Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Mothers Embarrass Their Sons

by Julia Buckley
This week, as one of our spring break festivities, my family went to see a movie together. We thought it might be crowded, so we got there twenty minutes early and then sat in a nearly empty theater, crunching our popcorn and watching truly inane television promos on the giant screen.

"I can't wait for the previews," I said.

"Mom!" my 14-year-old son said. "Don't talk in here."

Surprised, I looked around at the twelve other people spread across the theatre, all of whom were talking, too. "Ian, this isn't a library or a church. And the movie isn't starting for twenty minutes. We're allowed to talk."

He shook his head and rolled his eyes slightly, looking to my husband for verification. "Dad, no one likes people who talk at the theater." I shrugged, then continued talking in a whisper to placate him. The fact is, anything I do embarrasses my son, beginning with inhaling and exhaling. Perhaps I should do it in the opposite order?

In an effort to understand my teen, I cast myself back to myself at that age and managed to dig out some surprising similarities. I remember treating my father in particular (because he drove me to school each day) to some sarcastic sighs and eye rolling on a pretty regular basis. I loved my dad, but I think I saw him as rather nerdly with his AM radio morning talk shows and his constant adjusting of everything on the car dashboard, as if he fancied himself an airline pilot. I criticized his driving, as I recall, and I didn't really approve if he kissed me goodbye in front of my friends. It seems mean and obnoxious now, but it's helpful that I can recall it and make myself admit that I was the same sort of teenager my boy has become.

My mother, too, bore the brunt of my teen cruelty. She was neat and I, with the disdain of all work that every teen seems to feel, was rather sloppy. Once she came into my bedroom, my lair, where I sat at my desk, probably writing moodily in my journal.

She took one look at my dresser and the thick coat of dust upon it and expressed dismay (my mom was big on dusting). "Julie! Look at this--the dust is so thick I could write 'Pig' in it!" she exclaimed in her rather sweet German accent.

"Why don't you do that, Mom?" I asked, staring into my book.

She sniffed and left the room. She was putting away clothes, I think. My mother was always, always doing chores and I never once thanked her for her household maintenance, just as my son never thanks me.

When I left the room later, I saw that my mother had indeed written "Pig" in her beautiful script-like printing, as a basic symbol of our clash of ideologies. It made me laugh then, and it does now, but these days I understand my mother's side of things far better.

The nature of teens is to look outward at the world, at opportunities and new people and new horizons. They do not so much look at the people in their own homes, but when they do it's generally to accuse them of hypocrisy (and oh, does my son love to use his prodigious vocabulary against me!) or absurdity or some other objectionable abstract. They are learning that they are clever, but they have not yet reached the point at which they can look inside themselves and assess their own behavior.

My teen, like all teens, is both horrible and loveable. He is a pubescent Jekyll who occasionally and without warning becomes Hyde. But when I am ready to judge him for any number of infractions--selfishness, moodiness to start--I am haunted by an image of myself at the dinner table of my teen years, bursting into tears when someone said something that I perceived to be offensive. I remember the blank stares of my parents and my siblings, who viewed me the way one might a dangerous snake--fearful of making the wrong move or saying something that might elicit more crying, or perhaps a primal scream.

Over break my son and I got along quite well, except for one explosive fight during which we launched our verbal weapons at each other (I admit to using the word "crap-ass" as an adjective about my son's behavior) and then, in the aftermath, we were oddly calm and repentant. We faced each other like weary duelists and exchanged apologies and then, as though we'd been exorcised, we had a nice time for the rest of the evening.

While both of us must navigate the stormy seas of his teenhood, I think we can manage to stay afloat if I tell my son I love him, even while I'm angry at him, and if I somehow manage to convey the idea that not only do I understand him, but that at one distant point I was him, in many, many ways.

As my own mother did, I often express my love by feeding my children. Before I started writing this, I handed my son a bowl of rice pudding, a favorite snack since his babyhood. He accepted it happily, and somewhere in his psyche he is storing it as one of many acts of love.

Until he thinks of those acts, though, he will continue to be embarrassed by me, his rude and inconvenient mother. :)


Paul Lamb said...

As I was reading I was hoping you would reveal that your mother had written something like "love" in the dust.

Julia Buckley said...

No--but like all good mothers, she has provided little gifts of love for me throughout her life. She will probably be mortifed that I told that story. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

One of my sayings for many years (since my son's teens, in fact) has been, "You're never too old to embarrass your children." On the other hand, some mothers never get too old to remember--and recount in public--their children's embarrassing moments. I could have lived without the fifty-year-old anecdotes about my juvenile behavior.

Julia Buckley said...

Funny, Liz--I guess mothers and children both have moments that are simply frozen in time for them. My mom always enjoyed my humorous moments, and likes to recount them still.

At Easter I told her a story that made her laugh, and she wanted me to go across the street with her and tell it to her neighbor. I managed to wiggle out of that one. :)

Jess Lourey said...

Oy, Julia, your life is a mirror of mine, both growing up and now, raising my own children. This past weekend, I had my nieces over because my sister had a meeting she couldn't cancel. My oldest niece had prom night on Saturday, and while getting ready, she suddenly burst into tears. For no reason. It made me think of all the crazy, inexplicable things I did growing up, like telling my dad I hated him (and really, really meaning it) because he made me do the dishes before he'd let me watch my favorite show on TV one night. Sigh. And so it comes, full circle.

I love your mom for writing "pig" on your dresser in dust. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Jess! I had a colleague who was afraid to look at his daughter because he said no matter what expression he had on his face it somehow seemed insulting, and she'd burst into tears.

And in regard to Prom--I have a long involved story about mine that I won't tell here, but suffice it to say that my behavior would make your niece's look stoic, and at the end of my frenzy I got a case of the hives.

Sandra Parshall said...

Teenagers are utterly at the mercy of their hormones. As obnoxious as they can be, they're also rather pathetic because they often seem to have no control over their own emotions and reactions. Maybe someday science will perfect a pill that will cure adolescence. Until then, the world is stuck with all these volatile young creatures.

Julia Buckley said...

And their evil moments make their sweet ones even sweeter by contrast. :)