My husband had been nagging me to trade in my old car. “It’s time,” he said. “Your second warranty is up.” I had closed my ears to him until he provided a reason that made sense to me: there was a Special Deal—0% financing and a $1,000 rebate. Now we’re talking! A sale!
The lure of a discount is the only thing that could have overridden my resistance. I loved that dinged-up van! I spent more time there than in my home. I recall, during one short visit, my ex-mother-in-law was appalled by the alleged “messy interior,” to which I rolled my eyes. I let her clean and vacuum as she muttered about “Ach! All zeez germs und diseases” that her precious grandsons could catch from the “filthy” interior. Please! It wasn’t so bad. Maybe there were a few fossilized Cheerios stuck to the carpets, but, excuse me: that van was our dining room, living room, and bedroom. Her grandchildren went from booster seats to driver permits in that vehicle.
This old whale of a van, this monument to my years of motherhood, had shuttled mini soccer players to tournaments and then out for celebratory or consolation DQ swirly cones. The proof was deep in its stained upholstery. That clichéd ode to soccer moms had also held wriggling cub scouts eager to begin their camping trips. There was ground-in mud on the van’s floor from various campsites, and the assorted hidden crumbs would keep us fed if we were ever lost in the wilderness. My two boys and I had shared so many adventures and memories in that car. I could never ever consider parting with my mom mobile because she was so much more than just four wheels and a body. This car was my personal time capsule.
Her rear bumper proudly boasted that I was an “Emory Mom” and a “Jayhawk Mom,” and don’t you forget it. I had to nag for those stickers. My kids didn’t understand why they were so important to me. Those stickers did more than just help me find my car in the grocery parking lot. They colorfully proclaimed my status, my identity: I’m a Mom! And not just any old mom … I’m a Mom who had successfully pushed, prodded and encouraged her boys, who had then graduated from good colleges. I loved and adored those stickers, they always made my heart feel full and happy—they were a constant reminder of my sons.
My sons haven’t been in college for several years now, haven’t lived at home, (one is already married!), and I really did need a new car. I had no choice. I thought I was ready. I decided on a shiny blue sedan. But, immediately after signing the contract, I raced outside and tried to scrape off my precious stickers and transfer them to my new car. It was an impossible task. I shredded both the stickers and my nails. Wait! WAIT! I changed my mind. If I let that van drive away, stealing my memories—what then? My new car doesn’t have a single bumper sticker; how will people know who I am?
I stood immobilized, realizing how much growing up had taken place in that van and how much more was left undone. I had been a frantic single mom, holding down a job, trying hard not to compare myself to their friends’ Super Moms. But, honestly: hadn’t my sons proven that, no matter what my shortcomings might have been as a mother, I did a good enough job, so that they were able to plow ahead and thrive?
What’s the problem here? Why am I not ready to let them go?
I have to admit that it’s because I know I could have done better. I could have made it to every soccer practice. I could have enforced time-outs. May I please have a do-over?
I promise never to park them in front of the TV; never to serve them microwaved frozen kids’ meals; I vow to better monitor their computer time; I would even follow up on consequences and insist that they clean their rooms. I just want one more chance to live those years and make every second count. One more chance.
This sudden panic that I haven’t prepared them for life is totally unfounded; it is much more likely that I haven’t prepared myself for life without them. It is textbook obvious that I want to return to playing an important role in their lives, driving them around, being the Ring Leader of their Circus. I understand that I want the impossible.
I know the exact moment when I officially promoted my sons from dependent children to young adults: it was that day in the car lot when I waved a final goodbye to my van, watched my cherished “Emory Mom” and “Jayhawk Mom” bumper stickers until the van disappeared around a corner.
I left the car lot, driving my spiffy new Dodge Charger and feeling … sexy?! What is this long-forgotten thrill? I suppose there are some benefits to trading away the old gas-guzzler. And, I know darned well that life zips by and someday I will be able to paste “Proud Grandma” stickers on my car’s bumper. But not for a few years: I want to enjoy my new car before cumbersome baby seats destroy its beautiful leather.
