Lucia is lovesick. My heart alternately aches and swells for her. The object of her affection: the chrome handbrake at the top her Bob Stroller, or “Chromy,” as my husband and I have affectionately-cum-resentfully dubbed him, this shiny fixture who has stolen our daughter’s heart with no effort whatsoever while we toil away, blowing raspberries on her tummy, clapping ad nauseam, playing peek-a-boo, and singing Baby Beluga on repeat, to get her to giggle for us.
I remember the first day I discovered Lucia’s fascination with Chromy. She was two months old, and after a night of vaccine-induced sleeplessness, I was desperate for a shower. Fully expecting my shower to be curtailed by Lucia’s mewling, I popped Lucia into her carseat, clicked the carseat into the Bob in the bedroom, and high-tailed it into the bathroom.
At that time, my usual routine had me hopping out mid-soap to pacify Lucia, and then maybe, if I were lucky, I’d get to rinse off later, one arm cradling Lucia, in the sink.
That morning, I spent a blissful seven or so minutes in that shower. I even – GASP – shaved my legs and de-haired the drain. I heard nary a wail from Lucia, who was instead fully babbling with….the chrome handbrake? Indeed, it took me moment to figure who had unleashed the scintillating conversationalist previously dormant in my infant child. As I toweled off and dressed myself for the day, I observed my daughter. She’d babble for a full thirty seconds, the pitch of her voice undulating passionately, the syllables alternately staccato and pointed, largo and tantalizing. She sounded like that coy foreign exchange student who joined your class junior year of high school and invariably mesmerized your male (and female) classmates with her charmingly accented English as she sat, delicately cross-legged, her skirt too short to make dress code, across from you, your Midwestern cankles hidden underneath khakis, in history class. She was an indecipherable vixen. After a short break in Lucia’s speech, during which time her eyebrows playfully lifted as if daring Chromy to match her witty repartee, she would then launch back into conversation, punctuating her points with giggles and sighs.
She was as incandescent as Chromy was inanimate.
Thus began Lucia’s first case of unrequited love. Observing this relationship unfold over the course of many weeks, I become increasingly worried. I note, for example, Lucia’s effervescence juxtaposed harshly with Chromy’s containment, her gregarity with his resistence.
Indeed, Lucia is blissfully unresponsive to social cues. She gives abundantly of her love regardless of feedback or the lack thereof, in this case.
I reflect, my cheeks flushing on cue, on my own naïve cases of unrequited love. Sigh. Pat O’ Connor*. How many times throughout elementary and middle school had I enveloped his initials in a heart in the border of my notebook? How many hours had I spent gazing at him, he who managed to make the white polo and navy slacks of the St. Robert uniform look spontaneous and cool, instead of the algebraic equation on the blackboard? Why did x matter to me, anyway? Now, of course, I see a clear link between my lack of basic math skills and my obsession with Pat O’Connor, but never mind that. In ten years of school together, Pat and I shared not so much as a hug. (As a side note, I’m almost certain Pat O’Connor actually became the firefighter he said he wanted to be in kindergarten. Le swoon.)
I remember also, my cheeks burning now with that peculiar mixture of nostalgic shame and retrospective acceptance, my first experiences of heartbreak. When my high school boyfriend and I broke up, I remember asking my best friend if she thought a person could, like, actually die from a broken heart. While emotionally eating my weight in mint chip ice cream, I’d fantasize about my sadness ushering in a new, traumatically skinny era, and that bright skinnier version of me somehow winning him back. I was a self-loathing narcissist through and through.
When my college boyfriend and I broke up, I spent hours – literally hours – scrutinizing what had gone wrong between us, more specifically what was wrong with me, certain that if I could just locate the problem, I could make it disappear. I’d alternately declare that I was “better off without him” and completely unworthy of him.
I recently looked at the the stream of emails written to him the summer after we broke up. Underneath the insouciant “how are you’s?” and “just writing to fill you on the news that I’m moving to Colorado!” pulsed the desperate hope that we’d get back together, marry, and of course, produce creative, musical children. He was a cellist, after all.
At what point, I wonder, does the joy of unrequited love morph into the shame of feeling unlovable, the curiosity about whether a match might be made into the unreasonable belief that you can will someone to love you back?
Heartbreak made me optimistic and mean at once. When a Facebook photo popped up of him and his new girlfriend, I deconstructed her as harshly as I had myself; I decided her forehead was too big and, then, like some quack phrenologist, made all sorts of assumptions about what highly undesirable qualities this forehead suggested.
I was uncharitable.
I want to protect Lucia from this sort of stinginess.
Indeed, Lucia is magnanimous. So, though I am weary of Chromy, I reluctantly take her cue and decide to love him, if not because she loves him, then at least for the pleasant shut-eye he provides us.
Over the past month or so, however, there’s been a subtle shift. Lucia’s cooled. Her conversations with Chromy are not effervescent but rather measured, punctuated by long stretches of silence, her furrowed brow equally present as her sweet giggles.
