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Learning to Write

Guest Post from Andrea Buchanan

Emi is ambivalent.

She is five years old, losing her baby-fat and gaining the responsibilities of a kindergartener. At school she loves the thrill of being in “K,” though she is anxious over the newness of it all. At home, she revels in her status as an older sibling even as she is bitterly jealous about having to share me with her brother. Some days she wants to play “new baby,” where I have to tend to her while she wails and moans the way she never did as an infant; other days she gets into my make-up, stuffs her favorite Panda down her shirt to make “Panda boobies,” tells me, “Look, I’m a grown-up!” She alternates between clingy “I love you”s and petulant shouts to leave her alone. She tells me one night that she dreamt about being alone in the deep end of a big swimming pool without her floaties, that she almost drowned.

I bear the brunt of her ambivalence. I am the one she desperately demands, the one she snappishly pushes away. I am told this is the hallmark of the mother-daughter relationship, this constant push-pull, but that does little to reassure me.

There was a moment after she was born, when she was so small and I was so fragile, newly delivered of a baby, newly made a mother, when I held all six pounds of her sleeping in my arms and felt a shock of recognition. This little baby in my arms was me; I was my grown-up self holding my baby self. My god, I thought, we have completely merged. And yet as soon as I felt that realization spread over my body like the warm rush of alcohol, I knew that as much as she was me, she was also not-me, that even when she was inside me she was herself, her own person. I was awed by this intense, ambivalent closeness we shared, and the simultaneous and eternal separation between us.

And now I worry, as she grows older and these stages of connection and distance ebb and flow, that the separation might win out.

Emi began to write her name shortly before she turned three. Soon after, she recognized it everywhere, finding “E”s and “M”s and “I”s on signs, in magazines, on my computer keyboard. At three and a half, she added “Mommy” and “love” to the repertory of words she could write, and almost every drawing I have saved from when she was that age has “Mommy,” “Emi,” and “love” written somewhere on it. Words, in those early days, were like pictures for her: she drew letters as though she was designing fonts—adding flourishes and shadows, writing everything entirely in outline, or putting curlicues on the end of each letter and hearts over her lowercase “i”s like a junior-high-school girl in love. She copied letters from magazines or boxes or book covers and reproduced them exactly as she saw them, only tangentially interested in the idea that these letter-pictures made sense in a way other than the purely visual.

When Emi begins kindergarten, I’m confident that she will shine in the classroom, what with her excellent artistic skills and penchant for fanciful serifs. But as I stay close during the morning drop-off, helping her get settled into her “journal work,” I note her tendency each day to draw a version of the same picture—herself with family members and friends—and next to that the same list, every day, of all the words she knows how to write without help. This seems to be reassuring to her, the ease of repetition, the familiarity of drawing people and words she already knows.

At our first Kindergarten parent-teacher conference, the teachers comment on her reluctance to stray outside her comfort zone. She continues to write that roster of words each day, and she can write anything someone else can help her figure out how to spell, but when faced with a word she cannot picture in her head and cannot turn to someone else for help with, she is frustrated. It takes her too long. She gives up. The teachers suggest I encourage her to try new things, to spell words even if they come out “wrong,” to try and help her connect the concept of the way a letter looks with the sound it makes. They show me her journal. Lots of family pictures, that same list of words and names. November 2, 2004, reads: “I love you, John Kerry,” five words she knows how to spell on her own.

At home, after the conference, when Emi asks me to help her spell words, I try to encourage her to sound things out and write down the letters she hears. But she is too frustrated. “Just let me do it my way!” she yells, drawing wavy lines of pretend cursive as she narrates a story about a mommy who never lets a daughter do things her own way.

She huffs off and returns in a few moments with a small rectangular pad of paper, scribbling things down and ripping off sheets as if she is handing out traffic tickets. She places the papers in various locations, and I come over to see what she’s done. I’m expecting to see a love letter, her usual “I LOVE YOU MOMMy” or “EMi LOVES MOMMy.”

But next to the cat is a paper that says, “NO CAT.”

Next to her sleeping baby brother is a paper that says, “NO NATE.”

She thrusts a paper in my hand, and it says, “NO MOMMy.”

She sticks a paper on herself that immediately drops to the floor. It says, “NO EMi.”

“What is this, Em?” I ask.

“Stop it!” she says. “I’m making a trail!”

She writes an arrow on her pad of paper, tears off the sheet, and places it on the floor. She draws another arrow on another paper and places it next to the first arrow. She repeats the process until she has covered the kitchen floor in a paper path of arrows pointing in various directions.

