I was a high-risk pregnancy, and a particularly inconvenient one. Mom was thirty-nine when
I was conceived, and she had miscarried three times. She was ready to re-enter the workforce
in the late eighties, but then I came along. The decision of whether to carry the pregnancy
to term must have been difficult, but by autumn 1987, she had decided to keep me. She told
my sisters, but ordered them to keep it to themselves—for a schoolchild, to announce
an impending sibling is exciting, but to announce a miscarriage is impossible. Until Mom was
visibly pregnant, no one knew.
And until I was born, my extended family didn’t know. “You have a new granddaughter.” “You
have a new niece.” I have trouble imagining these phone conversations, especially the
ones to my father’s family—the big, rowdy, Irish-Catholic brood where couples without
children are the subject of speculation, and everyone’s looking for Grampy’s blue
eyes or Nana’s Cupid’s-bow mouth.
On Mom’s side, I’m not all that surprised. My maternal uncle had lost a son before
I was born: a child of whom I know nothing except his name, written in the family Bible, and
the fact that my grandmother thought he probably died shortly after he was born. We never spoke
of it—maybe it seemed like tempting fate. In my family, pregnancies were fraught experiences,
highly susceptible to bad luck and not to be taken for granted.
But I was born, red-faced and black-haired and defiantly healthy as a child, except for appendicitis
and the occasional ear infection. I made it my mission to impress my teachers and parents—good
grades weren’t unusual among my sisters, but it was one way to compete for positive attention,
and that was the only kind I wanted. Early on, I absorbed lessons, more often in the form of
questions than commands. Did you finish your dinner? Did you do your homework? Did you
clean your room? Mom expected the answer to be yes, and the expectation was more effective
than any command or threat, something that has been true for me ever since. There were also
times when she expected me to share her opinions. Sometimes I did. (“you’ll like
kindergarten!”) Sometimes I didn’t. (“Potato skin tastes just like chips!”)
I think of Mom as the enforcer and Dad as the entertainer, but in reality both were, and are,
pretty hands-off. As long as we were happy in a prudent way—not happily screwing ourselves
over—Mom was happy. And as long as we weren’t having trouble, Dad was happy. It
was Mom’s attention that I wanted in an academic sense; we have more interests in common.
But Dad and I share a similar outlook: we like talking, we like people, and we have odd enthusiasms,
although we don’t share any.
My parents’ ever-present expectations created a tendency in me to reinforce people’s
opinions of me, for better or for worse. If someone thinks I’m talented, I aim to please.
If someone thinks I’m contrary, I fight harder. This can make for some amusing situations,
but it can also be heartbreaking. My twin traits of resilience and optimism mean I hate, hate,
hate to cry, and go to absurd lengths not to do it in front of my parents. How many times I
have said “I’m fine” while openly weeping, I can’t count . . . . If
I say it’s not true, it can’t be true.
In some way, I wonder if I’m trying to justify my very existence. My birth was a sacrifice
for my family, especially for my mother. She undertook ten more years of financial dependence—a
situation she couldn’t abide—so she could raise me without putting me at a disadvantage
relative to my sisters. Putting me through college means she’ll never be able to afford
to retire. When I’m unhappy, I feel ungrateful. When I fail at something, I wonder if
I never should have begun it. I’m sure my mother thinks that the sacrifice of having
me was well worth the outcome, but I live in a state of fear that I’ll make her regret