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During the first few weeks after my daughter was born, my mother joked that, finally, it was "payback time": "Now you'll feel what it's like to have a daughter like you," she joked, as if all my bitchy behavior toward her over the past 33 years suddenly seemed funny.
What is funny is the fact that looking back now, I would call her a "cool mom." She'd plan elaborate scavenger hunts for my birthday parties, drive me past the houses of boys I liked in high school, and, after I moved away from home, spend hours thumbing through discount racks to send me clothes that always fit perfectly. Last year, when yet another package arrived at my office, more than one of my female colleagues commented, "You are so lucky!"
But during those times, I never treated my mother as if I considered myself particularly lucky. I treated her as if this was just the way it was, as if this was what mothers were supposed to do for their daughters. I was grateful, but never overly so. Never enough to tame myself from sniping at her when she kept talking after I told her I had to get off the phone, or when she asked me for the sixth time when I was coming home for Christmas, or when she dared to mention that I might want to paint the trim on my porch. ("Like I have time!") Never enough to spontaneously hug her the next time I saw her. Never enough to tell her I loved her without being prompted by her saying it first. This, I know, is what she meant by "payback." This is what I have to look forward to now that I have a daughter--not being appreciated, not being respected, not being understood.
Last week, my daughter started doing the sweetest thing: She runs through the house looking for me, yelling "Mum-ME! Mum-ME! Mum-ME!" as if she's not only figured out what the lottery is but discovered she's won it; then when she finds me, she trots toward me until she crashes into my legs and wraps her chubby little arms around my knees, squeezing with far more might than a 20-month-old should have.
She doesn't know the word for "love." She just feels it--for me. Love: this emotion that's so primal, so uncontrollable that it propels her to hunt me down and causes every cell in my body to vibrate as if I am about to burst into flames. "I love you too," I say, except I love her more, infinitely. My love for her has become the fuel that keeps me alive.
This, I know now, is the real payback: that feeling, that freedom, that capacity to love another person more than I love myself, because this little girl is the most important thing I have ever done. I would do anything--anything--to make sure she feels safe, happy and loved.
I fear that, too soon, my daughter will become the daughter I was. She'll stop calling for "Mum-ME!" She'll forget, grow up. She'll yell at me and hate me. And I will, in turn, become my mother, suffering through decades of praying for my daughter to have a child of her own. Only then will she comprehend how much I love her and how very long I waited for her to know.