This is the beginning of a new project for me – a memoir of children, parenting sons and longing for a daughter. At this point, my husband has agreed to one more child. We’ve set a date to start trying – still a year away. I wanted to take this year to spend some time writing and thinking about why needing a girl child – in the midst of a full, busy, happy, crazy life – has become so important to me.
When I was in the fifth grade I named my first daughter. I picked Bailey and lavished upon this completely imagined child an entire fictional life. Thoughts of the how or when or why she was conceived never entered my twelve year old mind. I never bothered dream up a father for her. She appeared whole –nearly the same age as I at the time - and allowed me to mother her. I pictured myself older, thinner, beautiful and independent. She traveled with me to the markets in Prague and Africa and to meet the President. I wrote books in my spare time and together we made collaborative collage art that hung on the walls of the Met.
We even had a home – a brownstone in New York - that I filled with scrupulous detail from magazines. The hefty Sears catalog still existed then. At my grandmother’s white Formica kitchen table, I’d pour over curtains and imagine what my daughter and I would like best. Bailey was the first name I picked – and my first conception of myself as a mother. I liked the way the name sounded masculine – a surname. My daughter Bailey had spunk.
I started writing seriously at about that same age. I bought a book of baby names (that I still have) to help me name my characters. I spent hours into the night making lists of the names I would use for my characters. The first half of the book – containing boy names – remained almost new looking. The back grew dog-eared and the pages yellowed from my touch. Only the girls’ names were interesting. The boys’ names were singularly boring and all sounded alike. And what would be the point? I never planned on writing about any male characters.
At fifteen, I began writing the novel that I would publish at thirty. I named my main character Kat – after my mother, whose name was Kathleen. At nineteen, I sold my first book to a large New York publisher – a picture book, imagining all the wonderful advice I would one day give my daughter. The galley proofs that my editor sent, found me studying at the Universite des Antilles in Martinique. I was on a college study exchange and living with a host family. I read the pages aloud to my eight year old host daughter, Ludmilla. Her parents had met in Russia while studying abroad themselves. They named their daughter for the Russian Opera they attended on their first date. What a beautiful name, I thought, as she rested her elaborately braided head on my shoulder to listen.
Pregnancy found me scarcely two years later in law school. I filled my first year torts and contracts notebooks with baby girl names. I lavished loops and curlicues on the ones I selected from my old fifth grade baby book. At first, I settled on Skylar, then made up my own name Cielle – from the French word for sky.
My sky shook when the ultrasound – just before midterms – gave me my first view of my son. A boy with his legs spread wide, practically winking at the ultrasound machine as my doctor chuckled “yep, that’s a package.” The sky fell and the world turned blue all around me and I cried. I had never pictured myself as the mother of a boy. The shock of this revelation was more powerful – more insurmountable – than the discovery of the pregnancy itself during my first week of law school. After I had moved alone across the country from Minnesota to Washington, DC. Oh boy, indeed!
My son was born, despite my misgivings about his gender. It was amazing to me how parenthood could provide me with such clarity and purpose in life. I loved being a mother – especially a single mother. When my son was two, I was desperate for another baby – a sister for him. But there were logistics to arrange. Five years passed. I found more baby girl names – Bronte, Frances, France. I started a new novel and named my characters Helen and Nini. I wrote their story during the parts of my day when my son’s father had custody. I graduated ranked number four in my class from law school. I moved back to Minnesota and married. After two years of marriage I was pregnant. I chose the name Persephone from a dream. My husband winced visibly. He too wanted a little girl, partially (though he never said this aloud) because she would be the opposite of the son he had lost.
I subscribe strongly to the belief that all things have their season. It was my season for a girl. God had been right to pick a son for me first – I wasn’t ready. I was ready now. I was a great mom to my son. I let him be. I let him breathe. I treated him as his own separate, distinct being. I didn’t share or burden him with my terrible self-judging thoughts (the way my grandmother and mother had with their daughters). I knew he wasn’t simply a miniature version of me – how could I not with his little weenie right there all the time?
