Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mid-Century Modern Mom

Mid-Century Modern Mom
China Martens

I work in a fairly expensive, up-scale Antique Store on the Avenue. So many young couples come in with babies that one day it was a running joke: “Eleanor loves antiques,” said one couple. So I said to the next, “Yes, the babies do love antique shopping,” and we all laughed.

From behind the counter I view families in all stages. I watch the infants sleeping in strollers so the moms can run upstairs for a moment; entertain my friend’s 3-year-old daughter (who doesn’t know me but places her tiny hand in mine with such heartbreaking trust) to walk around the store and pet the zebra statue which she names “Medium Sparkle”; and measure furniture with a boy of four. I measure him as well! The boy was quite interested in looking around and talking about what he saw. When the family leaves the dad says, “Thanks for being nice to the little guy.” I say, “Oh I like kids.” But I didn’t tell him that I am a mom too.

We mothers of teens are invisible—no scarlet letter of a child’s hand upon our breasts. Mothers (with small children) who are close to me in age look at me as if I am a girl who doesn’t “know,” or perhaps just a childless woman. They speak of breastfeeding, rocking chairs, and their hampered abilities to walk around the store. But I am a mother too! A mother more than they are or at least just for longer. A mother of great sorrow.

I work on the weekends because I no longer have to worry about things like childcare. I have a very sensible 16-year-old daughter who can take care of herself. At least I used to. A month ago she came home past midnight after she woke up from being passed out drunk in a playground where her new friends left her. I grounded her because she wanted me to ground her. I gave her a curfew because she asked me for a curfew. But every weekend she still goes out and doesn’t leave a note. She does what she pleases. I gave up punishing her for it. A year ago when she didn’t come home after school and it got dark, I called the police for the first time in my life and feared she was dead or harmed. Now I go to sleep used to it.

It’s a change in me, in her, that still shocks me. It feels like the twilight zone. I’m too tired you see. I don’t know what to do. I am talking to her, feeling things out, and considering what to do. I try to calm down and not freak out. This is what teenagers do. Then I worry I am no good at disciplining her and that her life will be ruined because of it. Sure most teenagers come out ok. But some don’t. The time I worried she was dead, I also feared she’d gotten hit by a car. My neighbor’s 12-year-old grandchild was struck and killed on our busy intersection earlier that month. Things do happen.

So I go to work, as my child does whatever she wants to for the weekend. Which used to be watching too much television. And people mistake me for being college-aged. I’m not what I appear to be I smile like Mona Lisa. I am not in my early twenties, or my late twenties, I am 38. My secret: It’s genetics. I have some very good genes. I am thin and have a high voice and like to laugh. I can’t figure it out to tell you the truth – why everyone thinks I am so young. Is it considered young to have a baby just before you turn 22? I wasn’t a teen mother like people think I must have been.

I look in the mirror and see the bags under my eyes, even honest to goodness age spots on my skin. I should feel flattered I suppose, but I feel belittled somehow. I am a woman. I have a dependent. You think I am waiting on you, you with your problems, your child in college (oh what it’s costing me!) as you buy antiques—that I’m young and single. But no, it makes it a little different for me to be making eight dollars an hour, to have already been in college, and to have a teenage daughter I worry about putting through college, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s less charming?

Often I sigh. I watch the two parent families that I like with a kind of hunger.
Sweet young things. They don’t seem to be struggling like I have struggled. This one mama looks like a fresh-faced Natasha Kinski, a European Snow White—with such laughter in her eyes. She asks me for a better price on a silver tray – “But that it is not, after all, so necessary. I am not asking you for the price of a loaf of bread – that my child will starve without.” Now she seems Russian. Appealing. I look back at her young husband holding their child, the baby has laughing eyes like its mother—and continue the joke with her, how she is using her infant to get deals. “Baby needs a silver tray,” I say.

We continue with our purchase banter as her husband tells me how they started to have a collection of roosters in their kitchen and how this store is like an Old World market. The mama goes back to the laughing infant who reaches out to her—she gives her an open-mouthed kiss. It is strange, luxurious, yet like a private joke—a tiny one who must be putting her drooling humming mouth on all the surfaces around her, testing them out. Easy this affection. Then the mother rises up from her domestic setting and floats back to me, where I do give her a better price for the platter.

But what do I know? Romanticizing one moment is easy to do. But I have seen so many young families and it’s mostly like this. They seem tired but tired together, centered on their own importance. Only sometimes do I see the solitary mothers I am familiar with, tired but trying to smile, pulled to stretching soon to tear. “We must leave now. Little hands don’t touch.” (Antique stores make most parents nervous after all.)

