One of the twins puts a donut hole in her mouth. She grips it between her thumb and index finger and licks the powdered sugar off the other side, her tiny pink tongue leaving clearings of saliva in its wake. Sugar coats her lips. Her brown eyes fix on a spot somewhere over my head, as if she’s pondering something important. Then she shifts her gaze to me and smiles. She removes the damp lump of dough from her mouth and hurls it at my head.
It misses me and thwacks into the blank wall instead, but only because the other twin has chosen the same moment to rush from somewhere in the room, leap onto my back, and burrow her small hands and sharp baby nails into my neck. I jerk sideways just as the denuded donut hole sails past.
“Hey!” their mother Keena says from the couch, where she sits with my coworker Karen. The twins freeze: one now clinging to my shirt, the other with her arm halfway submerged in the cardboard box from Dunkin Donuts. They look at their mother and she looks back at them, her eyes wide, her broad forehead drawn together in angry furrows. She holds their gaze for what seems like minutes, then turns back to Karen to continue her explanation of hating.
“So say I tell you, ‘girl, that’s an ugly sweater,’” she says, gesturing at Karen’s bulky, cream-colored, probably second-hand pullover.
“And then you tell me it’s DKNY, and I’m like, ‘Oooh, I didn’t mean that, it’s actually kind of cute.’”
Karen nods again.
“So that’s the type of person that’s gonna be hating. They care about brand names and little stuff like that. And then they see a female dressed like her – ”
I realize in the silence that follows that they are talking about me. I’m still kneeling on the carpet, trying to pry one twin off my back while the donut thrower grabs at her feet, apparently attempting to climb on as well. I’m wearing stretched out jeans and a blue shirt and tan sneakers made of some faux leather compound purchased from a discount shoe store near my apartment.
“Say she had on like some heels with that shirt, some nice sandals or something, and she did something with her hair,” Keena continues. I smile at her and think, what’s wrong with my hair? “Haters would be like, ‘She think she so nice, with her little shoes and all that. Just look at her. Pshpshpshpsh,” she cups her hand at her mouth, leaning in toward Karen as if to conspire against me. “You could even get killed for that,” she says.
“What!” Karen says. I stop paying attention; I know I will get a detailed summary of the conversation on the car ride back to the office. And now I have children to attend to. Karen and I both work for a professor who’s researching housing assistance programs in Chicago, and we spend much of our time visiting public housing units or low-rent apartments, conducting long, in-depth interviews with the adult tenants. This is our second visit to Keena’s house. The first time we met her, about four months ago, she still lived in a “project” on the city’s north side. Since then, she has moved to an apartment farther north with a housing voucher that covers seventy percent of her rent. This is a rehabbed place on the first floor, with stark white walls and white carpet that I suspect will lose their sheen as soon as the twins do any coloring or eating of spaghetti.
One of the reasons we usually interview in pairs is so that, if need be, one person can amuse children so the interview can proceed uninterrupted. At around eighteen months old, the twins are Keena’s youngest kids – the older three are at school – and I have endeavored to amuse them since we arrived about an hour ago. Like many of the homes we visit where small children live, this one seems oddly empty of toys, so I’ve just let them wander around and climb on me (we hadn’t yet figured out that we should always pack crayons and paper and blocks for these visits). And the donut holes we brought along with us proved more interesting as projectiles than comestibles, but I tried to discourage this trend as much a possible.
Both of the girls are wiry and thin, like tiny runners. Both wear white cotton briefs over diapers, no pants. One has a blue fleece pullover on, the other a long-sleeved white thermal with little pink flowers splattered across it. Someone has twisted their hair into thin spirals secured with tiny black rubber bands. Their faces, with huge dark eyes and small lips drawn into meditative puckers, look nearly identical, except that one has a cold today – the one in blue, also the donut thrower – and bubbles of snot keep gathering beneath each of her nostrils.
After the twins get tired of trying to climb up my back, they meander over to the corner of the living room where there’s a gap between the wall and the entertainment center. “Fips!” says the pink-flower shirted twin. She crouches in the space. Then she somersaults toward the entertainment center. Her feet flip over her head and bang into it, and the picture frames and glass bowl on top of it shudder. She lies on her back, feet still resting up on the side of the entertainment center, and laughs.
“Whoa, no,” I say. I crawl closer to the girl and squirm my hand between her shoulders and the carpet so I can direct her into less dangerous space. She rolls over, pulls herself up my knees, and wraps her arms around my neck. I’m surprised by her smallness, how I can hug her back with just the palm of one hand.
