Dear Three-Year-Old Daughter:
WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT AM I DOING?
If our household could copyright a phrase, we’d all be squillionaires by now. For most of the day—and, about once or twice a week, half of the night—the general chaos is punctuated by this, the constant refrain of you, now an unbelievable three years old:
WHAT AM I DOING?
WHAT AM I DOING?
WHAT AM I DOING?
Except in your three-year-old accent it sounds more like this:
WHA’M I DOING?
WHA’M I DOING?
WHA’M I DOING?
You are heavily invested in the narration of your activities. Often you answer the question yourself, in the correct first person, for example: I’M KIRCHING THE ELEMENTS! This is when you walk over to your illustrated Theodore Gray periodic table, smack one of your favorites, usually Helium or Xenon, and go KIRCH! You do this when you are FEELING ALL MIXED UP, to FEEL BETTER. Like seriously, you will be mid-wail about something drastically important (Calla, your confoundingly small effing fairy, for your new fairy garden that has improbably sprouted actual plants, who comes with her own suspension wire, is briefly missing—or, worse, her even smaller plastic squirrel friend is), and you’ll go I’M GONNA GO KIRCH AN ELEMENT TO FEEL BETTER, and then you’ll bound over to the wall where your poster is and go I’M KIRCHING HELIUM NOW I FEEL BETTER.
It’s a complicated question, WHAT AM I DOING. It’s certainly one I’ve been wrestling with since at least when you were born, or, more accurately, about nine months beforehand, when I lay immobile with nausea and fatigue face-down on the couch and your father asked me: Is this just how you’re going to be from now on? (Answer: Yes, but now I’m immobile from exhaustion, thanks to being kept up on a patented Fluffy Trouble Walkabout from 2 to 5 a.m.)
I didn’t know what I was doing (or had done) when I became With Child, and I certainly haven’t known what I’m doing for as much as a single solitary millisecond of my time as a parent.
I am a person who plans trips months in advance, down to the actual pairs of underwear I plan to pack—not five pairs of underwear, but these five pairs of underwear—and for the past three years, I have been making it up as I go along. This is, to say the absolute very least, not my natural state of affairs. I think the one word of warning I actually could have used and heeded in the run-up to parenthood would have been: You will never, ever, ever have it figured out. The second something comes into focus—oh, she woke up at 2 a.m. because she didn’t eat enough dinner, we need to feed her more at night—another thing drifts into the nebula, and suddenly there you are at 2:35 partying it up even though at bedtime I stuffed you like a fois gras goose.
So what ARE you doing? Here’s a random sampling.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M PAINTING MY FACE!
Oh you are, are you? After many weeks of very anguished nights in the bathtub attempting to loose the day’s mixed-media artistic endeavors from your visage (the only thing you loathe more than washing your hair is washing your face), I had the genius idea to purchase you some actual face paints. Pro: they do come off your face a bit more easily than felt-tip markers and watercolors. Con: not so much for all the furniture.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M HAVING A BIRTHDAY PARTY!
For the first time since we moved almost a year ago, we had People Over to the loft in the form of ten screaming kids four and under and sixteen very good-humored adults, who braved our expansive lack of seating (we had to put all the chairs and stools upstairs in your father’s Boring Closet until you stopped seeing fit to climb on them) and my “homemade” (mix-made) “Jupiter cake” (loosely interpreted) and about seven too many pizzas. Everyone adult who came in got greeted by you running up to him or her and going I’M HAVING A BIRTHDAY PARTY!!!! You then ignored the other kids and spent half the time upstairs playing with the helium balloon one of your ignored friends was kind enough to bring you.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M WEARING MY HELMET ON MY SCOOTER!
Your (second) cousin Abby was kind enough to send you her Micro scooter after she grew out of it, and you have taken to that thing like a MOTHERfucker. You love it so much (although you’re still not keen on braking, meaning that you spend a good amount of time RUNNING INTO STUFF, which is a little nerve-racking). Until now you’ve always been resolutely anti-anything-on-your-head, but I had the disputed (by your doubting father) but genius idea to get you THE most ridiculous helmet in the world, complete with cat face, incongruous leopard print, pink and purple peace signs, rainbows, sparkles, hearts AND stars. And you fucking love it. You understood right away that helmie=scootie; no helmie=no scootie, and you’ve been great about it.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M DOING MY SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS!
You’re a modern feminist child, and as such you understand that nothing is off-limits as far as aspiration is concerned. You can love Disney princesses (right now you’re obsessed with Cinderella despite never having read, heard or seen the story in any way) and the planets; your fairy garden and your new lab coat and chemistry set. You are, as you say, AN ARTISTE AND A SCIENTIST AND A SUPERHERO BALLERINA FIREFIGHTER HERE TO SAVE THE DAY, the later being a direct quote from a Daniel Tiger episode you like.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M A THE LIBRARY WITH PAPA!
This semester, your father has a different schedule and he’s home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so instead of your beloved babysitter Regan (who now just comes on Saturdays for what I call my weekly three-hour Re-cation AND I FUCKING NEED IT), your equally beloved albeit in a different way dad takes you out while I do my coaching calls. Lately because it’s been so hellishly frigid, he’s been taking you to the library, where apparently you have become so obsessed with one of the computer games—a sort of rudimentary Photoshop program—that you just sit and do that for two straight hours at a time, albeit asking WHAT AM I DOING? the entire time.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M LEARNING ALL THE CHESS PIECES!
Pretty soon we’ll be able to take you to New York so you can hustle the old guys in Washington Square Park.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M WITH SLIPPY!
Yep, Slippy’s still in the picture.
WHAT AM I DOING? I’VE GOT MY ATOMS DRESS!
WHAT AM I DOING? I’M A PURPLE OWL.
As for me, I will never know what I am doing. And for now, I don’t know what I’m doing with these monthly updates. It’s my instinct to stop, because at three you really are an autonomous person and you deserve a say in how you’re portrayed in public. We’ll see.
As a person with four degrees (I’m not bragging, it’s just a fact), who has literally spent most of her adulthood in the official process of Figuring It Out, the fact that I will never know what I’m doing in the largest and most important job of my life has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of parenting.
This is sometimes why, esoterically, I wish I could give you a younger sibling, for the simple purpose of having a do-over when I sort of know what’s going on.
That’s not going to happen. For lots of reasons, none of which are the internet’s business. So, as you said many months ago, it’s ME AND ME AND YOU. Your papa, you, and me. That is our family. With at least that one thing, I know what I’m doing.
You are and will always be my one and only shining-sun, center-of-the-universe, probably-overly-doted-on-but-anyone-who-doesn’t-like-it-can-eat-a-bag-of-fucks child. I am, as they say, one and done. We are complete. You are enough kid to fill a family. I have precisely enough room in my heart for the veritable Nietzschean abyss of death-level fee-fees I have for you, and about you, and for motherhood, and about motherhood, at any given moment, plus a few spare seconds for the three or four jobs I somehow manage to do in the fifteen hours a week I get to work. But that’s what I’m doing. But what are you doing?
I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.