Parenting, and my relationship with my daughter, is persistently fraught by the presence of two seemingly incompatible states of affairs.
First, my child seems utterly familiar to me, the most intimately known person in our family: I was with her at her birth, and have been a companion and guardian since then, cleaning, bathing, feeding, escorting to school, playing with, teaching, comforting, advising, encouraging, ‘disciplining’ and so on. My daughter’s face, I have often said, seems to reflect my family album: sometimes, wistfully, I see glimpses of my father and mother; sometimes, I catch fleeting resemblances to cousins or nephews; on other occasions, miraculously enough, I see myself staring back at me. She is unmistakably, a recipient of my genetic material, a biological bond I have formed with the cosmos thanks to my relationship with her mother, and our joint decision to bring our child into this world.
And yet, for all of that, my child remains an utter mystery to me. To be confronted with her is to come face to face with the most profound question of all: Who is this person? When my daughter was younger, working through her terrible twos, her toddler stage, I used to joke with my friends that while my daughter immediately took to her mother–the person who shared her body with her for nine months and then breastfed her for the next two–I had to ‘start from scratch’ and introduce myself, negotiating the parameters of a brand new relationship with a person who knew nothing about me. I could take nothing for granted in this relationship; I had, so to speak, to begin from the basement and work my way upwards, establishing myself as a presence in her life. Hopefully one to be loved and trusted. But it didn’t come for free; I couldn’t have it granted to me; I was dealing with an unknown quantity, as was she. And she is changing, in ways I cannot fully fathom and of course, cannot predict.
Most of this is utterly unsurprising to parents. Children, for their part, have long known that their parents are mysteries to them; indeed, when I think of how much my life had already transpired before my daughter met me, of the little dribbles of information with which I seek to inform her of the kind of person I was, am, and am trying to become, I feel utterly defeated. As an immigrant parent, this task is particularly intractable. I will remain a mystery to her.
The nature of this relationship broadly understood is not radically dissimilar from that we enjoy with our lovers and friends: the most intimate of relationships is revealed to have acute perplexities at its heart, which have inspired countless poetic and philosophical flights of fancy: the encounter with another subjectivity, when we look into the eyes of the seemingly utterly familiar and find instead, the greatest mystery of all, one that we have merely deferred from our interiors to the external, and which serves to remind us of the task of discovery that waits within.