The other twin, meanwhile, has dragged out one of the child-sized plastic chairs that were arranged over by the dining room table. She’s placed it at the front door, right beneath the doorknob. She’s also donned a small purple windbreaker and now is approaching me, pulling the two halves of the zipper away from her body as if to demand, “Zip me!” I do, and she lurches back toward the chair. I sense something treacherous about to happen and leap up to follow.
Keena catches my sudden movement. “Oh don’t worry, they just playing ‘Time to Leave,’” she says. Hmm. I don’t know that game. But then I see – the girl in the jacket has climbed up on the chair and is turning the doorknob back and forth, as if she’s going to open it and exit the apartment. As if it’s Time to Leave. Her sister bobs over to the base of the chair. She stands there, looking up expectantly.
The girls and I play “Time to Leave” – the twins switching spots on the chair, taking their turns at the obviously locked door – until Karen finishes her questions and she and I actually do have to leave. As we stand in the doorway, saying goodbye and backing away, both girls start crying. The twin in blue grips my leg, and her sister holds out her arms to me, elbows locked. I pick her up. “I’m sorry, little girl,” I say, and rub her back. She keeps crying.
“Shhhh girls! For real!” Keena says. She shakes her head at me as if to say, you know how they are. I smile and hand her the girl in my arms. She props that one up on her hip, steadies her with one hand. The girl nuzzles into her armpit. Then Keena grips the other twin’s wrist and pries her from my leg. “They like you,” she says.
As we walk back to the car, I think how very very glad I am, at twenty two years old, not to have children. Not because I don’t like them. They’re pretty cool, in fact. But they seem like such ridiculously complicated enterprises.
Karen, my co-worker, has a four-year-old named Sophia. When Sophia comes to the office, she sits on my lap and says, “Let’s look at Barbies.” So I find a website with pictures of Barbies – usually offering collectibles for sale – and we look at them. “That one’s BEAUTIFUL,” says Sophia, admiring a mermaid Barbie with a shimmering cloth fin attached over her legs. “Her name is Lauren.” Sophia types laxnpq on the keyboard of my computer.
Lauren, I know, is one of the older girls Sophia goes to daycare with. Karen constantly worries about the influence of these girls, who are seven and eight years old. Sophia has started hiking up the bottoms of her tee shirts to expose her belly, explaining, “This is how the popular girls wear it.”
The older girls at day care also like to ask Sophia why she doesn’t have a dad, since Karen, like nearly all the women we interview, is a single mother. Most of these women started having kids sometime in their teens. Karen had Sophia at thirty. She also has a steady job, a college degree, and a car that usually runs. But both she and the women we meet seem to mourn the phantom partnership in similar ways. They miss the immense benefit of a second income – or regularly received child support – and of a person to split childcare with. More intangibly, they opine about the questions their children ask them, the problems their children have at school or in daycare, the need to always wonder if this or that thing would be different with their daddies around. Listening to these conversations, I gain a great appreciation for the challenge of single motherhood. I would be useless at it, I think, and avoid imagining the situation that would require me to tackle it.
Sophia doesn’t have an answer for the girls at day care concerning her father’s whereabouts, and neither does Karen. Nor does Chicago’s child support enforcement bureaucracy. Sophia will offer one piece of information regularly, though: “My daddy is black,” she says solemnly, sometimes making adults who don’t know her rather uncomfortable. “My black daddy.” Her black daddy has bequeathed to her creamy brown skin and corkscrew curls. When I baby-sit her, people occasionally think I’m her mother because I too have curly hair. Despite my misgivings about bearing my own kids, I like the feeling. Rather than being just the stand-in, the unrelated adult called upon because Karen wants to go to Target and the grocery store alone, I am the real thing. My connection to this little girl is the deepest, most authentic connection we could share. Except of course in reality it’s not, and I will return her to her mother, who, despite the fights they have and the stresses of single motherhood, loves her incredibly.
The last time I watched Sophia was at her apartment in northwest Chicago maybe a year and a half ago. It had poured rain the day before, and Sophia wanted to go jump in the puddles stagnating in the uneven parts of the sidewalk and the muddy park down the street, where grass had begun to grow in after winter. Karen had left out Sophia’s rubber boots, green and decorated with smiling frogs. Sophia put them on. I zipped up her pink jacket and declared us ready to go.
“No, I need my babies,” said Sophia. She wheeled out a plastic toy shopping cart from behind the coat rack and proceeded to fill it with the dolls that she’d scattered around the living room. Most were naked, with pink rubber heads and arms and legs and white cloth bodies. A few had marker scribbles across their bald heads.
