To Jane on her second birthday:
In a stubby board book I bought for you about the seasons, summer is described as the time when trees bear fruit. You point out apples on this page. These really come in the fall, which I plan to show you some October day, but the point still stands: There is a rhythm to life, and we are a part of it.
In fact, people spend a lot of time trying to harmonize with that rhythm, measuring their lives in milestones: marriage by this age, a house by that, twice your salary (or more) saved by age 35, and so on and so forth, with different numbers appointed as goals for certain achievements or upward limits on particular necessities. It suggests there is a paint-by-numbers logic to life, and if you follow along, the completed picture adds up to happiness. I am theorizing here, because I sort of got it out of order.
I was 24 when I found out I was pregnant with you. This came as a surprise to me and your dad, who had been married for just a year and, at the time, were living in a one-bedroom, yellow-walled English basement. We were saving for various things, and nudging other beads on the abacus along just so. And then: you.
We were as wondrously struck by the news as one would be by anything that could theoretically happen — a meteorite landing in your front yard, or a nearby supernova briefly giving the impression of twin suns in the sky. I must have taken a dozen tests. We Googled “how to get an OB-GYN.” I was still on my mom’s insurance, which didn’t cover maternity care for dependents. We sorted it out — and thus began the unceremonious cutting of last cords, the growing-up-in-a-hurry, the scuttling of plans.
As you entered time — reckoned for your kind first in weeks, then months, then finally in years — I stepped out of it. There had been certain discussions — one or the other of us writing a book, embarking on some new work project, going back to graduate school, making a career change. But, presently, we needed a spot to put a crib and a lot of towels — we were very low on towels. All my concerns became concrete and immediate. Time was suspended. Some things would have to wait, and some would never happen.
When friends my age ask me about having an unexpected baby on the younger side for our cohort, this is what they ask about: time. There is a rich, complex literature about this now, about what one exchanges in return for a kid — people say “freedom,” but what that means is time. Time for your work, time for your friends, time for your personal projects, time for your romantic or erotic interests, or time to think long thoughts; much of your time is, in fact, time of mine that used to be earmarked in various ways, now repurposed. My friends ask me if I am ever bothered by this new scheme of appropriation.
And here, on the occasion of your second birthday, is my answer, as best I can understand it: The great effort to hit all the right notes (in the right order) in the rhythm of life is all done in hopes of attaining happiness. But I’ve come to think it’s not having things at the end that makes people happy, but rather participating in the rhythm of life with joy. I think people want to create, not just to obtain; I think people want to touch the hem of forever while circumscribed by the here and now. For me, you made that possible. I was glad to put aside the prescribed order of things, the whole notion of organizing my priorities along some received set of principles, and to have the imperative to do so presented to me by this marvelous conspirator inside me.
Plato, whom I will tell you about one day, if you want me to — probably after we go apple-picking — says a wise woman called Diotima once told the great Socrates that giving birth is the mortal animal’s portion of immortality. These same Greeks thought bountiful spring and summer were the fruit of an eternal reunion of mother and daughter — another story I can tell you one day, if you want to hear. There are many such stories, and there is plenty of time. I used to worry so much about time. Now I don’t think it has so much of a hold on me anymore.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.