Susan W. Goldstein’s English major proved helpful in both Corporate and Mom-hood settings. As she now transitions from Active to Passive mom, she is finding her lifeline by returning to her beloved English Lit roots.
I lay in the bed beside you,
That grave face,
Those clear eyes.
We were refugees together,
From the sleeping wars.
I was looking at you,
Thinking all kinds of things,
The desire to hold you,
The desire to run.
And then the reality,
Of that small head,
On the pillow,
So perfectly complete,
Making its own declaration.
Beth Mills has been writing poetry all her life. Her grandmother was a poet who wrote in Yiddish. She has been greatly influenced by her work and her father’s love for poetry. She was an elementary school teacher for forty-three years during which she read and wrote poetry with her students.
It is Free Museum Tuesday in San Francisco and I couldn’t be happier. I quit my job four months ago after having my first baby and it feels like my daughter and I are hibernating, the only difference being bears get to sleep and I don’t. I am on baby duty all day while dad is at work. The hours spool out with breastfeeds, diaper changes, and one-way conversations in infant-ese. Don’t get me wrong; I am relishing this time with my daughter, her tiny eyes searching mine, her fragile sighs, fingers like tendrils curled around my pinky. I know how lucky I am to have the choice to stay home. But I didn’t realize before I quit just how much I would be staying home. It is high time baby and I made a public appearance. Clearly, she is lacking culture.
After pumping the required quarters into a downtown parking meter—enough to cover three museum entrance fees—babe and I set off for the Museum of Modern Art. I feel my blood pressure spike as a flood of pedestrians sweeps us through an intersection jammed with cars. It eases only on discovering it actually is possible to get jaded urbanites to smile at you on the street. Just strap a fat-cheeked, flower-hatted mini-person to your chest.
The featured artist at the MOMA is Cindy Sherman, and the exhibit is as crammed as the crosswalk. Sherman has spent the last 35 years photographing one subject: herself. My initial impression is underwhelmed. Hundreds of people are here to see hundreds of pictures of just one person. Who is more in need of a life here? But as babe and I bump our way through the crowds, I’m sucked in. A deft costume and make-up artist, Sherman transforms herself into a new female persona for each self-portrait. Countless characters line the walls. Here is a coy ‘50s call girl, here a fitness buff with a tiara and a fake tan, here a dejected medieval nursemaid. Each tries hard, sometimes laughably, to project a certain image for the camera. I stand longer and longer in front of each life-sized photograph. I want to get inside these women’s heads, penetrate their shoddy facades.
We shuffle from room to room with the throngs. It is surprisingly quiet in the exhibit, the volume never rising above a whisper. That is until my daughter decides to start squawking like a seagull. The security guard, standing stiffly beneath a portrait of Sherman dressed as a deranged clown, flashes me a look of disapproval. I bounce and shush, but babe caws on, and I start scanning the room for the nearest exit sign.
Then I stop myself. Don’t my daughter and I have as much right to be here as the next person? Should the great art of the world be denied to new moms just because the presence of small children shatters our ultra-adult pretensions? Modern art is about breaking boundaries after all. If Cindy Sherman can plaster her contorted face atop a giant vagina (her “grotesque” period), shouldn’t my 4-month old be permitted a few excited squawks?
We resume our tour. “See the pretty colors?” I whisper as we sway before a larger-than-life rendition of Sherman as a psychologically disturbed heiress. The subject appears to have had an anxiety attack applying her lip-liner. Babe falls suddenly silent and gazes at the image transfixed. A single strand of drool escapes her gaping lip. She’s as observant an art-goer as anybody in this place, I congratulate myself. Then she starts to cry. Even louder than she squawked. When the cry turns to a shriek I start pushing my way through the crowds. Apparently she didn’t find the colors so pretty.
I transport my now hysterical daughter downstairs to the museum café, where thankfully there is one table open at the very back. While she nurses herself into a relieved stupor I sit wondering what I was thinking by bringing her here. Was it selfish? Too ambitious? Inconsiderate of her needs? Of the other museum-goers?
Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but I can’t tell if I’m welcome here. Since my daughter was born, it’s been a bit of a head trip navigating life in public with this this new little appendage. Baby behavior that seems to offend some people, others find adorable, or at least understandable. So I am left studying expressions and body language, trying to read the social cues.
Most surprising to me is how this guessing game about others’ perceptions has shifted my perception of myself. One minute I am a proud emissary, sporting my little ambassador of joy. The next I am an irresponsible chaperone, ruining someone’s outing. Either way I am suddenly and irrevocably a Mother first, no longer a free agent entitled to a personal experience of art or anything else I encounter in tandem with baby.
This sense of identity vertigo has engulfed my professional sense of self, as well. Three months ago I was a publicist and an arts educator. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom. Did my essential nature change when I took on this new role? Of course not. And yet I confess I felt demoted when my tax-preparer documented my professional status as “homemaker” on this year’s tax form. Then I felt guilty for feeling demoted. I swore I would not fall victim to the culture wars pitting the working moms against the stay-at-homes, but it’s true I have assumed a touchy self-consciousness about my new SAHM status. I used to walk out of the house in the morning sporting blazers and dahlia lipstick. Now my signature wardrobe accessory is spit-up.
Sherman’s women flash back to mind. They, too, feel haunted by a preoccupation with others’ perceptions. Their staged smiles beg the question: do we as women take on the identities we assume others pin on us? Have I? The problem, of course, is that most of the time I have no idea what other people are thinking about me (if they are even thinking about me at all). I can only project. So when I find myself trying to live up to—or escape—someone else’s idea of who I am, it is really my own expectations playing the oppressor.
My daughter’s eyelids start to droop and I relax back into the minimalist chair. Perhaps I’m wasting my time bemoaning the identity I think I’ve lost. Maybe I need to take a cue from Sherman herself—Sherman the artist—who tries on and discards identities like a kid playing dress-up. Revel a little in the possibilities of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a human being. That’s what I want for my daughter, after all, for her to experience life as a journey, not an itinerary to land her at some fixed definition of herself: publicist, educator, artist, mother.
I glance up to see another woman struggling to bottle-feed a squirming infant a few tables over. Our eyes meet and we share a chuckle. I wonder how many other baby-toting women are slinking through the museum and wish I could invite them to pull up a chair. A little solidarity might convince us we have the right to be out participating in public life, little squawkers in tow. Mothers are integral members of society after all. Hell, we perpetuate it!
I emerge from the museum with babe to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I shake my head thinking of the slot machine’s worth of quarters I could have saved, but I am half-smiling. I feel energized, high on the power of art to throw a different lens on the world. Babe is content after her milk and I figure the parking ticket secures my space for the afternoon. So—which museum to next?
Bonner Odell is an arts and culture writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes primarily about dance (for the SF Weekly, East Bay Express, Dance Studio Live Magazine and others), but when she became a mother in 2012, she started writing poetry and essays on the new experience of parenthood.
As much as I knew this was inevitable, I still was unprepared when it happened. Last summer my youngest daughter, Claire, fell in love.
The transition from girlhood to grownup was so subtle I almost missed it. At first it was only innocent little things. A few friends gathering, going for hikes, swimming, going to see the fireworks at English Bay. Then slowly there were less and less friends involved, until only one remained. A boy.
Stomach clenched in terror and breath held in hopeless trepidation, I asked the dread question. “Are you and Jackson an item?”
“Mom,” she moaned, “seriously?” Her embarrassment eased my worry, but only a little.
“He seems pretty into you, sweetie.”
“Get real, Mom. He’s just a friend. Besides, he’s short.”
Short or not, Jackson was most definitely interested in my daughter. It wasn’t that I had anything against him. He was a lovely young man: bright, respectful, and attractive, with gorgeous red hair. He was a vegetarian, he didn’t smoke, or drink; he seemed the perfect person to date my daughter. But…
She was after all, my baby, and I was absolutely not ready for this life transition. I wanted her to stay my sweet, wonderful, and innocent baby girl. She might be twenty, but she was still my baby. My girl. Not his. I was not prepared to share her…yet.
