One of my favorite quotations comes from an uninspiring-sounding source: Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Oxford. He wrote, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”
When I first read those words, I was a teenager – so all tragedy, all feeling. Today, I know that few of us are all one or the other. Life’s a comedy when we think, a tragedy when we feel, and this is absolutely true of parenthood, every single day.
This sounds a little melodramatic, and I guess it is. That’s why it’s a bit of a cliché, a joke, when mothers cry the first time they leave their babies with someone else, and hover at the classroom door the first time they leave their kids at school, or have to be forklifted off the college campus at the start of freshman year. But if we really let ourselves feel, how else can we react? Today is your third birthday, tomorrow your first day of preschool. This means that a person who once lived inside my body is going to walk off into a classroom without me, and stay there.
Thus begins a life in which you experience things that neither of your parents witness or hear about. You will have infinite interactions, some of which you might remember forever, with kids I’ve never seen before. In our particular case, you will learn nursery rhymes and songs that I don’t even know. Yeah, yeah, that’s life. But on another level, it’s deeply weird. Tonight, as I sit here next to your folded-up uniform and shiny new backpack, it’s still all but unfathomable to me.
I’m not anticipating a nervous breakdown or anything. I will be on my way to work, and you will be so excited about everything that it will be contagious. One thing I’ve learned about the endless separation that starts at birth, however, is that it can jump up and smack you in the face unexpectedly. Just last week, I popped your baby carrier into a clothes hamper so we can clean it and hand it off to a family member who is expecting. No big deal. But when I turned back and saw the empty hook where it’s hung for three years, I got that now-familiar punch to the stomach: I’ll never walk you to sleep in that sling again.
What’s a woman to do?
Not much, although as the Earl of Oxford suggested, thinking sometimes helps. While the endings of your babyhood are ghastly for my heart, my brain has to admit that your three-year-old self is increasingly interesting. We have watched you navigate crawling, walking, spoons, keys, but now we are starting to see you navigate worlds as well. Languages. Cultures. Every day we see new islands emerge from your multinational brine of families, friends, Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse, “Paco y Lola.” You can speak English like a New Englander, a surfer dude, a pirate, a fussy British lady – or, for some reason, a knight (“Here you are, my lady,” you say as you hand me a flower). You speak Spanish like your father (“manda huevo,” you said the other day), or like a younger Costa Rican (“Qué chiva,” you’ve started to proclaim, a phrase your dad wouldn’t be caught dead uttering), or like a friendly older señora.
“Mire, zapatillas. Pero ¡qué lindas!” you said to me encouragingly when I got home from work the other day and took off my high heels. You smiled after paying my shoes this compliment, then slipped your own tiny feet into them and clacked away.
I came to realize this: as a foreigner, I’ve learned to make myself at home among many groups of people, even though I belong to very few of them (in fact, at this point, I only truly belong when I’m among those who have made a similar journey). You, by contrast, have all those people within you. I am a ship in a sea I have come to know and love; you are the sea itself, the shifting waves. I know where I am from, and so do the people who look at me. Will that be true of you? It depends on many things: where the future takes us, how your languages play out on your lips, what you end up making of the cultures you are given, whether you decide to dig in or set sail for yourself.
You like to say that things are “the same,” especially the two of us: “Look, Mom, you and I are the same.” I don’t quite know what you mean – sometimes you’re referring to the fact that we’re wearing the same color, but sometimes it’s out of the blue. I love it when you say this. I wish it could be true, always. I don’t like there to be differences between us, and distance, even though I know that’s what the future holds. When I feel my way through that fact, it is a tragedy. When I think through it instead, however, I realize that those differences are fascinating. Watching that web weave itself will be its own pleasure.
My brain tells my heart what my heart can’t quite comprehend: that you are not mine. That you are more like a shooting star I’m flying alongside. One of my other favorite quotations says that the best marriages are between people who see each other not as possessions, but rather as fellow creatures. I think this applies to parents and children as well, although it is more of an aspiration than a realistic goal. All bets are off when you have breathed in the smell of a person’s warm newborn head like a junkie. No amount of brainpower in the world can restore your nonchalance after that.
When I drop you off tomorrow, I’ll join a proud tradition of parents taking a right hook to the heart, time and time again throughout a lifetime of goodbyes both small and big. I’ll remind myself not to flinch, to take it all in. In today’s parlance, I’ll feel all the feels. But as I walk off in my zapatillas, I’ll be thinking, too.
I’ll laugh to myself about the moment the teachers will realize you think you’re in charge, and the moment you’ll realize they think they’re in charge. I’ll wonder who will emerge victorious. I’ll imagine what your little classmates will make of a girl who charges around saying, “I have a hypothesis!” and “Oh my goommess GRACIOUS!” and setting up tea parties on the floor. I’ll estimate how long it will take you to realize they don’t understand the language you’re speaking, and how that will play out in your head.
I’ll look for the comedy, which with you is never very far away.
I’ll remember that if we were the same forever, truly identical, inseparable, we would eventually have nothing to talk about. We’d have no notes to compare, no stories to tell. No endless infancy is worth that, I suppose, no baby slings or teeny tiny socks. No amount of nostalgia can keep me back – or that’s what I’ll tell myself. Vive la différence, because I’ve waited a long time to talk to you.
Happy birthday to my favorite girl, and happy first day of school.