When my daughter Iris was in preschool, her best friend was an introverted tomboy named Lauren who loved dinosaurs and the color green. When Iris found out that girls could marry girls, she announced that she was going to marry Lauren and adopt "a China baby." Aside from from hoping the ready acceptance of an alternative lifestyle balanced out the cultural insensitivity of the term "China baby," I didn't give the news much thought. It was clearly an expression of affection for the first non-family member she ever really clicked with.
Now, a few years into her elementary gig, Iris is experiencing her first real infatuation. She's star-struck with a woman who works in my office, though they've never met. Not that I can blame her -- this woman is more or less the pinnacle of what every fiery, dreamy, explosively creative eight-year-old wants to be when she grows up. She's an adult, but she's obsessed with Harry Potter and E.T. (and has tributes to those obsessions worked into the sleeve tattooed up her arm). She listens to One Direction, dyes her hair electric red, mothers a brood of guinea pigs, skates with a roller derby team, and works as a graphic designer -- which in a kid's mind means she pretty much draws for a living. Plus her name is Ash, which is splendidly tough sounding and cool as hell.
"See that milk?" I asked. "The one with the cows? My friend designs those."
Iris rushed up the the dairy case and peered closely, in awe.
"One of your friends draws these cows?" She was impressed. "Who?"
"My friend Ash," I said without thinking. I left out the fact that the cow itself had been drawn years ago by a professional cartoonist, and that this quiet coworker who I only sort of knew really just Photoshopped and resized it. Details.
"Ash!" Iris squealed. "The one who draws the cows!" (Sorry, original cartoonist). "Look how cool hers is!"
In addition to balancing my new work/life dichotomy, I was also navigating the social dynamics at work -- a daunting feat for a strong introvert like myself. So on a whim, I mentioned to Ash how my daughter was super impressed with her nameplate. She very kindly responded by making Iris her own, and the obsession was sealed.
"Actually, I'd love to have that," I said. "It's more my style."
Miraculously, Ash seemed to genuinely enjoy indulging this random kid she'd never met. When she went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, she brought back some fizzing whisbees for Iris. Ash even donated her time and talent to design posters for Iris's birthday party.
"I bet I'm the only one in the whole third grade whose mom isn't coming home tomorrow," she said.
I tousled her hair and tucked a wild strand behind her ear. "Yeah, you know, that might be true."
She rested her face against my leg again and we stayed that way for a soft minute, cheek to thigh, hand in hair. Then Iris lifted her face again and asked, "Is Ash on your team?"
"No, but she's on my sister team, so we'll get to review stuff together throughout the night."
Iris's eyes brightened just a little. "Can you text Dad and let me know if Ash makes anything really cool?"
It hit me then, in a way that was so resoundingly obvious. As badass and artistic as Ash is, this crush was never about her. Back in the grocery store that day when I had pointed out the milk with the cow, I had given Iris a tiny window into my life outside of our life. Her infatuation with Ash was nothing more than a hunger to understand who I am and what I do during the long strecthes of time I'm away from our family, a guarded yet utterly complete desire to know who I am -- not as her mother but as a professional woman. It's proof that right now, I am somehow, incredibly, still the person to whom she gives the biggest piece of her heart. And what do I do with that? What do I do that brittle and bursting fragment of this pre-tween, cusp-approaching miracle that I helped create?
Whatever it takes.