Before there was Ethan, there was the imagined child, her cells already multiplying inside me when I was still small myself. While I served Playdough spaghetti on plastic plates with the stiff body of a baby doll in my lap, she grew hands and hair and eyes. I changed her name fairly often. She was Jill, then Courtney, then Claire. But who she was, what she was like, stayed consistent in my mind for thirty years.
My girl was a quiet, thoughtful child. She had dark soulful eyes, loved stories, and had a rich imagination. Pretty but not overly beautiful. Sensitive. Affectionate. She was a mild mannered, soft-spoken child who loved people and music and books.
And here is something else about her. She had a limp. A small imperfection that didn’t affect her chances of growing into a self reliant, capable young woman. She was just a little slower when she walked and had to work a bit harder at certain tasks. But what this disability gave her made it worth it. It gave her empathy and perspective. She valued difference because she understood it from the inside out.
Of course, I didn’t have that child. My mother did. Surely I’m not the first woman to envision her future child as some small version of herself. And to endow that imagined offspring with what she sees as her best qualities. I gave mine my sensitivity and thoughtfulness. My empathetic nature. My love of music and books. Okay, and my gender. We all know we’re not supposed to admit to having a preference there. As long as the baby’s healthy, that’s all that matters, a mother-to-be will say. And you think, There’s someone who has her priorities straight. So what does that say about me and my fantasy of having a sweet little girl with less than perfect health? I must be big on testing fate, for one thing.
I knew very little of disability culture growing up. But one lucky exception was that I was taken to see the play “Children of a Lesser God” when I was a senior in high school. In it, the heroine, Sarah, is pressed by her lover to list the things she wants in this life. Among them, she names children. Deaf children. Children like her.
I believe that when we picture mothering replicas of ourselves, we do so out of the desire to live with someone whom we understand completely and who, just as thoroughly, understands us. If Sarah had a deaf child, she could build a family in which she was not in the minority. If I had one with cerebral palsy, I could do the same.
In the movie version of “Children of a Lesser God” the conversation about having deaf children ends there, with James responding to Sarah’s admission that while he doesn’t want his children to be deaf, it would be fine with him if they were. But in the final moments of the play, Sarah brings it up a second time. She retracts her wish, saying, “I just don’t have the right to demand that anyone be created in my image.”
She’s right, of course. I knew she was right the first time I heard her say it, when I was still a teenager. But it took fifteen years, pregnancy and the surprising results of an ultrasound before I could honestly say that I felt that way.
When I left the hospital the day of my first ultrasound, I carried with me a cloudy little Polaroid in which one part of the anatomy stood out with remarkable clarity. But as startling as I found the penis, I was more startled by my own reaction to it. I felt ecstatic.
Why? I asked myself on the subway ride home. You’ve always wanted a girl. You only ever imagined a girl. What are you so happy about?
“Maybe it’s because boys seem sturdier to me. I’ll worry less,” I suggested to Richard.
But that wasn’t the reason. It took me several days and more wrong guesses (I’m sure I read somewhere that boys have special bonds with their mothers. We’ll probably save a fortune on clothes), but one morning I woke up knowing just what it was. I was proud of this child for being so himself. He wasn’t even born yet, and already he had busted my preconceptions about him.
It was my first lesson as a mother. There were countless lessons to come, but this particular one would repeat itself over and over. Like all children, my son is very much his own person, and just when I think I have him figured out, he evolves in some way and the process of learning him starts over again. The only consistency in parenting, a friend once said to me, is that there will always be change.
As for my doppelganger girl, the idea of her was good company for a while just as a fantasy twin would have been. The needs I had hoped she would fulfill have been met by a community of likeminded friends, my chosen family.
Besides, that imaginary child pales next to my flesh and blood, ever surprising boy.