Ceding the spotlight to my teenage daughter.
Not long ago, my daughter fell in love for the first time. Even though both Katherine and the Boyfriend were 16, neither of them had a driver’s license. One day, about a week into the relationship, Katherine asked if I could drive them to a friend’s birthday party. The two sat silently in the back, radiating industrial-strength teen awkwardness.
So I leapt in. I asked the Boyfriend what he liked to do outside of school, and was he part French—since his last name sounded French—and teased him about his habit of wearing a knit cap, even in the dead of summer. At first I thought I was helping my daughter ease the tension, and then I suspected that I was simply showing off my superior social skills. This evolved, to my complete horror, into the realization that I was flirting. I shut up. I needed to mind my own business, which was being not the comely 16-year-old doll baby in the picture but her 49-year-old mom.
I was rattled by the whole episode and was rattled that I was rattled. I’d imagined that the day my daughter officially declared she had a boyfriend I would be obsessed with one thing: condoms. Even though I had already talked to her ad nauseam about the importance of birth control and the hazards of STDs and teen pregnancy, it had been in the abstract. Each of those awkward conversations was prefaced by “One day you’ll meet someone you really like and . . . ” That day was here.
The rush of emotions (mine, not hers) surrounding the joyous event roared in like a tropical storm. I was thrilled she was so happy, and, not incidentally, I also enjoyed her high spirits, which manifested themselves in offers to load the dishwasher. She actually whistled while she worked. Love made her giddy, as it does all of us, but it couldn’t and wouldn’t last, which would break her heart. Sometimes I felt the overwhelming urge to wring the Boyfriend’s neck, just to get it over with. But those were feelings I’d expected.
What I hadn’t expected was my own sense of dislocation. Ever since I was nine or 10, whenever there were guys in the picture, I aspired to be noticed. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Starting in the sixth grade (or earlier, if we’re prodigies of seduction), most women strive to be looked at, flirted with, hit on, asked out, pined over, proposed to. If we end up as wallflowers, it’s by accident, not design. (Most of the time I wound up Best Friend of the Cute One, at which point I developed a sense of humor to overcompensate, but that’s another story.)
But what was I supposed to do now? If my daughter had become the hottie in the house, then what was I, aside from her chauffeur? My personal definition of good mothering has always included not just supporting my daughter but stepping aside for her. When she made the basketball team I went from being knowledgeable former player to mom in the stands, cheering her efforts; it was unthinkable that I would bellow free throw tips from the bleachers or do anything else to show her up. Yet when it seemed time for me to sit down in the stands and play frumpish, middle-aged mom, I balked.
It’s one thing to be a babe when our children are little and we’re the attractive female in the family simply by default. But I noticed something happening to myself and my friends as our kids edged into puberty: Even though our knees creak a little more and we find ourselves with reading glasses, we still feel young, or at least youngish. Unlike so many of our mothers when they were our age, we don’t view ourselves as over the hill, and we see no reason why the rest of the world should, either.
For me, the issue was further complicated by the fact that I was a late bloomer. When I was exactly my daughter’s age, my own mother predicted I wouldn’t “hit my stride” until I was 30. (Thirty? You were practically dead by then! I wanted to kill myself.) Of course, my mother was right: It wasn’t until I was almost 35 that I knew not only who I was but how to work my particular brand of appeal. At almost 50, I felt as if I’d just arrived at the party, and now, unfairly, it was time to go. Yet, to continue to present myself as a woman who’s no stranger to a black lace thong or an active sex life, especially in the presence of my daughter’s friends, boyfriends and even their parents, is to risk being a Stacy’s Mom.
Stacy’s Mom is the eponymous MILF in the 2003 hit tune by Fountains of Wayne. The lyrics tell of a boy who comes over to visit his pal Stacy just so he can ogle her mom, a sexy divorcée who’s “got it going on.” (“Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn? / Your mom came out with just a towel on / I could tell she liked me from the way she stared / And the way she said, ‘You missed a spot over there.’ ”)
Setting legality aside for a moment, there really isn’t anything wrong with a single woman hitting on the gardener. They do it in French movies all the time. But this is Stacy’s mother, and here is poor Stacy, who clearly does not have it going on. What about her? How does she feel about her hot mom parading around the front lawn wrapped in a towel?
A hot mom is defined here as one who is, you know, still able to work it, often in low-rise jeans and strappy sandals, with swingy, highlighted hair, carefully exfoliated skin and nice teeth. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m a firm believer that women everywhere should look as terrific as possible for as long as possible.
