My daughter has just finished school. I contest this fact most days, driving her to distraction. I keep prosecuting the point—darling, it can’t be over—because I’m almost certain that in her private life, in the life she enjoys precisely because it exists outside the orbit of my benign parental suffocation, there are practical tasks she may have neglected. I also keep prosecuting the point because there is no other avenue for me to articulate my own incredulity. I’m not sure how we got here. I find rage brimming in me as I contemplate the finality of the milestone. For some reason our local preschool cops the weight of my animus. I drive past it most days, conveying my teenagers to school, driving with heart pounding to work, to get to that radio interview, to that panel I’m supposedly hosting, to get in to work before the car park at Parliament House reaches capacity, to run upstairs to be at my desk in time for a news conference; or driving in less harried fashion in the direction of Civic in times of leisure, crawling mulishly past this totem of our collective past, this prosaic suburban sacred site, which is profoundly indifferent to my current pulses of irrationality.
When I have passengers in the car I manage not to be furious at the preschool, but when I’m alone it’s a different story. I slow the car in meek compliance with the 40-kph school zone, all the better to glower at the squat building and the brightly coloured cubby house. Three mornings a week, when she was three and a half, I walked through the gates of this preschool with my small blonde daughter and her brother, our deeply chilled side kick, then and still, strapped conclusively into a cheap BigW stroller, taking in the world with his large, steady eyes.
I wasn’t working just at that point, so I wasn’t battling that desperate distraction of many other parents who were intent on dropping off their offspring before creeping apologetically into their short workday. I lingered, doubtless too assertively: separation anxiety is my persistent tic. I watched my girl melt into the group, but never entirely. Children of that age often play around each other rather than with each other. I would watch while pretending to wash my hands in the tiny, preschool-height sinks, before wheeling the suboptimal stroller back up the hill, through the summer then the autumn then the winter then the spring of that year.
It was a year my life broke and had to be remade, and at the centre of the remade life were the daily rituals of caring. I’m fortunate to enjoy a stimulating professional life, but the routines of my domestic existence are my anchor, then and still, my animating spirit, the truest expression of my deepest self. At a different stage of life I watch the parents of very young kids in shopping centres and supermarkets, battling the relentlessness of their daily obligations, being impatient, juggling work demands on their smart phones, truncating the special pleading of youngsters tethered in shopping trolleys or point blank refusing to be tethered in shopping trolleys, and I sometimes feel like telling them I am the future.
If it wasn’t completely wrong, weird and potentially incendiary, I would walk up and say to them, don’t worry about it, whatever it is, because it isn’t important, it’s trivial and transient. That school-soiled hand you are holding won’t consent to be held forever, and when marooned in another stage of life you’ll revisit this moment with regret, not because you left the meeting early and every pumped up little shmuck noticed, and that young woman with three degrees and a stint in Africa in humanitarian field work started eyeing off your desk, but because that complete non-event seemed like something important. Just be fully present in this emotional moment, not because it’s better than what comes later, or easier, or tinged with some perfect glow, because it’s all hard, none of it is easy, none of it is perfect, there are no golden years, just oceans of love, anxiety, exhaustion and imperfection—and it all passes so quickly. The passage of time feels impossible in those years of no sleep and no privacy and no agency, but time is relentless and unforgiving and indifferent to your futile acts of resistance.
I really am the future. You can trust me. Nobody asks you if you are ready for your daughter to look into her own future, brimming with its myriad possibilities, each of them eclipsing you and the safety of the world you have weaved for her, the nest you have constructed around her, piece by piece. You are just there, all of a sudden, washed up in the tide. The planes of existence open up. Already you can see how the life axis will shift, how roles will reverse, the implacability of change, the finality of things.
My daughter now washes my hair on Saturday mornings. She works in a salon, one of her part-time jobs. When she was a baby she was colicky, very cranky until six months rolled round and she could sit upright. At the end of the long days, where everything felt outside my control, evening bath time was like a holy ritual. I would unwrap her from all her garments, we would discard all the sour puke, and I would lay her out on a clean bath sheet, naked as the day of her birth.
She was born into the Canberra winter, cold, stark, still—but the bathroom in our small Dickson duplex was like a clean white cave, warmed by hot lamps. She and I had crouched together in this bathroom when she decided to begin her exit from my body on the weekend of Easter. I had doubled over in the shower until the water ran out, enduring the contractions for longer than was sensible. As a consequence, she almost arrived in the car park of the Canberra hospital.
As the warm water tumbled into her nightly bath, I would lace it with lavender oil, which was a sensory key to my own childhood. My grandmother, who lived with us for a time, had her drawers studded with pouches of dried lavender. I loved crushing these parcels in the palm of my hand and smelling them. The lavender was for my daughter, apparently it has calming properties, but it was also for me. My girl would hear the water and watch the steam and wait with undisguised anticipation for the highlight of our day. I would pour a measure of olive oil, and I would rub the elixir into my palms until they shone. When the hand rubbing started, her chubby legs would start to pump. Then when my hands were sufficiently warm I would lay them down perfectly still on her tummy.
