*Ray Carver once said that a big part of being a writer is just “being at your station,” regardless of whether or not the muse is upon you. He’s right. And since I have not been at my station lately, I’ve refurbished and updated an old post of mine. Happens to be one of my favorites. Please to enjoy.
The true mystery of life was not that we are all going to die, but that we were all born, that we were all once little babies like this, unknowing and slowly reeling in the world, gathering it loop by loop like a ball of string. The true terror was that we once didn’t exist, and then, through no fault of our own, we had to.
-Dan Chaon, You Remind Me of Me
A few things have recently conspired to get me thinking about beginnings:
- Yesterday marked 35 years on the planet for me. Happy birthday me.
- Two people who are very special to me had a baby a few months ago, and the new little nugget has been melting my badass right off me. That newborn-head smell. Those tiny frogger legs. Eyes that speak of equal parts confusion, intrigue, and suspicion.
- I’ve also been struggling with a piece I’m writing about my relationship with my mother, specifically how decisions that were made long before I was born came to shape the person I became. How my parents’ expectations about who I’d be—about what they needed me to be—affected the person I actually became.
At a certain point we all try to re-write our past by re-writing our future. We change jobs, we move, we end relationships—and sometimes the new narrative comes in the form of a baby. I was not able to do X, parents sometimes say, so I want my child to. My parents didn’t do Y for me, so I will do Y in outrageous measures for my child. If only they’d done it the way I will do it, things would have been better for me.
I will watch my child be what I might have been.
And as I sit in the reflected glow of these new parents, I think about everything that parents invest in their children right from the start, before they’re even born. All the things they hope this little girl does and doesn’t do, everything they hope she avoids and all the things that she won’t be able to. I think about everything that must have been going through my parents’ minds 35 years ago—all the change that they were hoping my birth signaled.
All that work and planning and hope—all that future-building. All that powerlessness.
My middle name is Hope. My parents were going through a particularly difficult time—a lost job, a move downstate, a dying mother—and my arrival was to signal the beginning of something else. Redemption is the word that keeps turning itself over in my head. “You just wait and see,” my Mom is purported to have said when I was a baby. “This one’s special.”
She likes telling me that story—likes talking about how she was able to predict what a wonderful person I’d be. And while that’s flattering (and also debatable), it’s also somewhat troubling to me. Because how could she have known that? How could she have really known when I was just a baby that I wouldn’t grow up to be a serial killer or Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump? The answer, of course, is that she couldn’t have. But there was little chance that she was going to see me as anything other than exactly what she so desperately needed me to be.
And this expectation didn’t manifest itself in overly demanding or domineering parents—they’ve never made me feel like a disappointment. And yet, I have felt the burden of my middle name. I’ve sensed the pressure they put on me right from the start to be a balm for things that I couldn’t heal—to provide a redemption that I’ve come to find out was never mine to give.
On my left bicep I have a tattoo of my middle name in Hebrew letters: Tikvah. Hope.
Except that the tattoo isn’t about hope for the future, it’s about remembering my past. It’s about accepting the fact that I had nothing to do with the things that happened before I was born, and yet they did come to affect me. It’s about the burden of expectation we place on other people, and how the wounds we inflict on each other don’t always negate the love from which our expectations spring. It’s about how we’re all victims of victims just trying to find a way to come terms with our lives.
And it is also about redemption, because sometimes we do get another chance. Sometimes we invest our hope in just the right thing, and make just the right change. Because for all the things I wasn’t able to heal in my parents, I think I did help them through a very dark time; and for all the things that I find troubling about my middle name, it’s also a testament to the fact that my parents have never done anything other than believe in me.
I suppose ultimately, I got that tattoo to remind myself of the difference between hope and expectation, and to remember how disappointed and inadequate I feel when I blur that line. And as I watch my friends love their new daughter as much as they do, I get scared for them, and I want to warn them, shout to them to be careful—not to expect too much from her. Sometimes I even find myself wanting to tell them not to love her too much because of how susceptible it leaves them to so many things.
But then I take a breath and remember that, from what I’ve heard, too much love and susceptibility to pain are the price of admission to parenthood. And I believe they’re up for the task. And then it hits me all over again, something I already knew but continue to re-learn anyway: it takes a lot of bravery to be a parent.