“You have to follow the map,” she commands me, so I do. I step into the kitchen and follow the arrows one by one until I arrive at the last paper. I can see the expression on Emi’s face is one of peevish delight. She knows I will not like what I’m about to see.

It says, “No MOMMy No LOVE,” and it has a heart that has been crossed out with a big X. I hold the paper, which might as well be a knife in my gut, and then she says, “Look on the back.”

It says, “No LOVE MOMMy.”

These are all words she knows, all words she can spell by herself, arranged in a way I haven’t seen from her before. I catch her eye and I can see her trying to gauge my expression. She looks triumphant but also worried. I try to keep my face neutral, though I know it always betrays me. But then she is already an expert reader of my emotions. She knows she has hit her mark.

“Oh,” I say. “That really hurts my feelings.”

Immediately, I realize I have made a mistake. She is not three—she is not trying out the power of words, seeing how far she can go or determining exactly what is acceptable. She is not asking for a lesson about the difference between friendly words and hurtful words. She is five now. She isn’t testing me: She’s trying to communicate with me.

As I pick up the arrow-marked papers from the floor, my initial hurt gives way to the realization that my work as a mother with Emi is not to be liked by her, but to love her. I am supposed to be her safe place—the one person she can vent to who she knows for sure will not leave. My obvious deflation upon reading her message—my fallen face and my focus on my own hurt feelings—has called this safety into question, making her consider a whole other realm of possibility. Does she have the power to hurt me? Will this power make me leave? Is her anger something she needs to protect me from? She seems both smug and scared by the prospect.

I let her stomp off to write more impassioned missives, and when she comes back, her lip thrust out and pad in hand, I try to be nonchalant.

“You know what, Em? Actually, it’s okay with me if you want to write down how you feel, and it’s okay if you need to write something that might hurt my feelings. I love you, no matter what you need to write down. I just love you. No matter what.”

I am trying to give her permission to be angry at me, to defy me with the written word. I am trying to remind myself that her assertion of herself does not mean a forever rejection of me. I am trying to remind us both that love is not a currency that depends on the exchange around it.

She confronts me with a stubborn frown and thrusts another small rectangle of paper in front of me. On it she has written: “I_DT_LiKE_YoU.” She reads it to me, her still chubby index finger underlining each word as she pronounces it. “I. Don’t. Like. You.”

Last year at this time, when she was four, she told me she was writing a book. When I asked her what it was called, she said, “Emi Mommy Love.” Now her topic seems to have mutated from a glowing fluff-piece to a tell-all, and she is so motivated by her passion for the subject she has had to resort to using words she doesn’t already know how to spell.

Her kindergarten teachers would be proud.

When she told me about her dream of being in the deep end of the pool with no floaties, I’d had to remind her that she knew how to swim. I reminded her that even if she forgot that she knew how to swim, she had learned how to float at summer camp, and that even if she didn’t have arm floaties or a noodle with her, she could float herself right over to the edge of the pool, where she would be safe. She told me weeks after that first dream that she had another dream: she was way out deep in the ocean this time. She was there with her friends, and they couldn’t swim, but this time they all floated with noodles.

This note to me is her attempt at swimming in deep waters.

Reading it, I am sobered a little as a mother, even as I am proud of her as a writer. This is what compelling writing is, after all—the powerful, authentic expression of a truth that needs to be stated, no matter how provocative it may be.

“Wow, Em,” I say, struggling to keep my own face upbeat and smiling as I watch her expression flicker somewhere between mischievous disobedience and worry. “Look at this, you wrote ‘don’t,’ even though you didn’t know how to spell it! I’m proud of you!”

She screws up her face into a pout again, her expectations thwarted by my positive reaction, and yanks the paper from me before she walks away. I can see the rest of her pad is filled with the usual “MOMMy DADDy Emi NATE CAT I LOVE YOU MOMMy LOVE Emi” writing she does so well. As my eyes sting, I think: this is important, what we’re doing here right now. She needs to do this, and I need to let her. She is no longer that me/not-me baby in my arms.

“I_DT_LiKE_YoU” is a break-through, though she doesn’t realize it. She has made a connection between the sound of a word and its physical representation. She has written words she did not know how to spell, and she has shown them to me though she fears I will disapprove. But more than a break-through, it is a break, her first true break from her intense attachment to me. She has asserted herself as her own person with her own perspective on our relationship, and I must allow her this. I must be proud of her, no matter what message she has spelled out.

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