Our eyes would lock, just for a moment, during this secular laying on of hands. We both felt the enormity of the gesture, the legs would still, we would be bound together in a moment of perfect clarity. Then I would massage her tummy, gently, cylindrically, following the instructions of the child health nurse who alternated her brusque proselytising between breast being best and the wonders of maternal massage for unsettled babies. My girl would relax under my hands. I would move out from the tummy to the folds under the neck, the little lint trap under the chin, down the arms, to the thighs, the calves, the chubby feet. Last of all I would grip the little hands. My mother passed on to me this element of baby whispering, squeezing the hands of a newborn to instil confidence. When she was old enough to have control of her neck, the back and shoulders got a work out too.
Sometimes the evening laying on of hands happened in silence, sometimes I sang to her, the voice echoing off the tiles in the bathroom and permeating the steam. The end point was always her arrival in the bath. The legs would pump again, the water would glisten with the globules of oil. Last was the hair wash, soaping up the hair, black then and downy, and the rinse, a meaningful pause, then scooped out of the bath, water cascading off her like a small fountain, then bundled up in a towel, wrapped up over the shoulder. We would just linger there, recovering from the intense spiritual dimension to our prosaic little ritual. Then into the night clothes, fresh and clean, into the feeding chair some music to maintain our mutual zen, more bundling, then bed.
The days of the first six months of my daughter often felt like epic battles of endurance, the persistently unsettled baby and her nervous, overthinking mother, battling despair. The world became very small as my new daughter stripped the selfishness from me with minute precision, a carpenter expertly chiselling the newly defined contours of my soul. We were enclosed during that winter for long stretches, just the two of us, but the nights were peaceful. She slept at night for long stretches, in her buttery yellow room at the front of the Dickson duplex, little night light glowing, the music on repeat, on whisper volume, the graveyard shift on Classic FM.
Now my daughter washes my hair. As she tentatively mixes the water to the required temperature and thinks carefully about the technique the salon owner, a person of uncompromising technique, has modelled for her to use on her clients, I think about the times when she was completely vulnerable in my care, all the time we spent in solitude in her earliest days, cloistered in the slowly gentrifying inner north of Canberra.
When her fingers eventually touch my scalp, tentatively—will the pressure be right, is there enough shampoo, will she use all the hot water and be lashed by the gentle cluck cluck rebuke of our friend, the salon owner—I feel my own hesitation looking down at my baby, that tentativeness, a moment of paralysis.
As the water streams down my scalp, my daughter’s hands cupping my ears, I realise it was not she who was vulnerable in her babyhood, it was me, my heart splayed out on the bathroom floor every night. Her vulnerability was a pure projection of mine, a crossing of boundaries between self and other. Her greatest trait has proved thus far to be resilience. Much, for her, is hard. She has the emotional porousness of the empathetic person, yet she persists in a million small acts of creativity and courage.
With my neck bending back over a basin in Kingston, I can’t even imagine the singularity that existed before her arrival. It was an unimportant state of being, one-dimensional and callow. There is now only one densely populated emotional hinterland, the mother, years ago, with the baby; the role reversal now underway every Saturday at noon, the daughter now hovering over her mother, easing away the clutter and the clamour of daily life in strokes that move rhythmically from hairline to neck.
Is the water okay, my daughter asks me? I tell her it doesn’t matter, the water will be as it is. Then the pressure on the scalp. My daughter is short, her hands are tiny; because she’s anxious she destroys her fingernails, they are stubs, with tortured cuticles. But there is such power in the little muscular fingers, working their way through the points on the scalp, the conditioner. The salon owner clucks at her, their own particular mode of communication, a particular potion is required to condition my ends, something special under the counter, like we are in a Speakeasy.
She massages the scalp, managing her colicky, contradictory, contrary mother, who turns to putty with this luxurious treatment. I’m in some paradise-like suspension lulled by the practical physical comfort of being intimate with my child, here, still, and the enormity of the intimacy expressed over time and in changing contexts. My daughter has departed to let me power down, she’s back to bantering with the salon owner and the latter’s daughter, who also works in the business. It’s part of the Saturday ritual: two mothers, two daughters. Back at the basin I don’t want this laying on of hands to end. Please don’t sever this connection. Please, just a bit longer, daughter, right down to the junction between head and neck, the anatomical storage unit for life’s unbearable tensions.
‘I never have to tell her anything twice,’ the salon owner reports once I’ve been cajoled out of a reclining position, conveyed to my chair and caped in deep purple. ‘Quick. Very quick. Never looks at her phone. Speaks up with the clients.’ My daughter is now darting around the salon with a squat little broom, sweeping up the human debris, hair tufts scattered like snow drifts. She has hijacked the blue tooth to play an eighties playlist. When numbers from musical theatre intrude, the salon owner protests. They laugh and they sing, pulling up when a man makes a tentative entrance for a session with the clippers and an eyebrow trim.
Once brushed, blow dried and sated, I hesitate in the doorway of the salon, a backward glance. Always lingering too long, always brimming, overly present, burning brighter than she needs me to. ‘See you at three,’ my daughter says, dismissing me. But she smiles to soften the blow.