O: Mommy, I don't love you.
And she is three, but someday she will be 13 and 33 and on and on and on. This tiny person who is a mirror I hold up to my heart every day, says things to me that I have said to myself, in the dark and quiet spaces of my mind, where I sometimes hide. She says it frankly and with no malice, some kind of test, or she says it while hurling herself at the ground, her body hot with anger and her face red, wet, and salty. She is a tiny sponge sopping up all of the sweat and tears I have left behind. It takes my breath away, like a punch to the gut.
K: That's ok, bug. I love you enough for both of us.
O: Mommy, you have a soft, squishy belly.
And she is right. The folds of my skin have multiplied over time. Where there was once a firm stretch of smooth, tan skin pulled taunt over organs and muscle, there is now a soft, doughy pad, a pillow for the downy heads that find their way to me on the couch. Their tiny hands and impossibly perfect feet have clawed and kicked the vanity out of me, leaving me content with my own softness. It is because my human form was stretched and I expanded, responding to the needs of the people I have made. It has left its mark on my soul. It would be shameful if it had not also left its mark on my body.
K: I love my soft, squishy belly, because I got it when I made you.
O: Mommy, did you know that I am strong and brave?
And she is. My heart swells. In a world so big, in a body so small, she tackles new things daily with a voracity and passion that I envy, but I worry that this is simply the patter that we have filled her head with, words with no meaning, repeated for effect. I worry that my attempt to replace the voices of strangers has backfired; that the words of the woman in the grocery store, who pats her head and tells her she is pretty, or the voices of the parents at the park, who call her “princess,” will still echo in her ears, and that I have merely left her confused, still seeking the approval I want so badly for her not to need.
K: It doesn't matter what I know, my darling. All that matters is that you know.
O: Mommy, I love you.
And she does. But this is after 9:00pm, long after bath and stories and lullabies and cuddles. This is the hundredth time she has been out of her bed tonight, popping up like a jack-in-the-box at the same moment I sit down on the sofa and attempt to shut off the noise in my head by switching on the television. She has been out for water, colder water, trips to the bathroom, a pajama switch, because the ones she picked at bedtime became too itchy. She has had her back scratched, rubbed and tickled. And yet, here she stands, back-lit by the hall light, dragging her quilt behind her. She crawls into my lap. Somehow, the top of her head still smells like sunshine and the fire from our camping trip over a month ago. I breathe her in. Even though she should have been asleep hours ago, even though I have never been more tired in my life, even though I'm not sure how today ends, I put my lips close to her ear, like I’m sharing a secret meant only for her.
K: I love you too.