A year ago today was Mothering Sunday in the UK, a moveable feast related to the date of Easter. It was a cold day, with sleet. It is the last day on which I have a photo of me, Kieran and our daughter. I snapped a quick selfie of us. I won’t share it here, because he looks awful. I was wearing red lipstick and trying my best. I felt we were swimming against the tide, but all the same, I thought we were making some progress.
27 days later he was dead.
But this isn’t a post about Kieran, except in the way that in the shadow of his death most things, great and small, are coloured by that. It’s a post about our daughter, and about other children; about love, and motherhood, and letting your child be their own person.
I used to think Kieran was the love of my life. What I have come to realise is that name belongs to my daughter, a love forged in my own organs, that grew inside the cage of my flesh; a love that was whole and entire before she even had a heartbeat, but which has grown ever since. Which has made me grow, and become. I do think romantic love, friendship love, have made me become a better person; but it is this particular love which has made me truer in myself than I have ever been.
I do not expect, or want, her to feel the same way about me. Right now I am at the heart of her life, the centre of her world. She is six and a half, and I am her best beloved. One day, I hope, there will be another person, or other people, who take up her heart in the same way. She will not love me less, but I will not be the lodestone of her life. That is a necessary part of growing up.
I was thinking about this as I saw this post from Abigail Shrier, who has written a book that frames trans boys as hysterical teen girls seduced into defiling their bodies:
I have seen many posts and articles like this before. These days, they tend to be related to gender identity. In the past, they were often about sexual identity. But they can be about all sorts of other things. This widely mocked article a decade ago described the author crying because her 21-year-old son gets a tattoo. In it Tess Morgan inadvertently described a whole mindset:
And this is when I realise that all my endless self-examination was completely pointless. What I think, or don’t think, about tattoos is irrelevant. Because this is the point. Tattoos are fashionable. They may even be beautiful. (Just because I hate them doesn’t mean I’m right.) But by deciding to have a tattoo, my son took a meat cleaver to my apron strings. He may not have wanted to hurt me. I hope he didn’t. But my feelings, as he made his decision, were completely unimportant.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
I am redundant. And that’s a legitimate cause for grief, I think.
Morgan used a famous line from Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden – a poem about bereavement – to mourn her son’s tattoo, and her own feelings of redundancy now he was an adult, able to make his decisions. The comparison – no matter how you feel about tattoos! – is quite breathtaking, but given the responses I have had to my post politely asking people not to compare their spouse transitioning to widowhood, I am not surprised by it. People like this, on some level, believe that they own their partners and particularly their children, and anything that changes that causes a reaction like there has been a death. Their love is possessive, suffocating. It denies the beloved the right to change and grow. “I look up laser removal. Which is a possibility, I think miserably, that only works if you want a tattoo removed. And I’m not in charge here. My son is,” wrote Morgan, but you have the strong suspicion that if there was any way she could override his autonomy, she would. After all, his £150 tattoo is “as if someone has died”.
There is a worrying tendency amongst many adults to see children as not-quite-human, and their own children (no matter how loved) as theirs in the way you might own a dog. This is a conservative trait, but not solely conservative; I’ve met too many liberals who condescend toward children in a way that makes my skin crawl, and that bonkers tattoo piece was published in the most mainstream left publication in the UK, the Guardian. Too many people confuse immaturity with incompleteness, see children (and even young adults) as half-baked grown ups, malleable and doughy, not ready to be recognised as fully people. Children are of course in a process of becoming; so too are adults, even if the process of our becoming has slowed, become less visible.
Of course, children mature and change very rapidly, and their minds are still plastic, their decision-making more haphazard. That’s why we have legal precedents like Gillick competence, to ensure that young people understand the choices they are making with things like their medical care. In establishing this precedent, the courts were very clear: “parental rights” do not exist, except to safeguard the wellbeing of a minor. I do not have rights over my daughter simply because I am her mother. Any rights I have are contingent on them being in her best interest. If I were to deny her life-giving medical treatment, I could, very rightly, be overruled. I grew her in my body, I shared her blood. It is the deepest kind of intimacy I have known. And yet I do not own her. I will never own her. Thank God.