By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
“You love Gabriel better than me.” My daughter’s eyes are twin moons of accusation, trying hard to eclipse a bright hurt that nevertheless flares out at the edges.
“That’s ridiculous.” I hold her gaze, concentrating on the anger that brought me here—to the doorway of her room—after driving her inside by the tone of my voice. She is ten years old, her brother five; they’d been battling over a toy and she’d wrenched it away hard enough to cause injury, screaming that she’d had it first. Of course I’d scolded her. She’s older, stronger. She should know better. In truth, my anger has faded; Gabriel’s fine. But I keep my expression stern because underneath the solid mask of righteousness is a creeping fissure of doubt.
Abigail has accused me for so long of preferring her brother that I’m beginning to believe it. I do feel differently about my children. One is a preteen girl, the other a kindergarten boy. One challenges me on a regular basis: slamming doors, stamping feet, talking back, and throwing fits. And it’s not the kindergartner.
Gabriel’s at a golden age. When I was pregnant, my friend—who’s the mother of two sons—told me, “You’re lucky; boys adore their mamas.” I see now what she meant. In my son’s eyes, I can do no wrong. Every day, he showers me with kisses and compliments like, “You are the prettiest mommy in the whole wide world,” and, “I love you more than my whole life.” What’s a heart to do but melt?
Physically, my relationships with my children are worlds apart. Gabriel snuggles with me on the couch, strokes my hair when I read his bedtime story, and holds my hand in the grocery store. Abigail is five feet tall; she requires the whole couch to sprawl out. She’s done holding hands. Sometimes I catch her staring at me when Gabriel’s securely folded in my lap or when I wake him with a trill of butterfly kisses. I feel guilty, wondering when I last held her beyond a quick hug or let a kiss linger on her cheek. But Abigail’s body is so firmly her own; the girl that used to pee with the door open now locks it to brush her teeth, and once when I walked into her bedroom as she was changing clothes, she pinned her arms across her chest and ordered me to leave. Gabriel’s body still seems mine to claim: always angled toward me, always receptive to affection. He makes it easy.
Abigail’s hands curl into fists. “You DO love him better,” she snaps, and I sense the tremor in her voice is not a preteen’s anger but a child’s fear. As a parent, there are times to respect boundaries and times to cross them. I cross the room and take her in my arms.
“Leave me alone!” she twists and shoves but I hold her anyway, closer than I have in too long. Her slim frame thrums like a live wire, but the fall of hair against my cheek is as soft as when she was a newborn. I remember how I was so in love with that baby, I couldn’t sleep. How those early years we lived—just the two of us—on the brink of poverty in tiny apartments, but I felt I would never need anything more than my gorgeous dark-haired girl. How the first time Abbey’s father took her for a week-long vacation, when she was three, I called my friend and said, “I need to stay with you for a week. Because I can’t be here without her.”
As a mother, it’s easy to lose confidence. Oh, but how can I cater to such lazy indulgence, when what my child needs right now is for me to show strength and total conviction? I tell myself, I am absolutely certain that I’ve never loved anyone more than this child in my arms. This child. My daughter. And it’s true. That’s the gift of our girls: they bring us to the center of ourselves, demanding we examine our hearts and face every flaw, making us better mothers. While our sons thrust us on pedestals, it’s our daughters who force us to balance.
Abbey’s resistance falls away and she wraps her arms around me. “Abigail,” I say, “you know how much I love you, and—” I can’t tell her I love her more than Gabriel, and it isn’t enough to say I love her just as much. So I whisper what’s hers that he can never have. “—remember that I loved you first.”
Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website http://www.