“Mama who bore me / mama who gave me / no way to handle things/ who made me so sad…” (Spring Awakening)
It’s Mother’s Day. This year, this most Hallmark of holidays fell at the end of the week that tested every fiber of my mothering instinct, and every last reserve of patience and sanity. You see, I am the mother of that most unique specimen, the adolescent girl. Those of you familiar with adolescent girls in their native habitats (which include but are not limited to: their rooms, the couch, the mall, and the bathroom), know that they have the capacity to turn overnight from fairly sweet little girls to creatures who burst into tears at the innocent question “did you wash your face this morning?”. The same child who yesterday asked you to help her make a ‘high side’ ponytail will now haughtily announce that she never did any such thing and “low, loose” ponytails are the ONLY way to wear one’s hair now. They will slam doors when confronted with the unbearable tragedy that is being told their favorite black skinny jeans are in fact in the wash and due to your lack of control over the time space continuum (not to mention your ancient appliances) they will not in fact be ready in 10 minutes when she has to leave for rehearsal. The same chubby little ballerina who needed you to wait at the dance studio to help her change from ballet shoes to jazz shoes will now announce you must only deposit her at the door and return three hours later where you must wait in the car, rather than risk the grave embarrassment that would be her dance class friends discovering she actually has a mother. After you have spent the past thirty-seven years performing in, working in, and being involved in theater, the adolescent girl will announce that it was ‘really annoying’ when you went back to performing three years ago because “theater was like totally HER special thing”. The adolescent girl will elevate eye-rolling to an Olympic-sport level which is accompanied in the freestyle competition by foot stamps, groans, and hair tossing. Ah yes. The hair tossing. I recently realized that my mother had made a preemptive strike all those years ago when she ordered me to get a “Dorothy Hamill” bob in fifth grade. She had just survived six years of indignant hair tossing by my late sister and knew she had better act fast if there was to be any peace in our home by the time I hit puberty.
Last week, on our vacation to New York City, I committed the unspeakable crime of embarrassing my adolescent girl on our last night there by insisting we wait at the stage door of La Cage Aux Folles so I could meet one of my theatrical idols- Harvey Fierstein. (Apparently it is ok to make one’s mother run all over fifth avenue in order to get pictures of the latest heartthrob from “Glee” on a location shoot but it is high treason for your mother to want to meet a celebrity she admires… got it). After we had gotten the autograph and picture and shouted the highly original “we love you Harvey!” we headed back to our hotel some 8 blocks away. It was a warm ,windy spring evening and my adolescent girl (never one to miss an opportunity for dramatics) strode a good half block in front of us at all times tossing her hair so it blew behind her shoulders and stomping her foot indignantly every time her middle-aged mom and step mom had the bad timing to catch up to her while waiting for the “walk” signal to change. While the whole scenario was both maddening and amusing it made me flash back to the spring of 1979 when I was thirteen. My parents and I were visiting my older brother in Washington D.C. where he was a law student. My mother had twisted her ankle stepping off a curb one night and was in retrospect probably in a lot of pain, a fact that went completely unnoticed by me. The next day we were due to tour the Smithsonian and my mother decided that it was just too much walking for her on the hurt ankle, so my father offered to get her a wheelchair at the customer service desk and push her around. I. Was. Mortified. Now you see, my mother was at the time quite overweight and I was sure (sure!) that people would think she was just too… fat… to walk around the museum. Just typing that sentence now horrifies me but there it is. I spent an entire day trying to stay two exhibits away from my parents at all times lest anyone know I was related to them. It was an episode that I frankly forgot about for decades until my mom brought it up once as “that time you were so horrible to us and I spent the whole day trying not to cry.” Yet even then I don’t think I realized how my actions had affected her – not until last week when the adolescent girl looked at me waiting innocently on a street corner in New York and announced “even the way you STAND just makes me want to HATE you.” Then I knew without a doubt that this moment was payback for my actions thirty-two years earlier. I wanted nothing more than to call my mom and tell her how sorry I was and that I understood, I really understood how hard it is to be a mom of a girl – especially an adolescent girl – and I couldn’t. It was too late. Instead I did what my mother would have done and said a silent prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for forgiveness and for strength.
My mom has been on my mind a lot these days and not just because I wish she were around to help me navigate the adolescent girl’s mood swings. I’ve written here before that my daughter’s tendency toward anxiety and worry is something that she got from me. Every day when I pick her up from school and listen to the laundry list of worries that consume her I realize that the tightness in my chest as I fret about everything from making the right middle school decision to whether I’ll meet all my work deadlines, is something that I’ve passed on to her along with brown hair and chubby thighs. Last night while Kelly and I enjoyed a long-overdue glass of wine on the deck I said that my chest had felt tight and tense all week and she looked at me with that uniquely Kelly way and said “Of course it has. The two of you — what a pair of worriers.” And I remembered my father saying to my mother “Mary. Stop worrying so much! It doesn’t make anything better!” And I remembered sitting next to my mother’s chair for what probably amounted to an entire year of my life with my head on her lap crying over some latest anxiety while she rubbed my head. And I saw that line, that clear line of constant, ever-present worry from my mother to me to my daughter. And I wanted to go back in time and lay my head back on her lap and tell her that I understood…and that I was sorry.
Mama the weeping/ mama the angels/ no sleep in heaven or Bethlehem
As Kelly points out often, my daughter is not me. Nor am I my mother. But the inescapable fact remains that we are linked in a way that is both our strength and our weakness. When my daughter tells me that she stood up for an injustice to the derision and laughter of her classmates I tell her about the time in seventh grade that my poster supporting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was torn down by the boys in my class while the teacher (a male) laughed. We are bonded by the knowledge that what we did was right. When she tells me that she hates being so tall and wonders how the pretty skinny blonde girls in her class know how to smile just so do their hair just so and have just the right clothes I remember sobbing on my mother’s lap when every other girl in the seventh grade was asked to dance except me. When she tells me that sometimes she’s embarrassed by me I remember my mother telling me that when HER mother announced the pending birth of my youngest uncle my mother announced “you’re too old you’ll embarrass me.” We are linked by our tendency to fret that is true. Yet we are also linked by the lineage we share…of tall girls with glasses and older moms who will never be prom queen, by the comfort of knowing that all the slammed doors and hair tosses in the world will never bar us from a good cry on our mother’s lap.
The next few years will surely be trying ones as hormones continue to rage in our house of three women and as the adolescent girl continues to stretch her wings and push her boundaries. But in those moments when I go in the bathroom and cry, and in those moments when my daughter will lie on her bed and cry, my mother’s spirit will be with us. And somehow we will survive.
Happy Mother’s Day.
“ *Mama Who Bore Me is the title of a song from the Tony-Award winning musical Spring Awakening. No copywright infringement is intended.. (watch the link at the top of the page — it rocks)