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No Going Back

"Stilettos, sling backs, slides," my friend Jen coos over the phone. "All half-price."

"The only slides I'm acquainting myself with today are the curly ones at the park," I grumble. This morning I was up with the birds, summoned from Sunday morning slumber at seven o'clock by my nearly 2-year-old daughter, Isadora, who sometimes calls herself "Miss I." As we breakfasted on toaster waffles with bananas and sang 15 bleary verses of "The Wheels on the Bus," I thought of Jen and all my other childless friends waking late to devour elaborate omelets, French toast, and deliciously fat Sunday papers.

Today Isadora's father, the man who does double time as my husband, has a deadline to meet, so I'm on watch until nightfall. As I corral Isadora in her room for a game of clothes rodeo  -- wherein I attempt to lasso, diaper-change, and dress her in 10 minutes or less without getting an eye gouged out  -- I can't help but recall the intoxicating aroma of new suede boots.

"Polar bears eat turkey franks and cappuccino," Isadora chirps as I attempt to wrangle her into her pants. I burst out laughing, for my daughter can crack me up in a way no one else can. The image of zebra-striped mules vanishes as she takes my hand and leads me outside. In the park, she holds her ground when an overly friendly lap dog tries to kiss her on the lips. I would not be so brave.

At noon we meet my friend and my 4-year-old godson for lunch. She and I once shared long late-afternoon meals sipping red wine and flirting with waiters. Now we bolt slices of pizza and chug diet soda while flirting with danger: When Isadora flicks a searing hot mushroom at my godson, he retaliates by hurling a handful of Legos at her head. Lunch ends without my talking about my money woes or my worries about Isadora's thumb-sucking; it ends without my learning how my friend is surviving divorce or whether she's still having trouble sleeping at night.

On the way home, Isadora wants to ride in her stroller; no, she wants to be carried; no, she wants to walk. Every few feet she stops and crouches down on the sidewalk, proudly exclaiming, "Dirt!" When I try to pick her up and put her in the stroller, she howls, "No, walk!" and collapses on the sidewalk as though boneless. For a moment I think about leaving her there, but then she hollers, "Mommy, carry me!" so I lug her home. "Butterfly kisses," she says, brushing her lashes against my cheek. Any hard feelings evaporate.

Isadora is my burden, but she is also my gift.

Back home it's "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," who thinks nothing of blowing off his work for a bit so he can roll on the floor and play zoo-animal tea party with his princess. After Isadora goes down for her nap, he hastens back to his computer, but not before telling me (with a shrug) that the babysitter for tonight has canceled. As I pick up toys and clean spilled milk out of the rug, I regret that I'm no longer the sole female in his life  -- that I must share him. And for a moment I fantasize that I am single, blade thin, and keeping lovers on both coasts. I take French lessons and can afford really beautiful shoes. In truth, I'd settle for occasionally sleeping late and making love before lunch, or once in a while going on a spontaneous dinner-and-a-movie date with my husband.

I creep into Isadora's room, where she's sleeping on her back, her long tangle of blond hair fanned out behind her. Her arms are open, as though she's been dropped from the sky. I am ashamed of my yearnings for the past.

On our way to the playground Isadora trills, "cappuccino, cappuccino, cappuccino," her new favorite word after "dammit." "Mommy loves you, Isadora," I say. "Thank you," she says. And I laugh, but she's right. Although we'd like to believe mother love is unconditional, the truth is, it can't eclipse the tiny pecking sparrows of regret.

In the sandbox a little red-headed girl meanders over and expresses interest in the bucket Isadora is playing with. Isadora looks at me, her eyes wide with confusion and disappointment. "Can you share your bucket?" I ask her. She shakes her head and tugs the pail away. "Okay. What else do we have that we can share with her? How about your cups?"

Isadora shakes her head and starts to cry. "Hard to share," she says.

But then she hands the cups over, and the two are soon playing happily next to each other. I'm so proud of her  -- so in love with my little girl. She's right: It is hard to share. For both of us.

Having never been mistaken for the selfless type, I've had to learn to let Isadora take over my life. In the end, I traded up. Every day I feel my understanding of what it means to be a human being deepening. The intensity of my love can be white hot, with the power to burn me up as though I've flown too close to the sun, a love with the power to frighten and astonish me. Did I always have the capacity to love like this, or is this something that Isadora has conjured in me?

I could regret that I will never be innocent in the same way. I can wish I'd never held my feverish child and been afraid I couldn't heal her, experiencing a depth of despair and futility that brings me uncomfortably close to my own mortality. But I don't.

Being responsible for my daughter's health and happiness makes me feel I have a greater purpose in life than ever before. And the "I love you" she whispers as I carry her up the hill and back to our home is well worth shedding the boundless freedom of the childless woman I once was. That woman, I realize now, never even knew what love is.

Elissa Schappell is a columnist for Vanity Fair and is at work on a collection of short stories.