Getting Physical With Mom
I may be small, but I will take you out!
What would my wife Betsy like for Mother’s Day?
A photo of a little face in a homemade frame? Or maybe a tiny handprint in terra cotta? No, I’m afraid we’re past that. The only little faces around here anymore are portraits of Andrew Jackson printed on the money that not-so-tiny hands are continually pulling out of my pockets. Yes, we still snuggle with our daughters, but it’s different when they are hormonally supercharged teenagers and apt to turn on you like unstable circus tigers. They are magnificent beasts, but scary.
Eighteen-year-old Marie was smiling and playful when she approached her mother who was reading on the living-room couch. “C’mon Mom, I can take ya!” she said, holding out her hands in that offensive/defensive way wrestlers have. The living room is where we do most of our horseplay because it has a carpet and almost enough space. Behind Marie’s sportive air was real curiosity. She has been exploring the shadowy frontier between childhood and adulthood, and this challenge was the physical part of the exploration.
In her junior year she was studying less, cutting school and spending every spare minute with a certain angry boy. Then Marie announced she would homeschool herself for senior year. “My teachers are destroying my love of learning, all my friends are graduating and I hate everyone else. I’d like your blessing on the homeschooling, but it’s not necessary,” she said. “No matter what you do or say, I am NOT going back to that high school.”
It looked like a plan for spending even less time on school work and even more time with the angry boy. We advised her to grit her teeth and finish high school in the regular way. She refused. We had thought all those years of bedtime stories and piggy-back rides would count for more. But we were spared a showdown when her principal said she could earn her diploma by taking English and phys-ed at the county college. It was a really good plan and has worked out wonderfully well.
But the episode wounded us. Part of it was her rejection of our advice. Apart from a few high-profile instances, our advice has been pretty darn good. Brush your teeth and wear your seat belt have worked out well for her. Also, back when she was very young, we were the first to advise her to use toilets.
Now she has a car and holds down two jobs to pay for it. She’s getting good grades at the county junior college and has been accepted at the state university. I’m proud of what she’s accomplishing and relieved that her rebellion of last spring worked out so well. But I feel like we’ve lost our license to direct her.
Of course as long as she is lives in our house and expects help with college tuition, we have some power. But I feel strange when I tell her what to do. Our authority and her willingness fade together in no-man’s-land along some indistinct line that could only be defined by battles that none of us want. So we ask her to be home by midnight and she either complies or phones to get a little more time.
In her stretch toward autonomous adulthood, her size may be a factor. Marie is a well-filled-out 5-foot-6. She has always enjoyed overpowering her younger sister, so maybe it was inevitable that Marie would challenge her mother. Betsy is 5 inches shorter than Marie and weighs almost 30 pounds less. But Betsy works out and is strong and scrappy. She laughed, took off her eyeglasses and said, “OK, I’ll fight you.”
Marie helpfully pulled her up from the couch and then lunged onto her, her superior bulk bearing her mother to the floor with a crash that made the windows rattle. “Aargh!” said Betsy, as if a horse had fallen on her. Rallying, she shot a sturdy leg up and over Marie’s body and suddenly she was on top, holding her daughter’s shoulders to the carpet. Marie was pinned good and proper.
“Well Miss Smartypants, what do you say NOW?” Betsy teased.
“I just LET you win. I didn’t want to be a granny-basher,” Marie said with a defiant gaiety that masked her surprise at being taken down so handily.
Well, it wasn’t the fiercest fight I’d ever seen. But it was the most decisive. And I have to admit, our team needed the win more than Marie did.
Maybe for Mother’s Day I’ll buy Betsy a satin robe with her name across the back. And I’ll promise not to tell Marie that the only way to defeat Betsy is to pick her up. Separated from the floor, those powerful legs are as harmless as a baby seal’s flippers.By Rick Epstein. Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org