Published on October 26th, 2021 | by Margaret MacInnis2
She Needs Me
My three-year-old daughter Lila, facing another day home from preschool, said she needed me. Soft, pink, and warm with fever, she sat curled beside me on the sofa, pointing at pictures in her Sesame Street Dictionary that lay open in my lap. The mesh wings of her new fairy costume brushed against my cheek when she turned to look at me.
Her exact words were, “I need you, Mommy.” I noticed that she no longer said, “Mummy,” the way I did when I spoke on the phone to my native Massachusettsan mother. Here on our sofa in Iowa City, the Midwestern in Lila’s chirp of a voice temporarily distracted me from the flutter in my chest.
“I’m right here, Lila,” I assured her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good,” she said, and I lowered my face to hers. As I pressed my mouth to her forehead, offering a half-kiss, half-fever-check, wisps of blonde hair tickled my forehead.
“I think you need me, too.”
The new truth of my life, as revealed by my three-year-old, floated in the space around us.
The thought of my needing her, and of her sensing this need, unsettled me. I reminded myself that I did not need my daughter to take care of me, neither emotionally nor physically; I did not need her to help navigate me through the day, reminding me of commitments and obligations; I did not need her near me declaring her love for me to feel worthy of being alive. No, I did not need her that way.
What I needed was for her to be healthy, happy, and safe from harm. When we were in the house alone, I needed her to be where I could see her, for I did not trust the silence when she was out of my line of vision. I needed to hear her laughing, and if she could not because tantrum or temperament had gotten the best of her, then I needed to be there to comfort her.
I could not be with her every moment, though. In addition to the one or two or three classes I taught each semester, I also worked as a personal assistant to a writer-professor, answering her emails and helping manage her busy schedule. Since I could not be with Lila every moment of every day, I needed to know that her babysitter was kind, attentive, and even-keeled. When Lila was an unborn child in my womb, I needed to know she was getting everything she needed, so I ate as healthfully as I could, read and reread my favorite novels—Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home— aloud to her, and I prayed. What sustained me, I thought as I ate, read, and prayed, would sustain her.
As Lila grew inside me, I needed to feel, and better yet, see her tiny foot or hand moving across my swollen belly. Oh, the relief such movement brought. At the weekly check-ups in my last month of pregnancy—“advanced maternal age,” the doctors called me—I needed to hear the thump of Lila’s heartbeat, loud, strong, and otherworldly.
And as I was thinking of what I needed from my daughter, smoothing her fairy wings, I heard myself speak.
“You’re my life.”
In that instant, I felt as if my parents, who they were when I was Lila’s age, were in the room with us. “You’re my life” has conjured them: my mother, nineteen when I was three, stood in the living room doorway, wearing one of my father’s old white T-shirts, the whites of her dark brown eyes red from crying. She was sad, always sad, except when she was angry, but the outbursts of full-blown rage were years away. My father, at twenty-seven, stood beside her, wearing a new white T-shirt and jeans, starched and ironed to perfection. His eyes were red too, red-rimmed from another drinking binge and days without sleep, his eventual sobriety unfathomable. Over four decades separated my adult self from my young parents, yet there they stood demanding my attention.
I had to ignore them. I had to find a way to undo what I’d done. What I’d said.
Lila came first.
But that did not mean she was my life. I would not raise my child to believe such a thing. My thoughts seemed directed toward the two in the doorway. I felt as if they were pulling me out of the present moment with Lila, pulling me toward them. How much energy it took sometimes to deal with them.
Lila grounded me in the moment when she tilted her head away from the dictionary again, and looked into my eyes.
“I’m not your life, Mommy,” she said, sounding so serious that I had to smile.
“You’re not?” I said, relieved.
“Silly, Mommy. I’m Lila.”
It has been over three years since Lila’s declaration, I strive to be mindful of the words I speak to her and to others while in her presence. It isn’t always easy, especially since my parents cast a long shadow over the woman I want to be.
When I held newborn Lila in my arms, every ounce of her an affirmation of life, I was forty-two, the same age my father was one the afternoon when he held a revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger. At forty-two, with Lila’s father, Ryan, I was embracing a new life, literally and figuratively, while remembering how the father I once adored—the father whom part of me would always adore—had thrown his away. I was the reason he was alive, I’d heard most of my childhood. In the months that became years following his suicide, I wondered what had changed, wondered how I had failed him.
“You’re the reason I’m alive,” my father told my mother when he was twenty-four and she was fifteen, and then sixteen, and then three months pregnant and a new bride. She believed my father, and would believe him for years to come, and, in the quiet of her heart, despite their divorce and his subsequent death, she may still believe him.
In my earliest days of motherhood, my thoughts would drift from Lila in my arms to my father to my mother, sixteen, holding a newborn in her arms, and tending a new husband who needed as much care as her infant did. While watching Lila sleep, I imagined my mother barefooted and pony-tailed reaching into the crib. She didn’t understand why I was crying, why I was always crying, why I would not stop until I was nestled between her and my father in their bed. Many nights my mother did not sleep. She lay awake watching me, watching my father, making sure that in his drunken torpor, he didn’t roll over on me. I like to think that had my father rolled over on me, he would have woken up; he would not have smothered me to death.
While expecting Lila, I could not have fathomed the extent to which becoming a mother would awaken the daughter in me, that slightly wounded, slightly angry, slightly smothered daughter. In the stillness of my own heart, in the open doorway of who I was and who I will become, I ask myself what else is there to do as I move forward but heal the wounds, confront the anger, and let the smothered girl breathe? What else can I do but mother her?
She needs me.