Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sex! Alcohol! (Or Something Like That)

Four moms in a room?  Eight opinions, all of them contradictory and at least half of them involving a significant waggle of pointed fingers. As someone who makes it a point never to use “parenting” as a verb, I do find that other women tend to keep up a steady stream of vitriol towards the, um, “momming” choices that others make. The incoming missives from every other country tell us  that we’re just plain doing it wrong (Eskimo moms knit whale blubber booties! French mothers teach their children how to debone an ortalon before preschool!) And that lady on the cover of Time magazine, giving her son a last nip of breast milk before he heads off to college and switches to beer? Seems like everyone has a quick thousand or so words they want to share about her particular mom choice.

As soon as I’d jumped into this mom gig (the job that sucks up your entire life and tosses you out like a spent shell a mere 18 years later, just like real corporate America), I realized that I was not a good fit with the other mommies. I liked my kids just fine, but I seemed to lack the requisite number of opinions. I couldn’t really work up enough passion in discussing my choices for diapering, sleeping and eating, let alone have enough energy left over to tell other moms why they were doing it wrong. I’ll let you know, from hard experience, that “whatever” is never, ever the appropriate response at a Mommy & Me session. It sends off signals of weakness that causes the other mommies to emit low, snarling growls of displeasure.

I’ve spent many years since assiduously skirting the hot-button issues, realizing that revealing any of my mom-choices would leave me open to the wolf pack. When a mommy talked about co-sleeping, I brought up the extortion racket – aka jewelry party – she was planning. When she brought up breastfeeding, I looked down, pointed and chirped, “Cute shoes!”

But it turns out that there’s no statute of limitations on telling another woman that she’s doing it all wrong, so, sixteen years after I celebrated my first Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed, I found myself at the center of an opinion maelstrom.

The mom choice I’d made seemed pretty simple:  Emma wanted to spend her junior year of high school studying in Beijing, and I said, “Sure, sounds like fun.  Just let me sell that extra kidney to fund this adventure, and you’re good to go.” On her end of things, the experience has been a great one, and she’s due home in a couple weeks with a mastery of Mandarin, a globally minded set of friends and a much broader worldview. 

On my end of things, however, the finger pointing continues.

It started before she even got out of the country. I mentioned Emma's plan to another mom and – I am not making this up – the first two words out of her mouth were “Sex! Alcohol!” I thought that perhaps she’d suddenly changed the subject and was telling me about her weekend, but it turns out that no, she was just sharing her conviction that, as soon as the plane arrived at Beijing International, those exchange students would be getting busy and getting plastered. I thought of telling her that, so far as I remembered, sex and alcohol were not the sole province of the Communist Party (much as they’d like to get exclusive rights for resale to us weak imperialists), but I just smiled and nodded, something that I found myself doing more and more in the ensuing months.

I began to realize that my experience – letting my little bird fly to her homeland – was an incredible mirror into the motivations and secret worries of all the moms around me. There was a fair contingent of open, adventurous types who saw it as great fun for Emma: “This is a life-changing experience! Good for her!” There were those who focused, positively, on how I fit into the picture: “What a great mom you are for encouraging her to do this!”

But  there was a long line of disapproving mommies queuing up behind Mrs. Sex & Alcohol. While I was on my volunteer shift at Crisis Nursery, a staff member asked about Emma while we were all riding with a herd of two-year olds in the elevator. In that tiny space, I got two immediate and emotional reactions – one staffer got all misty-eyed at the thought of Emma's opportunity, and the other one practically shouted, “No way! No way would I ever let my kids get that far away from me!” 

During a pause in a customer lunch, I brought up Emma’s impending trip, and the woman I was with visibly started, asking quite seriously, “Does our government even allow that?  Because of, you know –" and here she lowered her voice and looked furtively around the company cafeteria to whisper  – “communism.” She seemed convinced that I was in cahoots with Obama, that Kenyan, to arrange these godless shenanigans.

After this steady drip of other people’s opinions had soaked me to the skin, I found that I could begin to ignore it, and even have a little fun. Sometimes I’d bring up the topic just to see what the reaction would be. It was often unpredictable and usually very interesting, and I found big bundles of mom-emotion lurking behind the most mild-mannered faces.

I’ll need to keep that attitude in mind, because one of the things Emma is doing this summer is attending a recruitment camp at the Air Force Academy, with a thought to applying there for college. In the highly pc circles in which I move, there isn’t a statement more guaranteed to freeze faces with displeasure than the words “Military Academy.”

In fact, one brilliant friend has already unfurled her Mom Flag and declared hotly, “People in the military get killed, you know!”

True, but at least they aren’t having Sex & Alcohol, I wanted to tell her. Every mom knows that those are just for exchange students, not soldiers.

1 comment:

  1. One of my good friends from high school was accepted to MIT. After graduating, she learned she was expected to pay for college herself. Being a bit late to start saving for something on that scale, she went off to the Coast Guard Academy. She actually was in the Navy on an exchange semester as well. Now she's been a lawyer in the Coast Guard for much of her career, and is getting ready to retire at the ripe old age of 42 in a few years. I'm thinking she did all right... (sorry if I missed the point of your blog entry). If Emma wants to talk w/my friend about her experiences (because it IS a bit different if you're a girl out there...) let me know. Love that you might have a military kid and a Broadway diva in your future. What great reunions! Where's the kid that's going to live at home until 40 eating Cheetos on the couch claiming the world has been unfair? Maybe s/he is living at a more opinionated mom's house...