She brings stuff up at bedtime. Most five year-olds do; they don’t want to be left alone to sleep. She likes when I tell her stories in the dark. I rub her back. Who wouldn’t like all that?
Aside: bedtime can—if I let it—take forever.
Anyway, here’s one from this past week or so: “Tell me about when I was in your tummy.” As I’ve written about before, sometimes she has mentioned this idea that she was in my tummy and I’ve let it go, when I realized that not every wish has to be hit on the head with a reminder that you weren’t in my tummy. Once, this happened when we visited a former babysitter in the hospital with her one-day old baby boy, and all the grandparents. They didn’t know she is adopted, and it didn’t seem like the moment to tell the whole story. Other times, we’ve been alone and I’ve kind of let the moment slide by. Mostly, though, I say something along the lines of, “Remember that you weren’t in my tummy? Whose tummy were you in?” and she does remember and then I remind her—again and again and again—how we were waiting for her and she came into my arms and all that stuff.
This past week when she posed the question about time in my tummy, I realized what she wanted was a story about herself when she was teeny-tiny. The tummies weren’t the subject; she was the hoped-for subject. “Do you remember that you weren’t in my tummy?” I asked. “Whose tummy?” She told me Auntie Cece, her voice inflecting to a question. “Yes,” I replied, “but do you want to know about when you were just born?” She nodded.
And so I told her everything about how tiny she was, a feather in my arms, and how she was quite red—as most babies are—and it took a little while to get more pink, the way babies get. I talked about her long fingers and the way you could see light right through her fingernails, which were translucent. I described how her eyes were dark and big and round and glassy and how her lips were so pink. “You had so much dark hair, a whole headful,” I said. “Most babies don’t.” I added, “I loved you instantly so very much the very second I first held you. I’d been waiting for you and there you were, finally.”
She loved every detail. My a-ha moment was so obvious I couldn’t believe how long it took me to really “get” it: sometimes, when she asks about those in your tummy memories what she’s looking for isn’t a big explanation about whose tummy and whose arms, she’s really looking for details like you fit in my arms and you had ten little toesies. Of course she wants to know about when she was a baby. That’s fascinating. She wants to know about when she was a goopy, messy toddler learning to eat pasta with tomato sauce, too—and how she figured out fashionable ways to wear all that redness.
In the midst of a tummy and baby conversation a few weeks ago (another aside: they really don’t happen all the time), she asked why she didn’t go to Auntie Cece since she’d been in her tummy. I felt a swift kick to stomach sensation. Rather than responding from that feeling, I remembered that however loaded this might feel for me; I feared her feeling rejected, there was always a possibility that one day the question would elicit a wish she’d gone there not here. My job wasn’t to race ahead, though. I kept it very simple. I decided in that moment it wasn’t a big existential query. It was just why? “Auntie Cece felt like she wasn’t really able to raise a baby the way she wanted for you to grow up, with another parent and some brothers,” I said. “She thought this was your family and plus you get Auntie Cece and your grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, too.”
“I want to be here, with my mommy,” she declared and hugged me very tightly.
“I want you to be here. I love being your mommy,” I replied and met her hug with an equally big squeeze.
Together, we seem to discover the story. We note the details. As we bumble through, I see two important components to my narrative: she was the cutest little thing and she’s as loved as she could possibly be loved. Less is more, but more love is more love and there we have it. Will it get more complicated? Sure. But not all at once—by the time she delves into harder questions—if she does—she will feel secure about her own preciousness and about how loved she is, by us all.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.