When I was growing up in New Jersey during the 1970s, my parents’ favorite comedian was Mel Brooks. Their favorite Brooks routine was “ The 2000 Year Old Man .” And their favorite Brooks line was: “We mock the thing we are to be.”
I heard this line a lot as a teenager. It didn’t make me laugh — very little my parents had to say back then made me laugh. But I think it made my parents feel better, which they richly deserved. Because I was not exactly averse to mocking things: The suburbs. Having children. Frozen vegetables. The bourgeois affectation known as the electric garage door opener. Anything my mother considered, quote, a cute outfit. Anyone she considered, quote, a nice boy.
These are all, I am sorry to say, real-life examples. I am particularly sorry to say this because I am — you won’t be surprised to learn — a suburban-dwelling, frozen-vegetable-serving mother who would not have a clue how to get the garage open if the clicker gave out.
Not only have I given up on cute outfits for the kids — a few years back we decisively lost the war on flip-flops — but the other day one of my daughters derisively vetoed something I planned to wear as being “too matchy-matchy.” Since when is matching bad? I’m pretty sure my mother would have approved.
And I did marry the nicest possible boy.
I have been reflecting on this because of Mother’s Day, and I’d like to say two things to my mother: First, you and Mel were right. Second, um, sorry. It was just a stage.
As the mother of teenagers, I’ve been trying to focus on that stage part. So when I come downstairs in the morning and every light is on and the milk hasn’t been put back in the fridge, I have to stop. I hear the echo of my father yelling about shoes in the hallway and money not growing on trees.
And when I open my daughter’s bedroom door to a scene out of Alabama, post-tornado, I remember the time my mother decided to deal with the mess strewn across my yellow shag carpeting by following the teachings of Haim Ginott, an esteemed child psychologist. Dr. Ginott’s advice to parents was to explain their feelings, not threaten punishments.
As in, “When I see your messy room, I am filled with consternation.” My mother spent a full week channeling Ginott and sharing her consternation, much to my adolescent amusement. Finally, she exploded and told me to clean my (expletive) room or else. My current consternation is her hard-earned revenge.
Indeed, I find myself, constantly and inevitably, doing the very things that drove me crazy back when. My older daughter has her learner’s permit, and it turns out that Mother’s Foot, the reflexive, imaginary-brake-stomping of the parent in the passenger seat, is an inherited trait. My daughter is much more gracious about it than I was.
Mother’s Foot is a physical manifestation of the metaphysical truth that parents feel no us/them barrier with their children. My mother used to annoy me by constantly brushing the hair out of my eyes. From my viewpoint, she was invading my personal space. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I finally understood: That concept does not apply between parents and children. They are and always will be part of you.
There is, simultaneously, a contradictory dynamic at work. Children, used to taking what they need from parents, are similarly heedless of parental boundaries. What’s yours, they think, is mine. How many times have I stepped into the shower to find that my shampoo and conditioner — my fancy new shampoo and conditioner — have gone missing? Forget a room of one’s own. I’d settle for a drawer. But if my kids ransack the closet in search of “vintage” clothes — ’80s holdovers that I continue to believe will fit me, someday — how can I complain? I do, but privately I know I did the same.
Teenagers need to mock, because they need to separate. They need to mock even if they know — probably because they know, on some subconscious level — they will eventually become more like us than they can imagine.
If you are lucky, as I am, your parents will live long enough for you to say: Thanks for putting up with all that. Someday, as hard as it is to imagine now, I may hear the same from my girls.