asks why you are laughing, and you say, “Sometimes, girlfriend, I can’t believe how badly people miss the point.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I don’t care that I’ve never seen Paris.”
She’s accustomed to your moods, so she nods, and she turns on the radio. “It’s your favorite song!” she says. “Isn’t that lucky?”
And you hug her hard, but she’s used to that, too, and she lets you, and even lets you sing along without complaining (“this time only, mom!”), and you are lucky, probably the luckiest woman living, and happier than you have ever been, but not in any way an academic would understand, or even conceive. Your joy is bigger than the universe and contains all the sorrow of a lifetime, and has nothing whatsoever to do with feeling sufficiently rewarded for your work.
Many people have asked, so I have made For Jessica available as a paperback and as a Kindle ebook. Click here for further information. All proceeds go to support Jessica.