I get so surprisingly sentimental these days. And it’s not like I forgot what it was like. My daughter had colic until she was 8-months-old. I remember thinking, Once she outgrows this, it will all be good from then on. These parents think it’s hard now—do you know what babies turn into?! Adult-sized children who eat as much as you, have more expensive clothing needs (that leave you wearing the same clothes year after year—it is more important to keep one’s teen in style after all), still demanding but rejecting at the same time and not very cuddly anymore. Sometimes, I can see my young daughter in my mind’s eye—her exuberant, ebullient face looking to me for affection. I wish I could go back in time and hug her.

Instead I try to love the daughter I have now who greets me with stiff polite hugs when pressed. I wish I could be more positive and encouraging to her. But she drives me crazy. I wish I could feel more positive and encouraging about motherhood, but unlike having an 8-to-ten-year-old, growing independence is not matched with correlating pride on the subject. My daughter smokes, wants to drop out of school, and calls me a bitch when the mood strikes. She pulled her very best cutest baby pictures out of our photo albums to show her friends then left them in a pile by the telephone where she also sat a bowl of Jell-O which melted (after a day) and spilled into the pile leaving them stuck together, ruined. Is this the behavior you imagine out of your child when you imagine a future where every glass of liquid is no longer spilled?

Would you imagine that the best way to get enemies closest to you would be to create them? That this family drama would happen to you? Teenage daughters are thieves; you grow used to it. Just sometimes when looking for a thong so you could wear your fancy pants as you run off to work you wish, Oh damn, my daughter wouldn’t steal my best underwear, deny it, and it’s lost for good. You remember the time you found your best white cotton sheets (which had been missing for months) curled up in her bedroom, hidden from you because they were utterly stained with her menstrual blood. Are these rites of passage?

And the thing is, you are so concerned with how you have failed them, with being good to them, that it hits you so slowly as you cringe under a torrent of abuse—they have double standards. They go in your room but you’re not allowed in their’s. You try to hold your tongue for you know how ugly fights can get, you simply can’t win, but somehow you still wind up saying things you feel bad about in addition to feeling bad about the things they said to you. You have to be the bigger person after all. But is it fair to have these expectations of Mom? You can always be your worst to her and she will still love you? Are you your worst to her because she loves you the best?

The thing about raising children is they change so fast, they change just when you get used to them. Always growing on the edge it seems a bit dangerous, like one fall or spill could cost too much, cost everything. How much to let go? How much to hold on? How much can you control?

Today I came home and my daughter was cooking a special dinner for us. My daughter is a really good cook like my grandmother. She has the touch. I go upstairs and write. Later I eat the delicious dinner my daughter has prepared, watch television and laugh with her on the sofa. Enjoy this too, I tell myself.

Teenagers are inconsistent. Like Ariel Gore said, “Teenagers make horrible roommates.” It tries my patience (tests where I often fail) but I guess increases my humanity. I will regret sounding too negative, or too positive, as the tables will always be turned. I guess in the end I have to believe in her, believe in me, and believe in life. What is the alternative?

There have been times I have thought I am going to make it as a woman even if I don't make it as a mother and I felt bad to be so selfish. It’s too much work to control my daughter, to worry all the time about her. I just do what I can do, when I can do it. Sometimes she hates me. Sometimes, like the other day, she tells me she is sorry she worries me and that she loves me very much and that I am good mom. We talk out new boundaries on curfew. Ten p.m. we agree. We talk and discuss issues. I can't just war with her, draw a line in the sand and fight over it.

Sometimes I see who the mothers of teens are. They walk in with their girls and they look like sisters. I check out the mama’s ass and wonder if mine is as nice. It’s good to see a woman still holding up with the test of time. Sometimes I am met with understanding when I reveal my maternal status and the two of us come out from being (socially) undercover mothers. “It will pass. We could have killed each other and never felt guilty. Now she hugs me. We are best friends,” confides one mother of a 22-year-old. It is less frequent for the mother of teenagers, but mamas still pass the words of wisdom down the line when they find each other out in the world.

I had an especially long conversation with a mother similar to myself on a slow day in the shop. She was a single mother of two children, with hippie ideals living the working poor lifestyle, worried for her unruly ("He used to be such a loving and gentle child") and unsupervised 14-year-old son in their bad neighborhood. After picking her brain about her 21-year-old daughter (who had never hated her as a teen or brought discord to the family, apparently), I didn't exactly feel a lot more hopeful for the future, but somehow I felt at peace. I realized I had been too exposed to parents who put things in perspective by equating the purchase of an expensive (and unnecessary) chair made from Texas Longhorns with a month’s tuition of private school.

Perhaps my daughter wouldn't be hosting tea parties at Saint Johns College (like a mother told me as she bought a fine Hungarian tea cup) but perhaps she wouldn't be working at Hooters with me wishing she would go back to working the night shift at UPS and that she would pursue her neglected talents either. I realized that a lot of what I had been worrying about just didn't matter; that the future would never be more tidy and settled than the present. As long as my daughter was growing—busy in her creative interests, stimulating her mind by challenging herself, and fully living out all she had within her—things would be all right. There are more important things than external trappings.

Anyway, my daughter is already changing again.

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