“Ok,” Sophia said, pushing the cart toward the back door. We exited the apartment and began the long, slow walk toward the park, often stopping so Sophia could try out a puddle or because a baby had fallen out onto the sidewalk. We passed a house with a few flowers pushing through the dirt in the front lawn, and Sophia stopped to smell one.
“Smell it, Miss Katie,” she said. I bent down and placed my nose near the bud. “Mmmm,” I said.
“Do you know what kind of flower that is? A daffodil,” Sophia said. I was impressed. I didn’t know if she was right, but her sense of authority seemed convincing.
We arrived at the park, the shopping cart of babies long ago relegated to my care and the back of Sophia’s cotton dress laced with mud. She said, “I have to show you something!” She ran ahead.
When I caught up with her, she was kneeling in front of a rock with a plaque attached to it. I guessed that it said something about the park’s history.
“Can I read this to you?” she asked.
She stood up, looked at me, and held her arms out from her sides. “By the power of the Lord! The Lord, he is powerful, and he is the most powerful of all. And he said to the sheep, and the sheep sang a song, and God said the Lord is full of love.”
“Um, very nice.”
After an hour or so at the park we returned to the apartment. Sophia picked out a new purple-flowered sundress to wear and I washed out her muddy one in the kitchen sink. Then I cut up an apple for her while she stood next to me, holding her string cheese like a microphone. She sang some Al Green: “Can’t get next to you babe, can’t get next to you. Can’t get next to you babe, can’t get next to you. Can’t get next to you babe, can’t get next to you. Can’t get next to you babe, can’t get next to you. Can’t get next to you babe, can’t get next to you.”
Children and how to raise them occupied much of the conversation at the office where Karen and I worked. A handful of graduate students also worked there part time on various poverty research projects. They studied things like stress hormones in kids and public education and the impacts of neighborhoods on families. All of them were women, and many had husbands or boyfriends who worked full time in the corporate world, making life on a grad student stipend a little more comfortable.
This was Sharon’s birthday, I think. Someone, probably Elisa, had brought in cupcakes and a coffee cake from a local bakery, along with grapes and cantaloupe for the health-conscious among us. We sang happy birthday, then helped ourselves to treats. We settled in around the conference table. Conversation turned to Jeanette’s unborn child – or, more precisely, to the commodities her unborn child should be greeted with when it entered the world.
“Jeff and I have been looking for baby bumpers,” Jeanette said.
“There are so many cute ones,” Elisa said. The conversation continued; I remained at its point of origin, stuck on what exactly a baby bumper was. Then I stopped caring as it became clear the main consideration in selecting one was the wondrously infinite variety of colors and patterns available. I could not even feign polite interest in whether Jeanette chose pink or yellow, shy Victorian rose or under-the-sea. After spending a year and a half visiting poor families’ homes, it seemed unlikely to me that such a thing could have much importance. I caught Karen’s gaze across the table. She rolled her eyes and flicked a half-smile. She didn’t care about baby bumpers, either. But this sort of talk, I knew, also made her feel insecure. Should a mother care about baby bumpers? Can you raise a child right if you don’t select each aspect of its environment with the utmost care? Or is the acquisition of the perfectly patterned baby bumper somehow an indication of how good a parent you’ll be in other, more important, arenas? What are those more important arenas, anyway? How do you identify and control them? The one thing the conversation did make clear was that at least these women had the economic security to make their kids comfortable. And that meant something important, didn’t it?
All questions, I realized, that I wanted to avoid. I might love Sophia from afar and enjoy work afternoons that involved amusing two-year-olds, but only because I could leave. And not feel guilty about it. I couldn’t imagine ever choosing to take real responsibility for a child. Especially if I didn’t turn out like the women at this table, with their safe homes and steady incomes. I wouldn’t have the energy, the ingenuity, to do things right without the superabundance of resources they sometimes seemed to possess. And what did it mean to do things right, anyway? Had any parent ever pinned it down? I suspected that they all screwed up in some critical sense, somewhere.
But I was twenty-two years old, and I knew it. Of course my reservations about motherhood could change. Some mystical urge to host my own little parasite for nine months, then to commit myself to its well-being forever, could replace such reservations. Or not. Maybe I could instead devote myself, in smaller doses, to the children that would exist all around me. At least I could be kind to them. Like them, I was someone’s flawed, loved child.
A burst of laughter jarred me back into the conversation. “So anyway,” Jeanette said, “I think we found the perfect material for curtains. It’s these tiny ballerinas, and it alternates with a white one, a black one, and Asian one –you know, multicultural.”
“Oh, that’s perfect!” Elisa said.