I promised god and all the blessed saints and spirits that I would name my daughter Persephone to remind me to stick with the program. Through grade school, weight gain, high school athletics, boyfriends and college, I would give her the same space my son had – lest she run like Persephone to the devil himself.
The ultrasound showed me my second son. My husband sighed with relief. By then he’d really come to hate the name Persephone. My kind, nine-year old son squinted thoughtfully at my teary face and then back at his tiny brother on the ultrasound screen. Always my rock he announced, “Well this one’s a boy, but maybe there’s still time for twins to develop. That could be a girl.” I realized that I should have explained a little bit more about how this all worked before that moment. It made me smile enough to stop crying.
And so my youngest son was born. I loved him completely – as much as I’d loved his brother before him – who made me whole, who brought me to life. My youngest wasn’t as easy going a baby as his brother. He stayed up all night – he got ear infections, he tossed and turned. He nursed poorly and often. He teethed without mercy. My husband and I had the type of marital arguments people with no sleep have. My youngest son was six months old when I started begging for another child – for a daughter. The universe still owed me a girl after two brilliant sons.
My husband instantly said “absolutely.” Followed by “not.” Looking at his tired face, I thought it best to give my petition a rest for a few more months, until our son was sleeping better. Two years later he was still sleeping in our bed. And I had a secret notebook of girls’ names.
Tonight my sons are playing together in the yard. The oldest has a beach umbrella he’s using as a shield. The youngest has a broken fishing pole that he’s using as a stick to beat his brother. They are laughing so much that at times they stagger. Oldest blocks and parries.
Youngest’s laughter peels out down the street like a small red, Honda. We’re in the damp quiet left behind after the recent July storm and his voice carries and carries. Everything is wet. Their feet are bare and covered with grass and mud – a slug clings to the youngest’s leg. He shrieks again with delight when I remove it and show it to him. At least, I think – flicking away the tiny creature – they’re not inside viewing violent tv programs. They’re making up their own.
As a parent, I’m not sure how to reconcile my deep wish that the boys bond through playing together (despite a 9 year age difference) and the reality that every game they invent is violent. Injuries are rare, however, and never more than a bump to the ground. The game ends when the youngest turns the fishing pole on my unprotected shoulder. Attacking noncombatants is against the rules that I make up on the fly. So I confiscate the pole. It is the oldest who is most upset. “Thanks, mom,” he mutters, stalking into the house to return to his video games. The littlest starts to eat sand.
I sigh and cart him in to wash his mouth out. He goes limp and slides from my arms like a boneless otter. I try again and again. Each time making it closer to the house. I can’t help but think that if my sons were girls we would still be outside, wearing the fairy wings I saw today in a catalog and pretending to fly.
The catalog. It comes quarterly and I loathe it. I pour through every page. It is the type of catalog that sells educational toys – for the most part wholesome, wooden objects. One year I asked my oldest son to circle things inside it that he wanted for Christmas. He laughed. The catalog sells glittery fairy wings, in green and pink. There are wands as well. There is also a wooden barn that holds figurine ponies with soft manes. The ponies come with brushes. I hide the catalog in the drawer with my diary and list of baby girl names.
Inside the house again, all the ruffled feathers are soon soothed. I warm up soft, doughy pretzels in the microwave, One for each of them and then myself. The youngest plays with his trucks on the floor. He’s sleepy and moves them slowly, meditatively back and forth with the concentration of a yogi. The oldest tells me stories about the KLB (Kitten League Baseball). He invents daring plays and impossible scenarios, names whole rosters and fills in the biography of his feline players. The early July light of dusk is purple – it fills the house with a soft glow. My husband returns home from his volunteer firefighter training.
The bedtime routines comes and goes with the same calm motion of my son’s trucks running across the floor – back and forth – lullaby. I am happy. Still, when I finally climb into bed, I can’t help but think of the pictures my girlfriend emailed me that day – of her two year old daughter, wearing a flower in her hair. Ungratefully, I feel as if something flowery and fairy-winged is missing from my busy, happy life.