My daughter has lost three teeth this month: the two on the top, front and center, the ones you think of when you hear the phrase “missing teeth,” and one on the bottom right, next over from the middle. She lost her two bottom middle teeth last year, and they are still growing in, jagged along the top, so suddenly her smile is a ragged patchwork. We got corn on the cob from a street vendor last week in a park in Mexico City, and as soon as she walked away, she realized she couldn’t actually bite into it. We went back and the woman sliced it off the cob for her, into a plastic cup, so she was able to eat it with a spoon.
I remember right after she was born, looking at her tiny fingers, the nails so long and delicate. Their shape was totally unfamiliar to me; they were completely her own. I had my first jolt of recognition that this tiny creature I was holding, who had swam in my belly for the better part of the past year, was of me, but not me. She would have her own story.
I have cut those nails so many times since that day: once a week for seven and a half years, more than 390 times if my math is right. How many more times will I cut them? I stopped cutting her brother’s nails around this age, but that’s also when he started to spend time with his mother again, so I always assumed I had ceded the task back to her, handed her back that piece of motherhood. I don’t know when he started to cut them on his own. Maybe she helps him with it still. But I don’t think I will get to cut my daughter’s nails at 12, so immediate or not, my time with her nails is definitely drawing to a close.
Is it a strange thing to confess, that I love cutting my children’s nails? Of the numerous, mundane daily task of motherhood, it’s one of the few I really enjoy – especially the stillness of it, because they have to stop moving, and so do I. I also enjoy it because it feels like a tangible measure of caring, a reinforcement that the small things really do matter.
I remember falling in my kitchen when I was around 10 or 11 years old. My best friend and I were wrestling over something near the refrigerator and she pushed me hard. I lost my footing and fell backwards, hitting the back of my head on the base of our big oak table. No adult was home – I was what was called in those days (in an expression that drips of the 1980’s) a “latch-key” kid — so I got up and shook it off, and we went back to playing. It was only later that I found a clump of hair in the back of my head that had hardened from the blood. It felt almost like a braid, smooth at the center. Days later, sitting in math class, I reached up and felt the same crunchy mass, still hidden under the back of my hair, except now the blood, dried and black, flaked off under my nails when I touched it. No one had made me wash my hair since that happened; I had told no one about my fall. My childhood had space for this kind of secret, as well as more serious ones.
There is not much space in my children’s childhood for secrets. Part of that is me as a parent, and part of that is the world as it has become today. I don’t know if that is better or worse, but I know that it is.
The last thing I do every morning before the kids leave for school is brush Oona’s hair. When I travel for work, and Jeremy is solo with the three kids, he does things differently than I do. Accepting this is one of the costs that comes with being the parent who travels (which I would rather be than the one who stays behind). I know that Oona sometimes goes to school without her hair brushed, and although it is tacitly agreed that when I’m not there these are his choices to make, thinking about it makes me pretty crazy. I worry about the judgments of other parents – or really the other moms, because very few men notice that kind of thing. But more glaring that what anyone else could possibly think is my own judgment. My ability to complete these task properly is one of the ways I measure myself as a mother. Brushed hair, trimmed nails, clean faces. It’s love.
It’s also armor. Sending my children out into the world, they are protected by the time I have taken to care for them, the external confirmations of my love. Living with a man, I thought this kind of thinking was my own particular quirk, but it turns out that many women focus on these tasks. I read that women put a premium on visible acts of caring for their children, maybe because they know viscerally, in a way that most men can’t, how much the world will judge you based on looks.
There are a lot of children here in Mexico whose lives are very different from my kids’. There are children in the town where we live who sell things on the street, who don’t go to school. Yesterday I sat eating lunch with a friend, and three times, the same little boy came over to our table. He was probably four years old, and laden down with woven animals and keychains, carrying a little backpack with his name on it, or at least someone’s name. He kept pressing his wares at me, imploring me with his eyes, and yawning. He was a very tired baby, working.
Those poor kids, my friend said when he left. And those poor families, I said to her, to be in a place where their children have to work like that. Those aren’t always their kids, she said. She has lived here much longer than me, and works with people from the countryside around here, so she probably knows what she’s talking about. People up in the mountains rent out their kids to people who come into town to sell things. It’s why you see one adult with a whole bunch of kids. The kids are basically slaves. If you give them any money, it gets taken away immediately.
I don’t tell her that sometimes I do give them money, but more often I buy them ice cream cones It’s such a small thing, but it is all I can think to do in that moment to shine some light into their day.
My life was so much more padded in the States. I feel it whenever I go back, as soon as I step off the plane, back into the world of drinkable tap water. Every time I arrive at JFK my first stop is the water fountain, hunched over like a camel, drinking and drinking the delicious water. It is so much easier living there to ignore the uncomfortable realities, or at least to selectively experience them: the impact your choices have on other people, the gross disparities in wealth and luck. It is one of the things I both love and hate about being here. I want to see and feel those realities, because I think they make me a kinder, more open person, but I also have a hard time absorbing them. I feel overwhelmed sometimes by the sadness.
But this place, places like this, have no lock on sadness. Sadness is a part of everyone’s life. I took a happiness assessment recently that is part of a big, ongoing study, and it found that my answers indicated that I was happier than 80% of the people who has responded. I took the test because I am reading a book on happiness that mentioned it, and I am reading that book because I never feel truly happy, never really satisfied, and I want to understand why (I haven’t found the answer yet). But the book did say something that was I found fascinating. Happiness and unhappiness aren’t opposite sides of the same coin. They are measured independently. I can have a lot of happiness, as well as a lot of unhappiness. And that feels very true to me. Mothering small children has taught me like nothing else could the truth of how many simultaneous, opposing emotions I can hold: happy and unhappy, and joyful and bored, and frustrated and grateful, and already wistful for something I often can’t wait to end.