Today, my three-year-old daughter brings a picture home from her North Berkeley preschool. Drawn on a large piece of newsprint, Mae has very curly hair and big blue shoes. I’m the one on the right with straight hair. And in the middle, there’s a very happy Stuart Little. This is her family portrait — as if this mouse is the man in our lives.
When my daughter, Mae, was seven months old, her father disappeared, leaving us a note that said, “As much as I love and need you both, I feel that you are better off without me for now . . .”
That first night alone, Mae started to vomit in the middle of the night, seemingly without reason. Every time she nursed, my milk spewed all over the bed. When I called the nurse practitioner at 3 a.m., she told me, “Let yourself grieve. And let your daughter grieve. She feels the loss, too.”
Mae was already saying our names. For days, she sat on our living room floor, asking, “Da Da? Da Da?” I didn’t know what to tell her. That he would come back? That it wasn’t her fault?
For months, I couldn’t sleep. Our king-sized bed was enormous with just the two of us. I tried to sleep on the outer edge, with my daughter in the middle. I waited for her father to knock at the front door. He had to come back.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d imagined Mae and her father, Eric, laughing on the floor together every morning. Unlike me, he had rhythm — I’d imagined them dancing together on our hardwood floors. I’d invested in an expensive breast pump, so that he could feed our daughter if I had a work meeting or was out with friends. He was supposed to be here . I’d thought that Eric would sing to her every night before bed. I always thought it would be his role to teach her to stand up for herself, if the boys at school teased her. Nurturing was my strong point; I thought Eric would be the one who set limits with her. How would she ever learn how to have healthy relationships with men, when there wasn’t one around? When I opened my eyes again, the truth was obvious: it was just two of us in this enormous bed.
One evening in mid-December, Mae and I walked over to a diner on Second Avenue for some soup. I always wore my hair pulled back. My eyes were foggy and sad. I didn’t have a belt for my jeans, and they were barely hanging on my hips. I’d gone from 120 pounds to 105 pounds in four weeks. I carried a big black shoulder bag everywhere, stuffed with Mae’s clothes, diapers, toys, my journal. It only clasped on one side.
An older African-American couple was sitting next to us. They could’ve been Mae’s paternal grandparents (who were dead). They were cooing at Mae, and telling me how lovely she was. I could barely look at them. They paid their bill and got up to leave. Then the woman came over and said to Mae, “You’re an angel.” She handed me a ten-dollar bill.
I chocked out an inaudible, “Thank you.”
After they left, I burst into tears. How could I ever do this alone?
I worried that Mae would grow into a mournful, sad child. But she appears to be confident and happy. Her teachers tell me what a poised and composed little girl she is. I’m so relieved, and a little in awe about how it’s all turning out this way. Maybe it’s because she has my undivided attention. Maybe it’s because we hang out with a lot of single-Mama families. Maybe because these days, rather than waiting for her father to return, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of loving another man again.
Or maybe it’s because she has two Grandpas nearby who dote on her, who teach her the things that I can’t. They give her what her biological father has never been able to. My Dad, who lives in San Francisco, picks Mae up from preschool two days a week for hours of silliness on the swings. Without fail, they always go out for a meringue cookie. On weekends, we drive out to the suburbs to swim with my step-Dad in his pool. Mae’s uncle in NYC regularly sends Mae care packages in the mail. And we have play dates with children whose fathers are devoted and caring role models.
She knows that her family is different than alot of her friends’ families at school. Although she has never asked me about this fact, it seems to be a part of her thoughts. My daughter’s imaginary friends, Dee Dee and Da Da, live with their Mommies, too. (By the way, Da Da is a six-year-old girl.)
“Their Daddies live far away,” Mae explains to me about Dee Dee and Da Da.
“Where do they live?” I ask.
“Very, very far away.” She tells me this in an upbeat voice. “Their Mommies take them out for ice cream every night and they have a cat that sleeps with them, too.” (Hint, hint.)
Her father does live very, very far away — he never made a reappearance, and his family seems to think he’s living in Ireland. I wonder what she’ll think as she gets older. I wonder what she will ask me about him. Sometimes, I worry that she will look for his love in all the wrong ways.
Today my Dad comes back with Mae from the playground and proudly praises her artwork. He asks me how Mae knows who Stuart Little is. I tell him that during a 24-hour rainstorm last weekend, we went to the mall for our first time, and a life-sized Stuart Little puppet was greeting all the kids.
“I blew him a kiss, Grandpa!” Mae beams. “He caught it and put it right here!” she adds, rubbing her heart.
Indeed, somehow she seems to be finding and giving love in all the right places. And teaching me how to do the same.