My daughter was probably six or seven at the time. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in fall and we were at the soccer field.
Her hair was pulled into French braids which were never as good as I would have liked, but were the best I could do, in a failing attempt to keep her thick mop of curly brown hair out of her eyes. They were tied with red and white ribbons which matched her soccer uniform, emblazoned with “St. Agnes” in white letters across the front. I was off talking with a group of moms nearby, but my friend Maureen was chatting with my husband Tim, and saw the whole thing, as our daughter – his daughter – ran up.
“Dad,” she announced loudly, “Can I do the red hair spray.”
It was more procedural than interrogatory; she already knew the answer. One of the moms had brought that colored spray you could put in the girls’ hair in school colors, and as my kids knew, I was not a huge fan of the stuff. It kind of grossed me out, and also I didn’t love how it looked, particularly on brown curly hair, and also it seemed like it might be hard to get out, and also, I mean, there was school the next day. It goes without saying here that I had long before been declared less “fun” than the mom who had brought the spray. But like I said, I wasn’t there.
Her dad paused, considering the request. And then, he said: “Yes.”
Our girl just stared at him.
“Dad,” she started again, more emphatically this time, “There will be RED” – she pointed to her braids and paused – “IN MY HAIR.”
“I know!” he said with enthusiasm. “Yes! You can!”
She stared at him some more. And then she said: “I better go ask Mom.”
While Maureen doubled over in laughter, and with both his Dad Authority and manhood now on the line, Tim went after her. laughing now too and insisting that she partake in the hairspray on his say-so alone, and without consulting her absentee mother. She ignored that directive, and they ended up over with me, and as the group heard about it, all the moms howled at the child’s inadvertent but nonetheless blatant dressing-down of a father’s power, an exacting play of the unspoken organizational chart that existed in so many of our households. And we laughed good-naturedly at me, too, at the exposition of the Fun Mom that I was not, as evidenced by my daughter’s certainty that it could not possibly be ok, even with her father’s express permission, to have the contraband sprayed IN HER HAIR. I had to concede, under the circumstances; we would figure out how to shampoo it out later. It still makes me laugh to think of it now.
But it also makes me cringe a little, for all the times I said No. In retrospect – which is in all things, but especially in motherhood, so very different than in real time – I want to be the Fun Mom in my kids memory, and not the uptight one in my own. I wonder if my default setting was off. If it should have been set closer to Yes.
It was the only way we knew to raise kids, which is to say the way we were raised, taking the parts from that we thought were best and worth continuing. For many of us, this included the premise that children crave and benefit from parental authority and consistent boundaries, and that an important part of our job as parents job was to prepare our children for the many frustrations and injustices of adult life.
And even if as new-marrieds, we vowed never to say things like, “Because I said so” to imaginary children birthed in fantasy painless labors in which our hair would look kind of messy-pretty the whole time, we sometimes did end up saying that, or ridiculous things like it, to the actual children, the birthing and raising of whom was marked by real pain both physical and existential, and notably by hair so neglected we looked like serial killers. We had no actual time for actual explanations. We were drowning in long days and longer, sleepless nights, fighting rough waves of loneliness in an deep ocean of never-aloneness, pulled down by toddlers running into danger quick as sandpipers, and by the constantly shifting sand beneath our feet. And sometimes, it wasn’t that we knew, or even thought, that it was best, it was just all we could manage: No. We just didn’t have the wherewithal for Yes.
The truth was that we didn’t really have any idea what we were doing. We were cobbling together the best ideas we had experienced, read about, heard from a trusted source, or come across, and trying to avoid the ones we thought were outdated, insensitive, or by which we just could not abide. We mixed it all together, a hodgepodge of what we guessed were the right and best things, and confidently Went With That in an elaborate Fake It Til You Make It con we hoped the children were too little to figure out. It often wasn’t as good as we would have liked, but it was always the best we could do.
Along the way, some of us had a kid or two that came along and challenged these ideas. I would like to think that it was only our limitless love for and deep-seated commitment to parenting that actual, real child – instead of the one we had imagined, brought home from the hospital, or enrolled in kindergarten – which was the thing that brought us to a new approach, but it might have just been resignation and desperation and a lack of still-available options. I don’t know. In any case, what would come of the shift was that we would find that the approach, the default, the parenting premise which was the opposite of the one we thought was best, or were comfortable with, or that worked with other kid (opposite or imaginary) worked, too.
And that’s when it became crystal clear that there really is more than one way to do this. That I mostly have no idea what is or was the best way. And then it is a short hop to wondering if your way even worked at all, what the importance or point of saying No so much or Yes so infrequently was, if the resilience and character that they exhibit now to your great pride is in any part or just in spite of the messy, shady con you had the audacity to call parenting.
I thought of it yesterday, in Starbucks, when the little boy tripped by me happily, his brightly-colored sneakers lighting up with every step. It is hard to remember now, in this age of LED-lighted everything, what an enormous deal it was, especially if you were a little boy of four, or six, or eight, when they invented shoes that drew everyone’s attention – and, in a little boy’s mind, admiration and envy too – with bright lights that shone every time your feet touched the ground. My little boys wanted them so much. Me, less so. In a world and life saturated by relentless stimulation, I thought they were superfluous, and a little distracting, and they kind of got on my nerves. Also they seemed inappropriate for for church, where my boys often wore their sneakers with their white socks and shorts in summer. And then what would they wear?
So I said No until they grew out of that phase; eventually, they stopped asking. But as I watched the little guy in the striped shirt draping his narrow shoulders, all I saw were his pudgy hands spread with dimpled knuckles around his plastic cup. The ground lit by his shoes. And, heartbreakingly, his little face lighting up each time his mother answered another of his many earnest questions.
I wondered again: If I could do it again, if I had a chance to make either their feet or their faces light up, would I?
Yes. My answer would be Yes. Every time.
#52for52: Posting once a week, every week of my 52nd year (18/52)