They continued to hang out for the rest of the summer and I could clearly see his intentions, even if she couldn’t. He was courting her. Gradually, his name began to roll off her tongue at every opportunity. “Jackson says you shouldn’t put your knives in the dishwasher, Mom. Jackson says we need to be firmer with Skipper,” (our one-year-old cocker spaniel.) “Jackson says—blah, blah, blah.”
Really, Jackson? Got any more sage words of advice for me? My resentment grew each time she uttered his name. I was like a jealous teenager, ready to hate anyone who stole my beloved’s attention. As a fifty-something professional woman, these emotions were as powerful as they were embarrassing, and I struggled to keep them hidden from Claire.
Then, one lazy summer evening, it happened. Claire had gone to meet Jackson for coffee. Apparently he needed to see her before he left for a weeklong volunteering trip. Oh, I just bet you do, Mr. Jackson with the spikey red hair.
I called her on my cell phone. “Where are you?” I asked, upset that she hadn’t come home yet. We were in the middle of home renovations and she had promised to help me.
“I’m with Jackson.”
“Well, I know that. You already told me you were meeting him, but where are you.”
“At Leigh Square. We’re going”—her voice dropped an octave, “out.”
I missed her inflection entirely. Angry, I sputtered, “No you’re not, you’re coming home to help me, remember?”
“No, Mom. We’re going out.”
This time I got it. My heart stuttered like a bashful boy asking his first love to go steady. “What? You’re what?”
“You know, Mom, going out. As in dating.”
I could hear the happiness in her voice and, because I knew her so well, her apprehension. I wasn’t sure if it was the anticipation of my reaction that made her uneasy, or the thought of entering a whole new world—one in which she had suddenly assumed a more adult role, and one in which someone other than her parents, and especially me, her mother, would hold a preeminent place.
I was not prepared for the overwhelming grief that hit me. I was knocked to my virtual knees with the realization that someone had replaced me as the center of Claire’s world. Claire and I are very close.
As a child with the dual exceptionalities of giftedness and learning disabilities, she had required significant intervention. We spent many hours together trying to unravel the mystery that was her brain, and many more squabbling over homework. She was also a competitive Irish dancer and we travelled all over North America, and even Ireland, for her competitions. We clocked so many hours together she grew accustomed to sharing the minutia of her life with me.
This boy who had stolen her heart gave her a whole new topic to discuss with me. She shared everything, even things I perhaps did not care to know about. That was her way. But, as much as I was thrilled to see someone love her in the way I knew she deserved to be loved, I was also sad. Motherhood is such a funny thing.
At first you are terrified that you won’t be able to take care of another life, to nurture that little being and help it to grow into independent adulthood. You might even feel resentful of having to give up your old life, and of having another living creature so dependent on you twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Then, without warning, it happens. You embrace motherhood with a passion you might never have known you were capable of, if you hadn’t become a mother. You become the consummate protector, provider, and advocate, ready to do battle with any who dares to threaten your beloved offspring. Your children train you, by their very vulnerability, to be constantly at attention, to guard against any harm, and to love unconditionally.
Then, just when you have it all figured out, they grow up and fall in love. Suddenly there is someone else to be their protector, their advocate, and even their provider. I didn’t want to feel this way. I was caught off guard by the strength of my emotions, and more than a little ashamed of my jealousy. I am working hard to contain it and move on.
One year later they are still together, and reluctantly I have let this ginger-haired interloper into my heart. I know the odds of them staying together long term are slim, but they are two old souls who spent several years as friends before falling in love. They might surprise us all. I am rooting for them.
As Claire is pulling away, joining this new unfamiliar world of adult relationships, my role in her life is shifting to the background, and that’s a good thing. I just didn’t think it would hurt this much.
Leslie Wibberley is physiotherapist by profession, a slightly maddened mother to two outstanding young women and one slightly insane cocker spaniel, and wife to a loving and extremely tolerant husband. Writing has always been her passion but one she has only recently re-committed her life to. With one middle grade novel complete, one young adult novel in the throngs of revision, and numerous short stories and personal essays lying in repose in her beloved MacBook Air, she is now proud to call herself a writer. Her article RAISING A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE recently won 6th place in Writer’s Digest annual contest.