In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” how do we give our children advice that is both enough and not so much that it stifles them. Look to the cookie?
There is an unopened fortune cookie in our car that is just about driving me crazy. It is the last one left—my daughter and I ate the rest immediately. My wife doesn’t seem to care if hers is ever opened. But in it is a future, however small. In it is a mystery, in this world of mysteries, that could be easily solved.
I don’t remember my daughter’s fortunes, or mine, but this one could be different.
Recently, Grace has developed this habit of saying, “What? What? What?” when she doesn’t want to answer a question. As if she hasn’t heard us. It is adorable and it is outrageous. It is the most frustrating thing as a parent. We try to reach her with our lasers of future wisdom and she throws up a shield of primitivism.
“She’s 2,” I remind my wife, and myself, when it feels unbearable that our child seems both our equal (or better) and forever our baby.
I know something about your future, I want to say. Because I know something about her future that is also mine—as it must be, right?
Sometimes I wonder if Grace knows herself better now than she ever will. When we have friends who are expecting, I like to give them a warning: that everyone will have advice for them. I like this warning in an ironic way, since it is advice of its own, but I also think it is fair and valuable.
I have advice for you, Daughter. I have advice for how to avoid my mistakes. I am not the type to think you must make them yourself—I’d rather you make better mistakes, mistakes made with a knowledge of other people’s wrong turns.
Open the cookie in the car and hopefully you move beyond the futures that might be solved by cookies.
The problem is knowing which futures these are. Another toddler habit: when my daughter is hurt, she will not admit it. If she skins her knee, she will not let me look. She won’t acknowledge that it happened at all.
I am so afraid of denial.
This has to do with adoption, of course, with race and other issues that I would rather pretend for her do not exist. But I cannot pretend. I cannot even pretend that any advice I give will really help her, other than through the knowledge that she is not alone. And I worry that a culture of tweets and sound bites tries to explain everything concisely not in an attempt at understanding but in an attempt to get you to open the wrapper.
On the other hand, there is mystery and also wisdom in what is left unsaid. There is mystery and wisdom in what people outside of you say about the things you yourself can’t fully express.
I am corresponding with another adoptee writer right now who mentioned that he likes the “idea of absence” in my novel of short bursts. That the reader has to be content with what he has. I also read something like this in a recent review. I had always thought of all of that white space as a promise to the reader, that the book will offer room to be imagined. It is a similar idea, but I think that “absence” probably speaks closer to adoption. It makes me think about how much our aesthetics are formed by our pain.
I am at the Children’s Museum when I finally learn why my daughter says she isn’t hurt when she is. She is running through an exhibit and she trips over her own feet. I tell her that it is okay to be hurt, that I’m not upset she fell down (guessing), that I only want to help her feel better. I ask after a feeling—determined this time not to let the mystery remain a mystery. Finally, she says, “I want to run,” and I realize what it is: we have been using her little injuries as reasons she shouldn’t do things. Don’t run here or you’ll get hurt. Remember your scraped knees? If she is never hurt, we can’t justify telling her to stop.
When I say she can keep running, that is when she lets me look at the burn, lets me kiss it and make it feel better. That is when she shares her pain with me. She must have thought there were two futures, one where she isn’t hurt and can do whatever she wants, and one where pain means she has to give up control of what she can and can’t do. I know something about a future where the pain you suffer alone cuts off a sense of possibility. “I know what you want,” I say. “I am not trying to stop you.” I only want to be there for what hurts in those wants, what cannot be explained away.