On the wall opposite my bed hangs a picture of my daughter. She’s stretched on a rock next to a spring-fed creek. The sun glints bright off of the green water and off of her blonde hair.
I think of it as the Mermaid Picture; she’s my own smallish mermaid. Her legs are long, and her feet look huge, and neither of these traits can be attributed to my gene pool. It amazes me to look at the parts of her that are, and are not, a reflection of me. It amazes me that I have her at all, and I wonder why she gets so little of me.
I don’t have a great career. I don’t work 12-hour days, or have a 401K, or even the ability to go out and eat all the time.
I do get up in the wee hours every day though, and start running to keep it all together till I go back to bed again in what also feels like the wee hours. I make milk and tea and coffee and get Eden to finish her homework. I dress and groom us, and pack juice and snack, and lunch for me, and administer any medication that she might need at the time.
I ask her if she wants her socks right side out or inside out, which depends on her mood, and I remember which pairs of pants she likes because the snaps are easy and which she hates because the snaps are hard. I sign this paper and that paper and bring chocolate chips for the hundred day project, and write an inquiry to her teacher over whatever my current concern is to which I will probably not receive a response because, frankly, this year’s teacher has been alarmingly unresponsive. I check her lunch account, and grab the bills that need paying on my lunch hour, and make sure the faucets aren’t running and the oven and the coffee pot are off and that the cat has access to the litter box she mostly misses.
Mid-morning I realize that I forgot to take my own medication, which is why my eyes are swollen and my head is tingling.
I get in two hours of rush hour driving and eight hours of working, then a hasty after-school-care pickup and a stop at the grocery. After arguing over which foods are both adult- and child-friendly for dinner, and the merits of doing homework in the evening rather than the morning (although I rarely win), and drawing princesses and cheerleaders and explaining that one hundred years is a very long time and twenty-six is not many of the hundred and that I am not likely to die soon and hope I’m not lying, and bathing and shampooing and blow-drying the sleepy, belligerent child who becomes wakeful again just before bed, and saying prayers and doing sleepy spells and rubbing her back and pinky-promising that I will not let the cat out of the house while the child sleeps, I make sure there are clean socks and panties and trousers that aren’t too short, too tight, too pink, or too uncool.
So we can do it all again tomorrow.
There is never time for just sitting and petting her, and sometimes I become impatient with her questions that require total focus and thought because my answers will determine how and what she thinks.
We see each other every day, and everything I do is for her, but somehow it feels too small or not enough, and I don’t know how I can do more.
On weekends without her, I can’t wait to be alone. When I am alone, I miss her terribly and feel as though she should be with me, because nobody can love her as much as I do.
I like my bedroom in the late afternoon because the sun shines in through both windows and it’s warm and inviting and golden. The mermaid in the gold frame is lit up and I stare at her–who is so much of me, and so much of someone else, and so all of herself. It makes my heart hurt and my eyes sting, and it terrifies me in a way that no other love ever has.
The Mermaid Picture captures the essence of who my daughter is, and when I look at it when I’m alone in the dying afternoon, it makes me feel as if it’s alright if I’m not quite sure who I am.
Meredith McGee is the mother of a teenager and a preschooler in Austin, Texas. This essay is a nostalgic piece for her, a now 36 year-old married mother of two–a bittersweet look back at how it felt to be a 26-year-old single mother of one.