“Butterfly!” Flora yells, dashing toward me in her best toddler version of Charlie Chaplin’s rocking gait, carrying a clear tube with a cork at one end. She shows me the tube, which contains both a butterfly and what looks like a wasp. “Butterfly!”
Her father is following close behind, explaining that they just found the butterfly in the final stages of death and have now added it to Flora’s new insect collection. As a high school Biology teacher, Barry offers Flora a close-up look at cockroaches, lizards, aphids clinging to the undersides of leaves — things I don’t normally point out. This summer I’ve found the two of them sitting on the back porch, staring at Flora’s chubby little hand while an ant crawls across it. They stop on sidewalks after the rain, inspecting worms and ant hills.
When Barry and I first met, one of the things that drew us together was our environmentalism, though our passion for nature manifests differently for each of us. I’m a theorist and an activist, more likely to write essays and deliver speeches defending the earth, while Barry investigates the natural world, collects book after book about Darwin, and defends evolution. We work at different ends of the same environment, occasionally meeting in the middle to discuss politics on a hike, or take Flora to the landscape arboretum.
I’ve needed some time to appreciate the way our characters complement each other, since I never intended to stay with Barry much longer than the birth of our child.
Four years ago on a snowy and bright Martin Luther King day, I walked in to a tiny coffee shop and recognized the man whose picture I had seen on Match.com. Barry’s dark brown eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and Guatemalan woven sweater spoke to me of an old friendship. When he rose to greet me and bought me coffee, I saw that he was lean, angular, and taller than me, almost six feet tall. For the next three hours, we chatted about our lives, our different paths leading us to Minneapolis and to our chosen profession, teaching. Both Barry and I had recently lost childless, long-term relationships and spent the past two years grieving. Neither of us had healed. Neither of us had unbroken hearts, ready to offer to a new mate. Yet each of us wanted a child.
In fact, I had one waiting. An unplanned pregnancy in the abusive marriage of my twenties shocked me into terminating both the pregnancy and the marriage. As the suction tube pulled that eight-week embryo from my body, I whispered, “Wait for me,” to the little soul who had chosen me to be its mother. “Wait for me, darling,” I promised, “and I will find you a good father, a good home.” Twenty years later, I felt that little soul’s presence. It was time to bring her home.
With a cool head, I had chosen Match.com over a sperm donor. My own father cherished me, tickled me, camped with me, and gave me self-confidence in the short sixteen years we had together; I wanted my child to have the same opportunity of knowing a father’s love. If I could find a man with integrity, the partnership piece wouldn’t matter. At 44, I didn’t have much time to search for a real partner. A co-parent would have to do. We could have the child, separate, and share de facto joint custody, each of us free to choose other mates for love and companionship. Biologically disadvantaged as a potential father at age 46, Barry must have faced a more difficult challenge: find and woo a woman (preferably in her 30’s) into marrying him and having a child.
Over the next six months, Barry pursued me while I continued to break up with him. We were not a good fit, I insisted. He was Jewish; I was Buddhist. He liked comedies; I preferred documentaries. He was a liberal; I was a radical. Worst of all, our shortcomings annoyed each other: he was a mild-mannered procrastinator, with a diagnosable clutter problem; I was impatient, quick to action, to anger, and to passion. We weren’t in love. It just wouldn’t work.
The last time I tried to break up with him, we were about to leave for a week’s vacation exploring Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. True to our characters, Barry did endless research to choose the best independent hotels, while I was ready to book the trip after an hour’s investigation. Two nights before our scheduled departure, I just knew I couldn’t go with him. Barry was paying for more of the trip since I was in the middle of a career change, looking for work and finding none. I couldn’t afford a vacation, and I couldn’t be indebted to someone I didn’t love.
By 3:00 a.m. I was wide awake, tense with anxiety, certain I was walking into an impossible situation by agreeing to spend ten days with this impossible man in a foreign country. I picked up the telephone and called him. He picked up on the second ring.
“Barry, I’m so worried about this trip,” I launched in. “I can’t even sleep.”
What was he going to say? Surely he had been sleeping. Surely this would be the last straw. Surely he would dump me at last.
“I’m so glad you called,” Barry replied.
Kindness is Barry’s leading suit. He assured me we could fly home any time if the trip weren’t fun for both of us. After an hour’s conversation, I agreed to go with him.
In Mexico, we played. In a cabana outside Tulum we shared romantic afternoon sex amid thunderstorms, hitchhiked into town to see the ruins, separated for a day so we could each explore our own interests. In Merida we strolled the zocalo in the evenings, watching sidewalk artists and vendors, listening to music and sitting at tiny café tables having drinks. On our bicycle trip around Isla Mujeres and our half-day tour of Chichen Itza, we visited shrines to fertility, the Goddess Ixchel, and the ruin whose enclosed room ensured that every woman who entered there would become pregnant within the year. Was it flirtation, or were we serious? On our last morning in Mexico, Barry wrote me a note in the airport, when we were supposed to be writing postcards, and expressed his anxiety about our separation upon returning to the U.S. He asked me to live with him.
