We were on our way back from a wildly successful 3-day business trip when I called my mother-in-law to tell her we’d be by to get the girls in about five minutes. Finley answered the phone.
“Hello, this is Finley speaking.”
“Hey Fin, it’s mama,” I said with the side of my smile pressing into the phone. The familiar electricity of hearing her voice filling me with butterflies not unlike a first crush.
“Mom, mom! Guess what?” she blurted.
“What?” I asked giggling.
“I lost my tooth.” My heart sank and my cheeks hollowed.
“Not the one you worried I might lose, but a different one. It’s so weird, it just happened like a few minutes ago.” She was proud and exuberant, not at all concerned that I wasn’t there and yet, the cloud of guilt rolled in, eclipsing the rush of what we’d accomplished in the city.
I missed it. Again. I thought.
The tooth I’d worried about, her first top tooth, had been slowly shifting in her mouth; the emerging gap, unfamiliar and dark, was like dark ink scrawled across the pale wall of a nursery. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely and winsome and completely befitting a spitfire kindergartener. Watching her sound out the letters on a page, the gap popping in and out of sight as she goes is a delight. It’s the glaring truth that with the arrival of the kid rings the departure of the baby.
Like the gap in her mouth, the chasm where I keep the tally of missed opportunities or failed presence widens. Memories rush forth, hissing like villains in a fairy tale.
You weaned her too soon.
You joined the chorus of her teachers in telling her that pre-k you is too old to be carried.
You, you, you. It’s always your fault.
The thrum of milestones being rewritten with angry new smudges of guilt filled my ears.
“Nana took care of it. My mouth was bleeding, but it’s ok,” she trailed off, ready to be done on the call.
“Ok, we’ll be there in a few minutes,” I said. Sean softened, a generosity of space to let me catch my balance learned over these nearly ten years of parenting together. I nodded and then turned to the window. Limbs heavy and full with new snow drooped so low it looked as if they were reaching to scoop more. As I watched them I thought about the clash of her joy and my grief; the thing that stuck with me was that in this instance I was authoring the failure. The loss of the tooth is her story and in it she felt no sorrow, no absence of character; there was simply the declaration of the awesomeness of having lost a tooth. Like a scoop of snow to the face I realized that the guilt will always be mine.
I have a default setting that nearly always leads me to feeling some sort of failure to measure up as a mom, wife, and even as a human being. While we were on the trip I said to Sean, “I have absolutely no regrets about this time.”
He smiled at me and shook his head in campy disbelief, “Really? Why?”
“Well, we just used every minute of it. The seminars, the meetings, the walks; it’s just been incredible. The girls and Beso are happy. Nana is having a blast. I just am so very happy.”
He beamed at me, “Good!”
As we pulled onto Nana’s street I saw that in the countless either/or scenarios that I fret over, those that I decide without pause, and the others still that come without warning are all rife with the potential for guilt—not because of a societal barometer or any clinical gauge for how I am doing. It all circles back to me. Understanding this helps, yet I think that the sting of parenting is a part of why I love it so much.
“Mom, you’re back!” All three girls launched themselves into my arms. They murmured “mama” and “love you” over and over again. Then they scattered to get things to show me. Fin stayed, too-long yoga pants obscuring her feet which she had planted wide.
“Wanna see it? Wanna see the hole of my tooth?” She asked.
“Yes, sweetie, show me. Show me.”
She leaned in and opened her mouth wide. I pressed my finger past her lips and into the new space. Soft and jagged edges of a new tooth greeted my touch.
“You already have a new one right there.” I said.
“I do? Wow!”
We locked eyes and grinned. Not going on the trip wouldn’t have slowed the sprint toward kid, just as wallowing too long in the loss of my baby won’t give me any more time as a parent of a Finley-younger-than-she-is-this-minute. Whether I am in the room or not, we’re losing these teeth together, or growing new wrinkles side-by-side. Maybe looking at my tendency toward guilt a bit more like a toddler and tantrums can give me the tools I need to linger less over loss and press my face more exuberantly into the rushing possibilities that flow through the new gaps.