I am crushed. Embarrassment and heartbreak are inevitable; far worse is a miserly heart. Now I prophylactically mourn for the day when she starts paying too much attention to what people think, when she takes the safer route rather than the braver one. I fear not her vulnerability but rather the self-preservation that inhibits the risk- taking that connection and love necessarily entail. I remember, for example, my first attempt at securing a date with Jared. It was a Friday afternoon in the faculty room at boarding school. Jared was checking his mailbox, and I was pretending to read the local paper while obsessing over the pros and cons of asking Jared out. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I remember thinking. Deciding that in either case this moment would “make a good story,” I faux-insouciantly commented, “There are a lot of good movies playing tonite.”
“Oh,” Jared said. “Nice.”
And then, as though I were the sort of spontaneous person I certainly was not I said, “I was thinking I might go see one. Do you have any interest in going with me?”
“Not really,” Jared replied, matter-of-factly.
His perfunctory answer stung, but it was actually the very detached nature of it that gave me to the courage to ask him out again, directly, so that my intentions were abundantly clear, a couple weeks later.
At twenty-four, I was both overly confident and absorbed by anxiety. I believed, despite the fact that during faculty introductions two of my three interesting facts about myself (“I once read Harriet the Spy thirteen times in a row; I can recite “Sound of Music” word for word) might also have been my icebreakers at middle school theatre camp), that I was really “adult-ing” for the first time in my life, and I was instantly smitten by Jared. At twenty-seven, he seemed impossibly worldly and adult. I knew he had studied in Israel, his longish hair was both boyish and devil-may-care, he had a real job, and his politics were obviously liberal. Plus, he paired J.Crew button-downs with his Carhartts, striking the perfect balance between hippie and prep.
We were not a perfect match right off the bat.
However, our connection has been forged, paradoxically, both because of and in spite of the sharing of our vulnerabilities. Jared has asked me to face my shadowy bits with courage and honesty, and I have demanded that he do the same. Certainly there have been times where it might have been easier to throw in the towel and find someone else to love, someone less exigent, for example, but is precisely Jared’s insistence that I “show up” each and every day that makes me love him, and vice versa.
The greater risk is not that Lucia be vulnerable to pain but that she be impervious to vulnerability, to the joy that comes from bravely showing up.
Thus, rather than bemoan her infatuation with Chromy, I egg it on. Like the stereotypical matchmaking grandmother, I try to showcase Chromy’s best features. I position the stroller so the light hits him “just so”; I cover him with Lucia’s favorite pink blanket and coyly coo, Peeka….BOO” as I whip the blanket off with a bullfighter’s flourish. I, singing another round of “Baby Beluga,” press the handbrake maniacally along with the rhythm. “Chromy has got moves!” I enthuse to my daughter.
Lucia is as indifferent to Chromy as he is to her. For several weeks, bedtime is fraught, as when in the midst of a sleep regression, Lucia will not go to sleep without my being in her line of sight. I wake up to her penetrating gaze. She reminds me, eerily, of the velociraptor from Jurassic Park. “Clever girl,” I think.
And then, this morning, just a couple of weeks past her six month birthday, something shifts again. Lucia babbles in her carseat for forty-five minutes after waking up. I manage to sneak downstairs to enjoy a full cup of coffee alone. Now, I peek in at her to see her alternately talking to her toes, and to Chromy. Her eyebrows playfully dance up and down as she emphatically states some point; she strings together sounds I’ve never heard from her before and then lets out a veritable guffaw of laughter.
I feel, first, the familiar flush of jealousy at Chromy’s easy evocation of Lucia’s delight, but this time it is coupled with joy, for if this is what it means for is that she love unabashedly, then so be it. I am grateful for this inanimate object that reveals Lucia’s wide open heart and permits her parents a little extra shuteye.
And then it hits me: this story is not about Lucia’s reckoning with unrequited love, of course, but my own encounter with the unknown, the inevitable heartache, the risk that comes in loving this little person over whom I have very little control, this little person who makes me want to be the very best version of myself, who asks that I face my insecurities to be courageous, who makes me feel, at once, more vulnerable and stronger than ever before.
I stand in the doorway observing Lucia flirting with Chromy and contemplate, anxious now about what, exactly, I’ve gotten myself into. This is the proposition of parenthood: to have control of your heart hijacked the moment that wailing tiny human is placed in your arms, to love someone fully and unabashedly while at the same time knowing it’s inevitable that one day she will look at you not with generous love but with judgment and disappointment, and perhaps, at times, if she is like most teenage girls, even hatred.
My rumination is interrupted by Lucia starting to fuss.
I’ve got no choice but to show up for this tiny, exigent, generous being who has filled in all the stingy holes in my heart. “Good morning, Lu,” I chirp as I kiss her forehead and pull her out of her carseat. She kicks her legs gleefully and nuzzles my neck. “I love you,” I say, nuzzling back into her.