Each year I mark my daughter’s birthday with feelings of guilt, regret and pain.
As much as I try to pretend I am fine I still become grey in the days leading up and ghostly on the day itself. I hover around sinks and bathrooms waiting for the nausea to turn to vomit. I can walk past people in the narrow passageway and won’t see them. My son can shout, pump the music to eleven, slam doors. I am oblivious.
I cover it with distractions, but at night I crawl into bed and cry. My husband has long since given up trying to understand, and long since given up trying to comfort. He just climbs into bed next to me and hopes that tomorrow I will perk up. I always do. I guess Katy’s birthday is the one day of the year I allow myself to remember.
Sometimes I imagine Katy turning eighteen. She’s on the beach with her boyfriend at the end of the night, after a great party. The ocean is a still black pond stretching out into a bling-encrusted sky.
“Have you ever wished you could swim?” he asks her.
She looks down at her hand in his. She can feel his grip, but can’t return it. Her arm is loose against his body, limp and weak.
Katy almost died when she was born. She got stuck in no-woman’s-land somewhere between the outside world and the safety of my uterus. They could not operate, all they could do was grab and yank as hard as they could.
It meant that we both survived, but it also meant that she was damaged; the nerves going from her spine to her left arm stretched beyond repair.
And it meant that I was damaged from the innermost layers of my soul to the outermost layers of my skin, my faith in my ability to be a woman torn. Beyond the repair of so many happy memories.
Do I ever think about the things she will never do? Do I ever wish I could enjoy her birthday? Yes. And yes.
The day she was born her eyes were black. Squeezed shut, the slits were feathered with long lashes that seemed improbable but utterly beautiful, like butterflies on lily pads.
Day by day the black turned to blue until she was left with complex sapphires, mazes of dark and light. Those eyes are entrapment. They enchant me, but they also make me remember the things I can’t persuade myself to forget.
The day she was born her face was bruised and flattened. The mark of forceps across her left eye, the dent of blunt metal across her skull. The bruises of a pathway she was never meant to survive.
I imagined no one had ever known a greater feeling of completeness than me. With my two children I had everything I had hoped for. I named Katy after her great-great-aunt, the woman who inspired me with her compassion, creativity and sparkling energy. I imagined that she would fulfil every wish I had for her, and then some. The world held no limits and no dream was too great.
Her head fit into the palm of my hand like it had been intended specifically for that purpose. It was a strangely comforting sensation and altogether ironic that I could so safely cradle her down-covered skull like that. Her mouth fit my breast like it had been designed for nothing else. Then, our bodies were a perfect match.
Katy’s brother Ryan always said that she would be a ballerina when she grew up. When she was born he was at that age that he had just figured out the types of things boys became (builders, golfers, surfers) and the types of things girls became (ballerinas, ballerinas and ballerinas). He would say it with a twinkle in his eye, like he knew he was saying something truly insightful. After the first stab I willed myself to believe in his vision.
The violence of Katy’s birth surprised me. The blood. The artfully disguised panic of the midwives as the doctor struggled to get a grip and pull. The bursting, tearing feeling of release that I thought was my daughter being born, but was really my insides ripping and becoming my outsides. The shaking, the cold shiver of shock that I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even hold her; my whole body was reverberating with uncontrollable tremors, and couldn’t be still.
Moments after she was born the midwife whisked her away with mutterings about getting her checked over in the nursery. When she brought her back the look of concern on her face gradually seeped into my labour-addled brain and, still goofy from the gas, I waited for them to tell me what was wrong.
The tears every year surprise me too. Katy is growing into such a delightful child. I think she makes the world a better place, and it’s true that she is fulfilling the prophecy of her name. So why do I cry? Maybe because I will never be able to forget that I hurt her when she needed me the most.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem