Loco Parentis: Alter Ego
Our parenting columnist used to love it that her kids were just like her. What was she thinking?
A long time ago, when my daughter Marcy was three, she and I set out from our South Philly home on a hot summer’s night to get water ice. We always went to the same spot, a storefront on Snyder Avenue where the owner’s daughter, Kimmy, spoiled Marcy with free pretzel sticks. There wasn’t much of a line this evening, I was glad to see. I had an experiment planned. “What flavor do you want?” I asked as we waited.
“What flavors are there?” she asked, as she always asked. I ran through the list, from blue raspberry to watermelon. “Cherry,” she finally decided, just as she always did.
It was our turn. “Hi, Marcy!” Kimmy said, grinning and handing over a pretzel stick. “What can I get you?”
Marcy looked up. “Cherry,” she mouthed to me, as Kimmy waited expectantly.
“Then tell her,” I said.
“No, you tell her,” Marcy countered, moving so she stood behind me.
“What can I get you?” Kimmy repeated.
“Cherry!” Marcy hissed, and nudged me.
“Ask for it yourself.”
I’m sure the parents in the line behind us thought I was the meanest thing on Earth. But all my life, I’ve been shy in restaurants and stores. I won’t send a dish back to the kitchen even when it’s not what I ordered. I buy clothes that don’t fit, then won’t return them because I don’t want to deal with the salespeople. And it had recently occurred to me that Marcy showed signs of having inherited this trait. While other kids boldly told the McDonald’s lady, “Happy Meal with McNuggets!,” Marcy froze. Time for toddler tough love.
“If you want a water ice, ask Kimmy,” I told my daughter.
“No,” Marcy said miserably.
“Just ask me, honey,” Kimmy urged. Marcy shook her head, backing away, tears welling.
“Aw, get the kid a water ice, for chrissake,” someone muttered, far back in the line.
But I held fast. “Last chance,” I told Marcy.
She shook her head. She couldn’t, not even for water ice on a hot night. I took her hand and turned for home.
Then I turned back. “A small cherry,” I told Kimmy. What could I do? It was my fault Marcy was that way.
A BABY IS A genetic grudge match — Eagles vs. Cowboys, A.I. against Kobe. You peer down at your beautiful bundle’s hair, eyes, ears, hands, nose, and tally it up: Does the kid look more like your spouse or you? You want to be the winner. You want it badly. Even if you’re not fond of your ears or chin, you’re proud to see them live on for another generation — and, God willing, for more generations to come.
The world feeds this obsession. Observers of your newborn can’t wait to tell you: “Ooh, she looks just like you!” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” “You can’t deny that child!” That total strangers are so eager to assure you that your doughy, amorphous infant resembles you points to a certain fundamental human insecurity regarding parentage.
As your child grows, the vying only intensifies. You scan the preschool report card: Claps along with the group — takes after Doug, my musician husband. Terrific with crayons — ah, that’s me, the artist manqué! Always contributes at circle time — me again, so much more sociable than Doug! Your child’s personality emerges and expands, and the fodder comes from all sides — teachers, relatives, other parents, old ladies on the street, all eager to tell you about your marvelous Mini-Me.
If you prove the loser with the first kid — if the red hair and freckles clearly didn’t come from you — you can always have another, and hope it turns out better. Well — not better. Yes, actually. Better. More like you, that is.
I can recall exactly when I knew I had a clone for a kid. Marcy’s second-grade teacher seemed fidgety at our parent conference. “She cries,” she confided, lips pursed. “She bursts into tears when things don’t go her way.” I’m not sure how she expected me to react, since that had been my modus operandi for four decades at that point. Doug stepped up:
“She’s a sensitive kid.”
“Too sensitive,” said Pursed Lips.
The complaint cut as close to home as all the compliments had. “Too sensitive?” I demanded of Doug on the ride home, eyes welling. “How dare she tell me my child is too sensitive? Who does she think she is?!”
“Sandy,” Doug sighed. “Give it a rest.”
As the years passed, Marcy didn’t show any signs of outgrowing her sensitivity and shyness. What I’d once viewed as an affirmation of my personal lifeforce became a little scary. What could I have achieved if I hadn’t been so quick to cry? How would this trait I’d passed on to Marcy hamper her in years to come?
The whole time you’re bringing your kids up to believe they’re masters of their destinies, you’re becoming less sure of it. Somewhere along the way, the realm of infinite possibility that was your child turns into a pit of genetic doom. Random foibles take on a foreboding generational resonance: If Marcy’s brother Jake can’t learn to control his temper, he’ll wind up like my Uncle Wayne, who got a speeding ticket in 1937, when he was 25, and was so pissed off that he never drove again, straight up until he died at the ripe age of 89.
In May, Marcy needed a dress for her junior prom. Wanting to do right by her, I asked the most stylish woman I know where to go for a prom dress. She said Nordstrom. Marcy and I had never been there. We walked in warily. “Where’s the prom dress department?” Marcy wondered, as we circled through the petite boutiques on the second floor.
“We could ask,” I said.
Marcy shook that off. Any interaction with the sales staff here, she’d intuited, would end with us feeling unworthy. “Let’s leave,” she declared. Just then, she saw a dress she liked.
“Try it on,” I suggested.
She glanced toward the dressing room. A passing saleswoman caught the glance. “You want to try that on, sweetheart?” she asked. “You just come with me.” She bustled Marcy off, unlocking the door to a cubicle. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, sweetheart.” I could sense Marcy’s discomfort with this level of attention. At Boscov’s, nobody calls you “sweetheart” or unlocks the door. We’re out of our depth, I found myself thinking. And then I got mad at myself for thinking that. It’s not like we’re Bosnian peasants. I have money in my checkbook. Why should we feel like Cinderella, with the clock about to strike and reveal what we truly are?
The dress didn’t fit. But by that time, stubbornly, I’d found another I thought Marcy might like, and then another. Along the way, we made a friend: a woman shopping for an outfit to wear to her son’s wedding. She couldn’t stop gushing about how beautiful Marcy looked in everything she tried on.
And then we fell in love with a dress, a confection of black chiffon and sequined butterflies. Marcy swished when she walked in it. She looked like a woman, not a child. The only problem was a tiny gap on each side of the low-slung back. Our new friend saw me eyeing them. “They have free alterations, you know,” she chirped. “Just ask for a seamstress.”
“How are you doing, sweetheart?” That was our saleswoman, checking in with Marcy.
What was going through my mind at that point was this: Just because my mother only shopped in discount places doesn’t mean those are the only stores I’ll ever feel comfortable in. And even if they are, I can break the cycle. I can bring Marcy up so shopping at Nordstrom is as natural to her as breathing, starting right now. I merely had to demand my due with as much sangfroid as our new friend, who was deep in discussion with her seamstress regarding a neckline snap.
I drew myself up. “We like this dress,” I said. “But could we see a seamstress, please?”
Marcy stared at me, dazzled. I felt omnipotent, as though I’d just bestowed on her a glorious gift. The saleswoman gave a little shrug. “Sure,” she said, and glided into the distance.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Marcy said.
“It’s your prom dress,” I said.
Our seamstress arrived, a plump, matronly sort. “What’s the problem?” she asked.
I spun Marcy around. “Well, you can see — it gaps just a little at the sides.”
The seamstress frowned. She plucked at one of the dress’s slim straps, pinned it shorter, and shook her head, frown deepening. She tried the same with the other strap, but wasn’t satisfied. She tugged the dress down over Marcy’s hips. The frown became a scowl. “I don’t see what I can do here,” she announced flatly.
Well, for gracious sake. I’d sewn enough dresses in my life to know what was needed. “I would just take two little darts,” I suggested.
The seamstress looked me up and down for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe you would take darts. But we don’t take darts.”
There it was: the coup de grace I’d been braced for since we came in the doors. Marcy’s hopeful face deflated. I flushed red as cherry water ice. What I should have done was tell the seamstress where she could stick her pins.
But Marcy did love the dress.
I patted my daughter’s hand. “I’ll take the darts in it,” I told her bravely. The seamstress rolled her eyes. Marcy went back to her cubicle, with a bit less swish than before.
At the checkout counter, our new friend was ahead of us, requesting a dress bag for her wedding outfit. Her sales clerk had to go and find one, so our friend waited while we were rung up. “You can get a dress bag!” she told us urgently. “They’re free! You only have to ask!”
She couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t.
WHEN WE LOOK AT our beautiful babies, we’re sure that only what we like about ourselves — the long eyelashes, the intellectual curiosity, the knack for languages — will survive, not the weak chin and large hips and social cowardice. We forget, or ignore, the many dead ends and wrong turns that the family’s fossil record contains, preferring to see a steady upward drive of improvement and excellence, rather than a regression toward the norm.
Then you get older, and you get some distance, and you realize that while the big wheel does keep on turnin’, it never really goes anywhere. We’re stuck dealing with what we’ve been dealt, condemned to watch our children make the same mistakes we did, and for good reason: because they’re just like us, the way we used to wish they would be.
And yet, it’s comforting.
Driving home from Nordstrom, I told Marcy a story my Aunt Phyllis once told me about my mother. It wasn’t a story Mom ever told me herself.
Before she married my dad, Mom had a date one night with a young man far beyond the likely prospects of the daughter of a Lithuanian shoemaker. He picked Mom up at her parents’ rowhome at 2nd and Morris and drove her to his parents’ much more impressive house. She was greeted by her suitor’s parents, who told her dinner would soon be served. Mom politely asked if there was anything she could do to help, and the young man’s mother said, “Why, yes. You can set the table. We’re having a clear soup, oysters, salad and lamb.” And she indicated a massive mahogany silverware chest in the dining room.
Mom lifted the lid, surveyed the dazzling array of specialized spoons and forks and knives nestled in their red velvet compartments, realized she was hopelessly out of her element, and burst into tears.
It’s an inheritance, of sorts. Someday down the line, Marcy may find herself telling her own daughter about our trip to Nordstrom for a prom dress, and the seamstress, and the darts. Maybe she’ll throw in the story of Nana and the silverware chest. That would be pretty cool. She never knew my mother, though she bears her name, and it’s been hard to bring Mom to life for her. But that day, driving home, I felt them on either side of me, my mother and my daughter, and a connection between them that ran straight through my core.