Liane Kupferberg Carter
The Hanna Anderson catalog of children´s clothing arrived today. I pore over the pink striped stretchies, diminutive sun dresses and dotted pink diaper covers. Then I fill out the order form: yellow long johns, red socks, cobalt underwear. Nothing pink.
I long for pink. I long for pink eyelet and satin, for pink tulle dancing clothes and puffy pink wall hangings, for pink striped wall paper and sheets to match, a surfeit, a riot of pink. I want a little girl who will wear that pink. A daughter to read The Secret Garden to aloud, who will adore me until she decides at twelve that I know nothing and am totally worthless, who will roll her eyes in embarrassment and not let me hug her in public. A daughter who will return to me at the end of her adolescence, as boys seldom do.
I am the mother of sons. There is no one who takes my last pair of pantyhose; no one who uses my makeup; no one who borrows my best silk blouse without asking. A bridesmaid, not a bride, I tend other women’s daughters. I tie their sashes, braid their hair, buy them the books I loved as a child. “Look,” my college roommate says, pulling me into her bedroom. “You won’t believe how cute this is. I can’t wait till you have a daughter.” My heart pinches as she pulls out a miniature Victorian vision in grey wool and exquisite white lace. “How did you know exactly what Jamie wanted for her birthday?” another friend says. “You don’t even have girls.”
No. I don’t. I’d always assumed I would. Until the moment we saw our second baby swimming on the ultrasound screen, I hadn’t even given much thought to boys’ names, so sure was I that this one would be a girl. I don’t mean to wallow; I know how fortunate I am to be able to have children. But the sadness I sometimes feel isn’t about my gentle, handsome sons, but rather about loss: relinquishing a lifelong fantasy. I would have been such a good mother to a girl.
"Do you think about trying once more?" I ask a friend with two sons. She is philosophical. "If you go for a third, it shouldn´t be because you want a girl," she says. "Do it because you want another baby."
It is unlikely I will have a third child. There are health considerations. I am forty; my husband forty-two, just past the age at which his own father was dead of a heart attack. There is much else that he, I -- and we -- want to do. Cruise the Aegean. Write a novel. Explore the Galapagos. Rent a villa in Tuscany. I do not want to be an elderly parent, more grandparent than mother to a school-age child. And even if we were to defer our lives a few more years, what guarantee that the next child would be a girl? (In fact, male twins run in my family.)
"Too bad we don´t live in China," I tell my husband. "I´d be revered." He eyes the frilly baby clothes I’ve just bought.
"Don´t get any funny ideas," he says. "Ernest Hemingway´s mother dressed him as a girl, and look how he turned out."
Some people prefer to be surprised in the labor room; for me, knowing in advance was better. It allowed me time to get used to the idea. Yet throughout the pregnancy, the fantasies persisted. One day, needing a gift for a friend´s child, I roamed the toy store till I found an ivory satin drawstring purse filled with faux pearls, magic wand, tinsel tiara and marabou boa. It was retro-feminine and cost enough to outfit a real-life princess. I bought it anyway.
"You´re sublimating this wish for a daughter by buying gifts for other little girls," says a friend who’s an armchair psychologist. Maybe. So what? I take pleasure in buying for my sons too. I´m happy to say my five-year-old loves the Madeline books, swaddles his favorite stuffed bear, and refers to his stuffed animals as his babies. But he also loves collecting rocks, shooting baskets and playing Power Rangers. I encourage it all, as I feel my way through the tricky process of teaching him to be sensitive without being a wimp. I work hard to teach my sons what I value most: empathy, kindness, and compassion, coupled with assertiveness and humor -- the same things I would teach a daughter.
I need to hold this thought, especially when a friend with two daughters says careless, salt-in-the-wound things like, "you have no idea how wonderful it is having girls." Or when I browse at Bloomingdale´s, women who exclaim over my baby invariably ask if I have other children, and then, learning I have two boys, mow me down with sympathy that feels uncomfortably like pity.
Sometimes I can joke about it, telling friends I want a daughter so someone will take care of me in my old age. I tell my husband this is his doing: years ago, we saw a movie called "Baby, It´s You," in which a lonely girl at college invites a boy she doesn´t know to spend the night. My husband leaned in, grabbed my knee and hissed, "We are not having girls."
That was it, I tell him now: his Y Chromosome Curse.
In darker moments, I wonder if I am getting the best of my boys now, and imagine how in years to come my friends with daughters will never be lonely. Sometimes the yearning is so intense that I wonder if I am in the grip of some biological imperative to clone myself. Perhaps it is my own mother I seek: the unindividuated closeness of early childhood, a fantasy of unconditional love and acceptance.
So I nurture a secret: a sassy, dark-haired, sensitive, might-have-been daughter for whom I will never buy a prom dress, to whom I will never give a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves as I send her off to college, even as I stand knee-deep in real life, raising two boys and knowing with absolute certainty that I would lay down my life for them.
This is it for me. And yet, I cannot quite part with the cartons of infant clothes, the outgrown bassinet, the crib sheets yellowing with age. I know I could give these things away and still have another baby, but to part with these totems of parenthood is to relinquish the miraculous power and possibility of giving birth. I´m not ready to let go yet. But when my five-year-old nestles his flushed face into my neck and whispers I love you, when I see the radiance of my eight-month-old´s smile as he pushes up on Popeye arms to offer his first word, a breathy, excited "hi!", I feel very, very lucky to have these sons.