I lost my first daughter when I was 21. I was a college dropout living in a small town, barely a woman yet — barely a person, even — and certainly not making informed decisions about my future, my capacity for motherhood, or who I could be. Still, when I got pregnant unexpectedly, I couldn't bring myself to let the baby go. Five months later, she made the decision for me: a mid-term miscarriage, the fetus old enough that this was unforeseen, old enough that I had to be put under for surgery to excavate her from my body. Old enough that they knew she was a she.
Shaken, I spent the next 15 years in a life-on-fire montage. I put myself through college, I traveled, I moved to New York City. I fell in and out of love in reckless and quiet ways; drank too much; stayed up too late; made deep, wild connections with dangerous people and with wonderful ones too; worked diligently for professional success beyond what I'd dreamed. Eventually I met a good man, a kind man, an equal, a man who made me laugh. We rented an apartment in Brooklyn. We adopted two cats and made dinner and made friends and made a life and one perfect fall afternoon got married in City Hall. I wore a short white dress. Later, at the Rainbow Room, we danced to Etta James. Ten months later, I got pregnant for the second time.
It seems embarrassing to say this, but I desperately wanted a girl. Maybe it was because I never filled the hollow left by that early loss; maybe because in the ensuing years I had learned to love and appreciate women with a ferocity that overwhelmed and humbled me; maybe because I felt I'd become, despite my lingering foibles, a pretty good woman myself. But definitely because I felt I'd lived enough and understood how to raise a girl, to teach her to love her body, to be tenacious and curious, to believe she could be and do anything she wanted, even if it turned out she was a spiky, intense, hyper-sensitive outlier like me.
What I hadn't expected was for the world — and specifically expectations about how girls should behave — to get in our way. What I hadn't expected was for the world — and specifically expectations about how girls should behave — to get in our way.
The first few years of C's life flew by in a delirious haze. She was strong and healthy. She passed all the milestones the way you're supposed to pass all the milestones, she delighted us the way a baby is supposed to delight. She was silly, we were happy.
After a year spent agonizing over elementary schools (a specific hell of modern parenthood, particularly in big cities), we moved to a neighborhood with a good public option, one with a diverse student body, a decent academic record, an organic garden with chickens, and a strong sense of community. It's a decision I still feel confident in, despite what I'm about to explain.
On her second day of kindergarten, in an email as formal as it was vague, C's teacher requested a meeting to discuss "behavior." He'd signed it "attentively." It was all very polite, but anyone with an ounce of public-school-doled discipline could see we were in some shit.
Apparently on the first day of class, instead of sitting with the group, our daughter walked to the back of the room, shook off her shoes, and lay down, immovable, a kind of passive-resistance protest to conditions she did not deem favorable. On the second day, she tried to set the class tarantula free. By the time we met with the teacher, on day four, she'd touched the class fish, howled like a wolf when called upon, and, once, to her fastidious teacher's great alarm, stood eating yogurt out of the container with her hands while humming "Frère Jacques" on repeat. This behavior, the teacher explained calmly, could not be tolerated. Our daughter would have to get in line.