I thought about it for a few days, and agreed. I could tell Barry had integrity: he wouldn’t leave me with a child, he wouldn’t betray me with another woman unless I betrayed him first, and he wouldn’t tell me he was in love with me when he wasn’t. Besides, he had Paul Wellstone’s book on his nightstand at home. An unspoken agreement formed. We would have a child. After that, we would see.
In September, I charted my waking temperature, picked the date, and we conceived. The little soul who had waited twenty years for me settled in to my body, and began to make herself at home. Meanwhile, Barry and I adjusted to living together, sleeping together, and sharing household duties. Still looking for work, and picking up part-time teaching jobs for income, I wasn’t able to pay my fair share. Barry carried the bulk of the expenses, bought me a cell phone for protection, and kept a bedside copy of the book, How to Make a Pregnant Woman Happy. He did the housekeeping and the laundry, while I grocery shopped and cooked the meals. We had a shared project and a shared household.
What I didn’t anticipate was how our lives would change with the birth of our shared project, Flora.
Up to the birth we had leaped certain hurdles, met each other’s families, announced our expectant child and our absence of marriage, chosen a name in Jewish tradition by honoring Barry’s mother, Florence, and even agreed to hyphenate our child’s last name. In the hospital after the birth, Barry signed the affidavit of paternity that would record him as the father on Flora’s birth certificate, and we were catapulted into the role of co-parents, exchanging our newborn between us every few hours while the other parent slept, ate, or rested. We used the hair-dryer and the vacuum cleaner for white noise to soothe our sobbing infant, left fine dinners with to-go cartons because our baby just couldn’t wait. We shared the intensity of that first summer with Flora–and the absolute beauty of it, of her fragile tender alert presence–and we loved her fiercely, in ways no other two people would ever love her. When Flora wailed and Barry walked with her, back and forth, rubbing her back and whispering to her, something shifted for me. I watched my child’s father nurturing her with patience and kindness. No other man or woman would have the relationship to Flora that Barry could offer her. He was even willing to take her at 3:00 a.m., when I was exhausted after hours of nursing and tears, frustrated and sleep-deprived.
I decided to postpone leaving him.
Since then, it’s been two years.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Flora calls out from the front door and dashes in to the kitchen where I am cooking dinner.
It is always like this: she and Barry have been out on some amazing expedition, visiting the zoo, riding the train or the carousel, and she can’t wait to tell me where she’s been and what she’s seen. Barry is slower to enter, muttering and stammering something about their adventures while Flora excitedly narrates in two-year-old English, “Train! Carousel!”
They look at each other for affirmation and then back at me as they try to tell the story of their time together, each talking at the same time, Flora shouting and jumping, Barry setting down the travel bag and unpacking what’s left of Flora’s snacks, clothing, souvenirs. He often brings back something to put in her baby book: a postcard, a train ticket, something that will help her know how much she was loved.
As parents nearing 50, we know our lives are rich with Flora. We know life is not without end. We take pictures; we write narratives; we save mementos.
Our relationship is like an arranged marriage from the old days: we have chosen each other with little prelude, and have been thrown into family life while still getting acquainted. In the process we have become friends, sometime lovers, occasional companions. The intimacy is tenuous, partial, erratic. I sleep with Flora; Barry sleeps in the guest room. Occasionally, we rendezvous during nap-time, joke about our cabana in Tulum, fantasize about faculty exchanges to Italy or Greece. Meanwhile Barry’s stacks of books, papers, and boxes fills the family room, the study, the basement. Meanwhile I am impatient and quick to act, quick to anger and criticism.
We try to be patient with each other’s quirks. We try to be patient with our toddler.
Each morning when Flora wakes up, I take her to the window and show her the back yard: there is her swing, here is her sandbox, then it’s her pool, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Flora knows no other home except this one, here, with us. Because Flora is here, I cook healthy meals, keep regular hours, cut flirtations in the bud. Barry repairs the house, keeps the temperature warmer in winter and cooler in summer than either one of us would do for ourselves. We both work less, and play more. With Flora, we become a family rather than two isolated academics, a family that recreates and continues our own childhoods. Originally thinking that I would “stick it out” for Flora, I find some unexpected benefits here for myself. With Barry and Flora to come home to, I feel grounded, content. The waiting is over.
“Mommy, Daddy, Flora!” Often, Flora will recite the attendance list: who is here in our house? Who is part of our family? Sometimes the doggy makes it to the list, other times not, but the trinity of Mommy-Daddy-Flora remains consistent.
This week, Barry was away at a conference, and I read library books to Flora each night before bedtime, trying to keep her mind away from her absent father.
“Where is the mommy?” I asked, opening a book of animal stories that featured a duck family. Flora points to the larger duck. “That’s right, Flora. And how many mommies are there?” I persist, trying to teach Flora her numbers.
“Two,” Flora replies. There is only one large duck, but two small ducklings.
“Two?” I decide this is a teachable moment. “How many mommies does Flora have?”
“Two,” Flora replies. “Mommy,” she rests her head on my shoulder, “and Daddy.”
Damn. If he’s that good, I decide, I’ll have to stay another year. Maybe longer.