(For Kenyon, on her 11th birthday)
When my first daughter Kenyon was born eleven years ago, I knew I was in trouble. Or I should have known, if I’d read the signs.
When the nurse took her over to the scale, Kenyon looked her right in the eye with an expression that didn’t belong on a newborn’s face. It was the cagey, slit-eyed look of a prisoner guarding his food or a prizefighter deciding where to send the next punch. The nurse chuckled nervously. “I think your baby is staring me down,” she said, and we laughed like clueless fools.
Kenyon’s first word was “no” and she’d scream it over and over until she either got what she wanted or yelled herself to sleep. When learning to crawl, she once backed herself under a chair and she got so mad she kicked the chair over. Then she crawled over to it and kicked it again. Bad chair. She probably would have set it on fire if she knew where I kept the matches.
Once when she was two, I refused her something—I can’t remember exactly what she wanted, maybe candy or a new toy or to go up on our roof without any clothes on or something like that— but I do remember how she marched into my closet, put her hands on her hips and, before I could raise a finger, she was peeing all over my shoes.
Funny how something can be appalling and appealing at the same time, how surprise, insult, and outrage can make you laugh even harder. With Kenyon, I’m often giggling and wincing simultaneously, and when she comes up with a real doozie, I always write it down. When her father and I showered her with kisses, she was always quick to push us away. “Take that kiss off!” she’d gripe, “I have enough kisses on me today,” and then she’d wipe her lips with disgust. When I tried to hold her in my lap, she’d yell, “I am not your baby. I ate your baby!” and run away.
“You poop on my party every day!” she said. With Kenyon, every day is a party, or more precisely, it’s a roast—you know, an event where they toast you with insults then hoist you onto a rotisserie over a fire and talk about all the things you’ve done wrong while they turn the crank? The skewer turns are painful and slow but you’re supposed to laugh to prove what a sport you are. “You’re a little baby with a mother’s body and you don’t know how to do the dishes!” She sasses with a smile. “If you were as nice as Santa, I’d like you much better.” She sings from the back seat of the car: “I’m the daughter of the heavy huffer, the cheese-eater, the big fat no-no!” If I had a dime for every time she’s said she hated me, I could buy myself a suit of armor and a shield decorated with semi-precious jewels; I could afford therapy.
Once, during a quarrel with her father, she picked up the phone. “I’m going to call 911,” she warned him. “Hello, police? Come pick up my dad and put him in the jail and never let him go.” She listened to the dial tone for a moment, then turned to him with a smug little smile and said, “You better hide, dad, the cops are coming!” Another day before school I walked her to the bus stop and she asked me, with a straight face, “Are there any bad words I don’t know?” I doubted myself when I said that yes, there were many bad words she doesn’t know, to which she responded, “Yay! I’m going to learn more bad words! I bet you can’t wait to hear what I have to say!”
Her willpower is overwhelming. Even when it’s not aimed at me, the sheer force of her nervy ingenuity knocks me over. She scores off the charts on all math tests even though I can hardly help her with the easiest problems. So she helps herself, slaps the book shut and announces, “I just did so much math I forgot how old I am.” She reads at least 300 pages a day in between classes and other activities and she hates me in all caps if I don’t let her read over her dinner. She tells the truth, even when it’s ugly or inconvenient. She joined the basketball team, even though she’s the shortest girl in her class, she didn’t bother to mention that she’d been elected class president. At school, she’s everybody’s friend.
The trouble is, I thought it would be a challenge to raise a strong female but I never realized that her strength would not come from me, that it would exist despite me, in spite of me, to spite me, indomitably. The trouble is that she was born this way: a force to be reckoned with, a reckoning force. The problem is that I love her—or maybe that’s not the trouble at all, perhaps that’s the solution. Generations ago, they probably would have tried beat it out of her with a stick, but my job is not to change her or shame her or whittle her down. My job is to love her, admire her strength, and help her figure out how to use it.
My mantra is recognize, receive, and reflect. (I’m writing it down to remind myself because sometimes I forget, sometimes it’s not easy.) I see her. I take her in. I write it down as a way to reflect and honor who she is. It’s the best I can do. I kiss the back of her head, I pull her into my lap, I make her stop at the door for a hug and I always hold her until she pulls away. When she runs and hides, I watch her from afar like an admirer with binoculars. She feels my eyes on her, she knows I’m there and occasionally, she’ll turn around and smile.
Once, she gave me an uncharacteristic hug and told me I look like Disneyland. My heart grew ten sizes before I could stop myself, but then I paused: “Hey, wait a minute. Do you mean like a fun rollercoaster or scary like a haunted house? Are you calling me goofy?”
She smiled her Cheshire smile and patted my hand. “Oh, mom, why do you always over-think things?”
(All words in quotation marks are real quotes and the images come from a book I’m making in which I illustrate things she says.)