My mother cursed me.
She pointed at me, summoned all her strength, and hurled the most heinous words she could summon straight into my little five-year-old eyes…
“I hope you have a child JUST LIKE YOU!!!”
At the particular moment her words were spawned by extreme frustration. It seems I had made just the tiniest of messes. We were on an unendurably long road trip to Grandma’s house for Christmas. After squabbling had finally become boring I had taken it upon myself to entertain my three-year-old brother. While playing tug-of-war with my favorite baby doll we had ripped one of the seams connecting the plastic arm to the pillow body. I discovered the styrofoam stuffing inside made perfect ‘snow’. My brother was mesmerized as I made a winter wonderland out of the back seat of our pinto green station wagon.
I really hadn’t done anything wrong, so she really couldn’t punish me. She had, after all, indulged in the moment of peaceful respite from the squabbling, putting off checking on us for fear she would re-induce the whining. And it wasn’t my fault that mid-seventies style dictated that she should be wearing cranberry polyester from head to toe. It wasn’t my fault that the ‘snow’ I created carried just enough static to stick to polyester, making her clean-up efforts a maddening impossibility. Every time she wiped her hand over the seat, it simply jumped to her way stylin’ jumpsuit and stuck there. She’d brush her hands down her pant legs and it would just jump to another spot.
Shaking with madness and frustration she tried desperately to keep the swear words in. Instead she raised her cranberry clad arm and hurled her curse at me.
My father focused intently on the gas meter on the other side of the car. He tried desperately to hold in the roaring belly laugh, but even my wide fear stricken eyes could detect the telltale shake of his shoulders.
Over the years I’m afraid her frustration revisited her again and again. I had a habit of rearranging furniture, causing many a stubbed toe and bruised shinbone. I was a bit of an arts and crafts fanatic who was constantly swiping her ‘trash’ to create proud creations for the fridge or her desk at work. As a teenager I perfected the dry, sarcastic sense of humor I inherited and turned it against her time and time again. And I’m ashamed to say I took the disgusted-sigh-eye-roll to new heights. She took it all in stride. And when I pushed beyond the limits she simply swallowed her pain and renewed her curse.
Nine years ago I gave birth to a precious baby girl. For the cameras my mother beamed like a good grandmother should. She cooed and snuggled, offered advice and provided relief. And when she thought nobody was looking she smiled the sly smile of one who knows vengeance is near.
Yesterday was her day.
Busy and stressed I had shooed the kids away to the playroom so I could cook dinner. The sauce was boiling, the phone was ringing, the clock was ticking. The last thing I had time to do was to go poke a stick in the bees’ nest of children that I knew was waiting for me upstairs. I operated on the principle favored by all busy-beyond-belief mothers: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If someone is bleeding they will scream loud enough for me to hear. Otherwise, they can’t be doing anything I can’t clean up later.
I realized my mistake as soon as the youngest drifted in for a before dinner snack.
“What’s that in your hair, baby?”
“Snow, Mommy! It look like snow!”
In that instant I knew. The words of my exasperated mother echoed in my ears. The sauce was forgotten and the phone dropped as I rushed upstairs to survey the damage. There I discovered my snowy almost-five-year old, beaming with pride as she surveyed her winter wonderland creation. Apparently styrofoam has developed a whole new generation of stuffing, too fine for even my expensive designer vacuum to successfully suck up.
I did the only thing I could do. I took a deep breath, pointed my sauce-splashed finger, and passed the curse down to the next generation. Then I cleaned up the mess as best I could so Mother would never know how painfully successful she had been. I just couldn’t face knowing the smug satisfaction plastered all over her face was spawned by my misery. Even if I had come by it honestly.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem