Friday, May 13, 2011

Words and Lives

As an only child until I started school, I learned to entertain myself by making up Stories on the Floor, as my mom called them. These were my own serial romances involving dolls and toy animals. My three male dolls (Mr. Peanut, a Scotsman in a kilt with a little bagpipe and a Sabra with curly hair and sandals sent from Israel by an old friend of my mom's) were pressed into service as husbands of all my female dolls at various times. I learned at a young age that marriage is necessary for a happy ending.

I was thrilled at age 6 when my parents gave me a baby sister, and thrilled again at age 9 when they gave me another one. (This was my perception: my parents always gave me a doll for Christmas, so when they thought I was mature enough, they gave me a live baby to play with instead, then rewarded me for responsible baby-tending by giving me another one.) In time, I introduced both my sisters to my imaginary world and made up bedtime stories for them. When I progressed from sewing doll clothes to sewing clothes for myself, I also made clothes for my sisters for special occasions.

When our parents planned to go out, they always told me, “You’re in charge of the house.”

In our parents’ absence, my sisters told me, “You’re not the boss of me.” In due course my sisters grew up, as children do, and acquired lives of their own that did not include me.

In the meanwhile, I fantasized about mothering a daughter. If big sisterhood had its charms, motherhood would probably be even better. Surely a mother-daughter relationship would be unbreakable.

An image of my daughter appeared in my dreaming mind. She always had darker eyes, hair and skin than mine or my sisters', but that didn't surprise me. Many of my friends, starting in my teens, could be described as some flavour other than white bread, and I assumed that the father of my future child would come from my current dating circle.

I wanted to create a baby girl of my own in the same way I could create a story. However, I knew that "unwed" motherhood was associated with deep shame, poverty and squalor, so I thought that any baby I might compose would have to be co-authored by a man who would be willing to share the credit and the responsibility.

I was vaguely aware that baby boys were considered preferable in most cultures.
Having no brothers, I had no idea how to raise a son, assuming this would have to be done differently from raising a daughter. Unfortunately, I also had no idea how to conceive a child that was guaranteed to be female.

I seriously considered being childless (or "child-free" as the Zero Population Growth crowd call it) for life, officially because I didn't want to add to global overcrowding, but actually so that I could launch a writing career while holding down a necessary day job. I wasn't sure I could become the grown-up self I wanted to be if I had to juggle raising an unpredictable child with all my other roles.

The beautiful brown baby girl in my dreams would not go away.

I learned that most men want sex sooner rather than later, and prefer not to worry about possible consequences. Pregnancy seemed to me to be a curse, not a blessing: a humiliating medical condition inflicted on fertile women by individual men who also wanted us all to be barefoot and in the kitchen, or by a natural order that wanted the human race to continue at any expense.

I felt very lucky to have dodged that bullet. I educated myself about birth control, and usually used several methods at once.

Then I met and lived with a man who wanted to marry me. As a child-free adult, I didn't consider this level of commitment to be necessary, but I was impressed by his proposal. I said yes.

After much discussion, I agreed to have one baby. I wouldn't promise to have any more without further discussion.

Looking back, I realized that I wanted to start a new story: the word (or the idea) made flesh, as various religious sources describe the creation of the world.

When my beautiful brown baby girl was born, I felt as if I had written my first novel. She seemed to be the completion of a fantasy that had been gestating for years.

When her father threatened to take her away from me forever, I escaped with her and stayed in a shelter for a week. My parents invited us to live with them while I furthered my education in order to support us, so Daughter and I lived in the family home for two years.

I learned, or relearned, that stories are an essential part of everyone’s childhood. I told Daughter all the stories I could remember from her father about her royal Nigerian roots. (Her father’s ancestry has been explained in books on the history of the Niger Delta – in the culture of 1900, she would have had a social status roughly equivalent to that of Princess Anne’s daughter.) Her grandparents and aunts told her stories about our family, including my place in it. She was nurtured on stories.

Conflict within any family can be defined as a credibility gap between clashing stories.

In due course, my daughter grew up, moved away, married and had two children. Like her aunts, my daughter has cut me out of her life for reasons that seem valid to her.

My relationships with the young have taught me that no one can control them, and even fictional characters, if imagined vividly enough, seem to have lives and wills of their own. My own stories about past happiness still comfort me. In some sense, it doesn’t matter how much is verifiably “true.”

I can no longer produce an actual baby, but whenever I focus on the world inside my head, I realize that many story-eggs are still in there, waiting to be brought to life. Like breast-milk, inspiration seems to increase with use. The stories of the living haven’t ended yet. Stay tuned.


  1. Wow. Such an intense story, Jean.

    It pulls at my heart.

    So true, we cannot control our kids, and that the best characters in our fiction exhibit this same independence.

    As a result, sometimes finishing a story can be both exhilarating and depressing. Sometimes letting go of a story, admitting that this last edit pass is the final one, can be a struggle. I'm going through that now.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I love this, Jean. In comparing your daughter to a story (or a novel), you're sharing your enduring passion for her, as well as your naivete - perhaps "simple faith" might be a closer reading.

    We'd love to believe that children are our creations. Certainly we shape them (as I'm sure you did with the stories you told your daughter). Ultimately they're wild cards - the product of chance genetic collisions as well as unpredictable events. And as soon as they're out of the womb, they begin to make their own choices.

    I find it a small miracle, though, that your daughter did indeed turn out to be much like you imagined her.

    And I sincerely hope that at some point you and she will be reconciled.