When my oldest daughter was around 14 months old, she could "read" picture books. She'd hold the book out in front of her, turn the pages and recite the story, word for word. So bright, we thought. By 2 1/2, she was extremely verbal and very smiley, but didn't seem able to hold eye contact for long. Typical for the age, we thought. At 3, she often came home from preschool with bumps and bruises. "She's a little clumsy," said the teacher. "Misses the chair when she goes to sit down." Overly energetic, we thought.
Somewhere in the back of my brain, these little facts joined hands and circled up, but with a 9-month-old on my hip, I convinced myself there was really nothing much to worry about with my older one. I'd like to think that if it had been something more important, more drastic, I would have noticed it sooner. But I cannot guarantee that is the truth.
When I first held my firstborn, the ties that bind quietly threaded us together forever. I wept, conquered by an intoxicating mixture of relief and bliss and fear. How would I survive this life of overwhelming love and all the worry that comes with it? I tended toward the anxious, but I didn't want to be that overbearing mother, the kind that frowned at every scratch and fretted over the timing of every milestone, the mom who hovered over homework and five daily servings of fruits and veggies. Whenever I felt that "what if?" twinge, I quietly calmed it away. After all, my daughter was right on course, a little ahead on some things even. She was fine -- more than fine.
At my younger daughter's next checkup, I asked the doctor to check my older girl too. She listened to her heart and her lungs, engaged her in chit chat, examined her ears and eyes. "Looks good," she said. I took the doctor at her word. Choosing to believe her was like letting out a long, slow breath I'd been holding for years.
But a few months later, I noticed my girl squinting -- a lot. She'd always been light sensitive, so her squinting wasn't a new thing, but now I noticed it all the time. She squinted at the television. She squinted in search of me when I called her name. She squinted when we read books. I took her back to the doctor. "I think it's her eyes," I said. The doctor did a quick check and pronounced her "just fine." This time, I didn't believe her. I came back a few weeks later and insisted on a proper eye exam, the kind with a chart.
"We don't usually do that until their five year check up," said the doctor.
"Okay, but can you do it anyway?" I asked, my voice a little shaky.
Because my daughter couldn't yet identify all the letters in the alphabet, they used a chart with symbols: a house, a star, a heart. She stood a few yards away from the chart, waiting, wondering. When the doctor pointed at the house, my girl squinted hard, then looked at me "Tree?" she asked hopefully. The doctor pointed at a different symbol. My daughter hesitated. "A shoe?" By the fifth try, it was clear that for my daughter, the world was a blur.
I was furious and devastated and heartbroken. Why hadn't I seen it earlier? Why hadn't I pressed the doctor sooner, trusted my instincts? In my determination to be a reasonable, rational mother, I'd pushed away the possibility of harm and hurt and less-than. Because my love could not bear that worry, I'd created my own blind spot.
The truth is, there is nothing rational about love. It cannot exist without the worry, the possibility of loss, yet we crave it anyway. This is what parenting asks of us: to dive into the deep blue sea of love, hold our breaths and go under, trusting we'll make it to the surface and swim to shore.
A few weeks later, my daughter tried on her first pair of glasses. She looked at herself in the mirror, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, thrilled. It was the first time she'd ever seen herself clearly. Then she turned to me, searching my face with her big, blue eyes.
"Mama, you have freckles on your nose!"
From the moment they first come into the world, our children wrap themselves around our hearts, squeezing equal amounts of love and worry out into our souls. We cannot know one without the other. Seeing my girl see me, my heart bloomed with that familiar maternal mix of relief and love, but this time without the fear. I blinked back my tears, ready to handle whatever worry this love would bring.