In his wordy and occasionally sentimentalised book Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon discusses the lives of ‘different’ children and the parents who care for them. For Solomon, different children are those who are gay or transgender or intersex, or who are the product of rape, or who have a disability or a mental illness, or who are deaf or prodigies or have autism or dwarfism, or who become criminals.
When I became the very young father of a different child, it soon became clear to her mother and me how very un-different everyone else preferred her to be. One of the illuminating understandings that come with parenting a different child is how effectively childhood has been de-politicised, and how narrow and arid our perceptions of childhood are – and, by extension, how narrow and arid our perceptions of ourselves are. The parent of the different child is continually forced up against valorised and claustrophobic models of childhood that can’t work.
When my daughter was in high school, her art teacher nicknamed her The Hatchet Queen, an acknowledgement of her refusal to follow any artistic instruction to the letter. She would instead offer back to her teachers something both odd and transgressive, a reworking of the rules of engagement.
When she was five years old, my parents bought her mother and me a handcrafted rosewood coffee table they had found at a country market. It was their contribution to what they felt was a bohemian lifestyle.
The surface of the table was polished to a deep reflective lustre. One afternoon my daughter took a penknife and with great dedication carved into it a picture of herself and our house. Surfaces, she seemed to be saying, are for inscription. And perhaps she was also speaking of all the ways that she herself felt inscribed by many things that she examined and then butchered in order to re-grammar them.
When I’m talking with my now adult daughter, I often feel that I am holding the entire timeline of my life with her in my head. This can become absurdly disorienting, like watching a movie in which there is a screening of another film about the same characters that itself contains another film about them and so on.
Twenty-four hours after my daughter was born, her mother’s close friend – who many years later became a noted photographer, known for getting beneath the skin of the images we use to describe and imprison women’s experiences – took a photograph of the new mother. She is sitting up in the steel-framed hospital bed gazing directly into the eye of the camera, into the eyes of the viewer. And even when I think of the photograph – a black-and-white eight-by-ten, developed in a homemade darkroom – what is carried across the years from the young woman who has just given birth to her only child is the overwhelming certainty that she is looking directly at me, now.
Our days were long and the nights longer, as full of unrepeatable moments of happiness as they were of tiny disasters. Relatives and other spectators gathered to coo uncertainly over the baby girl and then retreated to their homes to tut-tut over such young parents and wonder what would become of them.
Even the most straightforward birth is a cataclysmic event. It is too easy for mother and baby to struggle to find each other, the mother grieving for what she cannot express and for what she thinks she cannot do or believes she does not have, while the baby strives to find its way across a dark and unimaginable space.
As young parents we were smart, loved one another, and knew at the same time that the world was not well disposed to babies and those who cared for them. We were poor, we only had each other and the world seemed to speak a sterile and colourless language in which the troubles of a baby could never be acknowledged. It was a world with little mercy.
Mothering is not solely the property of the mother, something carried by her in the way that she carries her baby. To believe this is to create unique ways in which we abandon babies and their mothers to loneliness. It’s so strange that, even though we have all – doctors, beggars, dictators, bakers, politicians – been babies, we have so little public interest in how mothers and babies learn about each other’s minds.
I’ve lost that post-natal photograph now, as so many things have been lost. But somehow across the tidal reaches of grief and confusion, my daughter and her mother discovered how to bring joy to one another. It’s a remarkable thing that they somehow learned how to make up love as they went along, that out of the unrepeatable experience of the birth they both shared they inexplicably managed to salvage a creative, ramshackle, never-ending structure of happiness, that has bridged the years with the only thing worth reflecting on for any of us, no matter who we are: the memories of how we did or didn’t care for each other.