May 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
I am in an auditorium, always auditoriums these days: awards ceremonies, budget meetings, graduations. This auditorium is full of parents and children in black and white, carrying stringed or shiny instruments; it is the Middle School Band/Orchestra/Chorus extravaganza. I tune out of the untuned music for a while and scan the crowd. Have any of us left middle school? The eighth grade girls are there still, mean–faced, with brand new boobs and perfectly straight long hair. The awkward ones are there too, hair slicked back in barrettes or ponytails, pants just a little short or tight. I want to tell them they’ll blossom in graduate school. There are cool guys and heavily tattooed parents. There are parents who go to everything, and parents for whom this is the only thing. There are kids there parentless. My department chair is there. Her child plays the oboe. I listen and watch and clap a little extra for my child. Why not? That’s what I’m there for.
We are all in our own middle schools and this one, in a beat when time has collapsed. I watch the band, orchestra, and chorus teachers wave their arms back and forth until the skin flaps. They are wearing the same black sleeveless dress. The songs are medleys; they melt into each other in the warm room. The big display piece is “Born to Rock,” which begins with an orchestral version of “Born to be Wild” and ends with “Radar Love.” If you haven’t already, I’m pretty sure you will hear a polished version of this in an elevator soon. This is not the polished version.
The strings players always make me feel ashamed. I had a wonderful violin teacher, but I never practiced. At my own strings performance at about this age, I decided not to press down on the bow, so I would only emit a tiny squeak: it would look like I was playing, but no one would hear me mess up. Tonight, I realize that was the kindest thing to do for all involved. Stringed instruments, another parent points out in hushed tones, take a long time to master.
The room is full of just about every emotion I can think of. That is why even walking into a middle school is painful for so many people. It is a time of leaning maybe a little too far into one side of yourself. First attempts at the violin. It is a time when everyone is wearing the same thing because your obvious individuality begins to show itself, whether you want it to, like the pink haired girl, or you don’t, like the boy who won’t look up or sing above a whisper as he passes me. You are still full of possibility. This night of singing the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love,” while walking in step through the aisles might be the night that everyone recognizes you as a star.
I follow the chorus teacher, she looks at us from just below the middle of the stage, and dips her hands down, then up. I almost rise at her command until I realize she is talking to her students. I seem to be the only one who knows we’re all still in middle school, and everything hinges on this night.
May 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I guess it’s all Mary’s fault. She set the bar so damn high. I didn’t realize this until, in a rage when he hit middle school and hormones, I asked Cole why the hell he thought my life didn’t matter. “You gave that up when you decided to have children,” he said.
For a moment, I was stunned. I had espoused feminist values from day one, I thought. I had allowed him to wear sparkly headbands at two. I wasn’t going to shape his gender, you know. He was going to respect women, especially me, goddamn it.
“Who the fuck taught you that?” I asked. Here, I must admit that I say fuck in front of my children, among other choice words. I also have threatened them, like you without children think you would never do. Just sayin. I didn’t know I had stolen my idea of motherhood from the fifties, from history, from TV, from Mary. How else would I figure out how to do it right? How does any young woman know? It’s not like there’s a certification. It feels somehow illegal when you drive away from the hospital, newborn precariously strapped in the car seat you bought a few days before from a place called Babies-r-us. It’s bad grammar, after all. How can it be right?
Leigh Ann says we were raised a step up from Nell. You know, the Jodie Foster movie where she and her sister are raised in the woods by a crazy mother? My mom was seventeen when she gave birth to my oldest sister, and just shy of twenty-five when I, her fourth daughter, was born. What would I have done as a mother of five at twenty-eight? I was twenty-seven when my first child was born, and I remember my mother-in-law saying something about how she wondered when we would get started having babies. I remember feeling geriatric and so young at the same time. There were risks, my mom said grimly. Biologically, it’s true; psychologically, it’s true too.
Still, I was pregnant for the first time in 1996. That is post Internet, but pre-blog, pre-facebook, pre-Gap Maternity. It was not my most fashionable moment. I wore a certain hand-me-down romper that whole huge and disgustingly sticky summer in Chattanooga. I realize this is hard for some of you to conceive. How would I know what to do without Mommy Blogs? There was What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which I read like a Pentacostal reads the Bible. My mother was a teenage mother; she really didn’t understand worrying about it. I knew there were a million things that could go wrong. I had a degree to prove it. Also, I wanted to do everything different from my sister Michele. She had not understood my Birkenstocks in college. She was not interested in midwives.
My best friends were gathering in Bali to ring out their twenties. I was trolling the nascent Internet to figure out how the hell I would get this creature out of my body. Good God! The Internet said my baby’s brain was forming. That was so much responsibility. I turned off the computer, because you could back then. You might check your email twice a day if you were compulsive.
Nothing taught me how to be a mother. My mother did not. She wasn’t that kind of mother. There is an idea out there that a mother is some spectacularly virtuous creature. What I learned from having children is that my mother (and my father, for that matter) were the same stupid, irresponsible kids they always had been. It dawned on me as the nurses handed Cole to me. I was the same stupid, irresponsible kid I had ever been. I had no clue what to do.
Motherhood had not turned my mom into anything close to Mary, and she had done it five times. She did her best; we all survived. None of us were teen mothers. None of us were addicts. That was a win. I remember one of my biggest motivators in high school was that I didn’t want to be a teen mother. Not that it was imminent, but still. I didn’t want to end up like my mother. She got us through the forest, like Nell, but I never felt this nostalgia that comes with Mother’s Day. I always felt like I was missing something.
I know, there are fabulous mothers out there. I know plenty of them, and I’m awed by them. They do put themselves behind their children, or at least equal to them. They cook, they remember birthdays; they are what all those cards in the grocery store are about. I didn’t have that picture, but I had a hundred other mothers, some my own age, some older. There were the neighbors, Mrs. Shaw, and Mrs. Jett. There were the Steinmanns and the delicious real meals they had in their refrigerator, instead of hors d’ oeuvers. There were teachers. There were my sisters, of course. There was my mom, in her youthful energy, declaring herself a “mother of the world” and taking in strays, animal and human. There were my college friends and their mothers, so many nurturers. There were men and women I worked with. I think I’m not a bad mom. At least I’m doing no permanent harm, but I don’t believe the hype. You are a person. And maybe you are a mother or a father. But that doesn’t change you into some kind of pure angel. And it shouldn’t, really. Finally, with two years distance, I can see my mother as what she always was: herself. I hope my kids can see me as me someday too.