A woman unpacks the meaning of motherhood in a series of letters to her unborn and unnamed daughter.
BY KATHERINE LEE
1. Dear Iris,
Greek: Goddess of the rainbow
When I was little, I promised myself if I ever had children I would make them go through Chinese School, and music school, and everything I was going through, so that you would turn out exactly like me. After all, life was good. Tiring, but good. I loved my family. I loved my music. I loved my friends. I loved the dappled days spent under the green maple trees, making play food out of dirt, chopping up leaves like vegetables, collecting funny looking rocks, running and falling off the curb of our quiet street, racing my valiant steed of a bicycle up and down the hill, pausing occasionally to quench its thirst from the limpid potholes.
When I was little, I loved everything. I loved easily. I would want you to be that – that easily laughing creature that flitted about in a world of partially her own creation and partially the creation of Lucy M. Montgomery, J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, Cornelia Funke, and so many more. This is what I remember of my childhood and that is what I would wish for you too, if I could, Iris. Summer eternal – jubilant, vibrant, glowing, under the arches of the unending sky.
2. Dear Irina,
Greek: Goddess of peace
And yet, I remember this: livid evenings the color of Southern clay, angry nights spent in frustrated tears – whose tears were they, primarily?
First daughter – peacemaker, pacemaker. Slicing through sullen silences thick as quicksand, a flame in the empty furnace I stayed, until life crept back to the little green-shuttered house on that quiet street. I was proud. My family was not one that breaks. At least, not permanently.
Sweet Irina, I do not wish this for you. You deserve better – you deserve a peaceful home, one that does not yell or accuse and involve you in matters beyond your control. You do not deserve to grow up before your time and carry me through. I think “Irina” is not good, after all. I do not wish you to be the peacemaker. I wish for you to be born in peace, loved in peace, and thrive in peace. Is this even possible? When I was a teenager, I hoped it was. I was going to prove that it was.
3. Dear Ilsa,
German/Hebrew: God is abundance
There are times now when I wonder if I was marked for it. A black thumbprint on my forehead at birth, to be a blade of grass in a monsoon that destroys everything but us especially. A paper soldier caught in an unexpected rain.
Even now, I can understand, if not forgive. Forgiveness served me for years, a wavering last shield against the onslaught of reality. Now I am too angry to forgive. An anger I worked hard for, to love myself and to love you enough to not forgive, to understand that the wounds I received were not wounds of honor but an atrocity.
Abundance. Can it be possible to wish for abundance, when I can’t even feel enough? And yet I wish this for you. To be confident in your worth – to love fiercely and to be loved unconditionally – by me? A few years ago I began to suspect not, that I am not capable. How can I love you unconditionally when I don’t know what that is? They never taught me – all I knew were the bars of the ladder and the unyielding dirt floor.
And yet, Ilsa, dearest Ilsa, I think I could. I want to believe I could. Don’t I love friends unconditionally? Don’t I love the world unconditionally, enough to ache when it is broken as it is now? Didn’t I love them unconditionally for years, until our tie was so frayed beyond repair I had no choice but to cut it? I don’t know anymore. I don’t think you should be born until I know, Ilsa. I know you are impatient to see the world but I cannot risk not loving you as you deserve, without reserve.
4. Dear Ituha
Native American: sturdy oak
As I write today, the trees outside are burgeoning into golden masses resolute against the gray skies. It is too cold for you today, little Ituha – be glad you are safe within me, one layer away from the inevitable, deadening winter.
How many autumns have I spent like this, writing shadows of fantasy selves into the void, living between pages of ink? It has become precious to me, this pen, and yet it is harder and harder to write to you, child Ituha – for today you are Ituha, yesterday you were Ilsa – tomorrow you may not be anything. Can I even bear the thought of losing you? Or can I be selfish enough to hold onto you even as I am imperfectly rotten?
Are you strong? Are you brave enough to weather this world, and more yet, to stand me? When I was a child I loved nature with an aching heart, the elaborate beauty of it stunned me into reverence. I worshiped it as I would worship you, you little acorn, as the fruit and pillar of my existence. Yet is this a fair cross for you to bear? I’m not sure it is, and perhaps you ought to be sown by a farmer other than me.
5. Dear Iyla
Greek: shining one
What is the world that I would bring you into? One where girls are taught to be wary, women are assaulted and killed without acknowledgement or apology. Where the freedom of even your love is contested, and unseen systems as old as time will seek to control you – you, who is brilliant and bright – be it the clothes you wear, the way you speak, the way you don’t speak, the way you move through the world in search of your ambitions – it is a cold, immutable world you would come into, and history will not be on your side.
And yet – there is such warmth here too. The communities you will find and help build are the souls of this dark universe and there is space even so to build cities between the stars if you wish. The void can be your own to master and I know you are capable, sweet Iyla, I know you would not be daunted in the face of that which is empty and unyielding. You would have the world at your fingertips – if only I did not stand in your way.
6. Dear Isabel
Spanish: Devoted to God, God’s promise
I sit in this apartment surrounded by blue – blue walls, blue skies, blue sorrow like the tint of forgotten water. This little world of mine is steeped in sorrow, baby Isabel – I don’t think I can bear bringing you here. I love you too much to subject you to my insanity – to the martinet of a monster that caresses me like an old friend but mauls like a myriad of maniacal morons – it is too cruel of a master to serve and too tenacious an adversary to disperse. Stay safe in me, small Isabel – be loved by me but be unborn – this is the best way I can protect you. I promise.
About the Author
Katherine Lee is a writer and artist based in Chicago. She graduated from Northwestern University with honors in Creative Writing (Poetry) and a double major in Chemistry. Currently, Katherine is working on a project intended to contribute to and make more visible the dialogue on depression and mental health. In her free time she enjoys napping with her two cats Luke and Leia and walking around the city, especially around Christmas time.