But the problem is we live in Desperate Housewives times. The cultural norms of beauty for every female between 13 and 90 are roughly the same: smokin’ hot babeliciousness. To be beautiful, pretty, handsome or any of the old-school definitions of attractive pales in the face of hotness. The choices seem to be, cultivate your MILF-ishness (which might mean competing sexually with your own daughter, which is downright creepy, not to mention high on the list of dubious parenting practices), or live out the rest of your life wearing fleece.
The Stacy’s Mom Dilemma can probably be traced back to the day when 40 became the new 30 (and 50 the new 40, 60 the new 50 and so on). When I was the same age as Katherine, my own mother was in her early forties and had already crossed over into the land of the middle-aged mom, with her short, frosted hairdo, polyester pants, floral Qiana shirts and her disapproval of the Rolling Stones and the word bitchin’. She made no special effort to relate to me, since her job was to clothe and feed me but otherwise leave me alone. I believe the term is benign neglect.
How different is this from the attitude my friends and I hold toward our own teenagers? We never dismiss someone—our kid or the child of others—simply because he or she is 16. Not only do we remember in great detail what it was like to be 16, but most of us can access our inner 16-year-olds in a heartbeat. All we have to do is crank up “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” and we are there. We’re interested in our kids and involved in their lives and loves in a way our mothers never were.
Once I remember asking my mother why, when we went clothes shopping (our favorite mother-daughter activity), it was always to buy things for me and never for her. “Because it’s your time,” she answered.
This was typical of my mother’s mysterious, koanlike pronouncements. Back then I confused this alleged time with my time of the month; to this day I still wonder what she meant. That it was my time to be at the center of the drama? To be lusted over and pursued? To wield my beauty in the name of getting ahead in life? If so, then my mom had already thrown in the towel when she was younger than I am now.
It may be juvenile, but I don’t share my mother’s apparent equanimity. I’m healthy and energetic. I don’t want my “time” to be over. I do worry that if I were the mom in Dirty Dancing, in the scene where Patrick Swayze pulls Jennifer Grey toward the stage, growling, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” I’d hop up and say, “No one puts me in the corner either!” Then I’d bust a move along with the young lovers, humiliating myself and everyone in three counties.
Yes, I want my daughter to have her turn, but I grew up playing hippie softball, where there are no strikeouts and everyone stays at bat until they get a hit. Why can’t we both have our times?
One morning I tried to broach the subject with my daughter. Katherine and I were standing in the bathroom shoulder to shoulder, twirling our mascara wands in perfect sync, when she said, “Thanks for taking care of yourself and being a young mom.”
“What do you mean by young?” I asked, fishing.
“You know,” she said.
“Thin, or . . . thinnish?” I said.
“You do yoga,” she said.
“Sexy?” I asked. “You know, a hot mom?”
“Awkward!” she cried, and then fled the bathroom with only one eye made up. I never got to ask whether I’d made her feel uncomfortable the day I flirtatiously chatted up the Boyfriend in the car. Her response was proof enough that, however modern we all are, however close we feel to our children, they really don’t want to be reminded of the fact that Mom does the nasty. Ever.
I ran into a pal at Starbucks whom I think of as a hot mom (her daughter is 13). I knew this woman from yoga class, and I’d admired her butterfly back tattoo during countless downward-facing dogs. But the day I saw her in the coffee shop she was wearing a gray T-shirt and a pair of unremarkable jeans.
“Oh god,” she said when I asked her about the Stacy’s Mom Dilemma. Then she rolled down the waistband of her jeans (whatever that rise is that’s between mom jeans and crack-revealer) to show me the band of her white cotton granny briefs. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make of this.
“I was doing the wash and I found a bunch of thongs that weren’t mine,” she said. “I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized—they belonged to Chloe! I knew I hadn’t bought them for her. I marched into her room and asked her what was going on, and she said that all the other girls in her class wore them. Before I could say, ‘But you’re not all the other girls, are you?’ she said, ‘You wear them.’ What was I supposed to say to that?” Apparently, the conversation ended there and then; my pal’s response was to toss out all her tiny, lacy red G-strings and purchase two dozen white cotton Jockey for Her briefs.
After my realization that day in the car with the kids, I reined in the playful banter (my conversational equivalent of a red lace thong) and focused instead on tossing together spaghetti or burritos to feed the two of them. Once in a while I did ask the Boyfriend how school was going, which seemed to be a completely appropriate, white-cotton-briefs-style question. It has occurred to me that I might never be ready to resign myself fully to matronhood. I may go to my grave still wishing I could wear fruit-flavored lip gloss and flirt with my local barista. Still, when it comes to my daughter, it’s better to err on the side of momishness.
A close friend has a good, old-world saying, “The funeral procession must always make way for the wedding procession.” And while I’m not dead and Katherine’s not a bride, the point is well taken: My time may or may not be over, but her time is definitely now.
Karen Karbo’s most recent book is The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman.