When I was 13, not long after I began 9th grade, my mother took me clothes shopping. It felt weird cruising the juniors department for the first time. I was confused by the sizes, which felt to me like starting over. I had just been a size 14, and now I was a 3? Whatever happened to my old friend 6X? Mom and I stood together at the register, paying for a pair of sky-blue Dittos pants and a couple of keyhole-necked knit tops.
“You two look just like sisters!” the cashier chirped.
I wished I could run and hide in the twirly round racks of clothes the way I always did when I was little. There was no way Mom and I could look like sisters. How humiliating! My mother had recently cut off her long straight dark brown hair that for years I had loved brushing while inhaling its scent. Now she sported a reddish-brown short tight frizzy perm. She had stopped wearing the hip-hugger jeans, wide leather belts, and ribbed turtleneck sweaters that were her uniform when we rode horses together and instead wore dowdy mom pants.
We stood eye to eye now, the same height — her womanly fortyish frame next to mine, still childishly willowy and curveless. My shirts hid the padded bra that Mom had insisted on buying me. I was young, still a kid. She was old. How could anyone possibly mistake us for sisters?
I wished my mom was more like my friend Paula’s mother, an art teacher who threw pots, had a huge collection of Grateful Dead albums, and let Paula and me stay up all night watching old movies on TV whenever I slept over. Paula’s mom was cool. Different. Herself.
My mother was no artist. One day when I was eight she brought out a boxed art kit and drew fantastic trees with wonderful wild wiggly branches and roots. I drew my trees that way for weeks, but Mom put the art kit away. No matter how much I wished it would, the art kit never came out again. I wanted to see inside her, for her to wear her wild wonderful soul — like the trees she drew — on the outside, but she put herself away along with the art kit and became older, smaller, and less of herself every year.
At 13, the last thing I wanted to be was my mom. At 13, the last thing I wanted to be was a mom at all.
One episode of “I Love Lucy” changed that. I can still remember the day I saw it and burst into tears, 20 years old and married barely three months. It’s the episode where Lucy finds out she is pregnant and tries to tell Ricky about it but he’s busy and doesn’t listen so she goes to the club and tells him while he’s singing a song. The change in Ricky’s face was what did it for me, what made me want motherhood so much. He went from annoyed to tender and loving in a heartbeat, and I wanted that. I wanted that tender look for myself. I wanted a baby.
Over the next nine months I tried to become what I thought a mother should be. At the grocery checkout I avidly scanned the covers of women’s magazines and started worrying about wrinkles. I sewed a cover for my coming baby’s changing table, baked cookies, and pored over a baby name book. Those nine months of creating perfection stretched into more than 20 years that gently covered that child and then three more. All the while I tried not to be the mother that mine was, the mother who hid her best parts from me and who remains hidden from me even today in safe infrequent conversations about the weather, my kids, and her fifteen cats. I always longed for more from her but she locked herself away long ago, living inside an almost empty husk of the woman she might have been. I wanted more for my kids, to be the mother for them that I wished mine had been for me.
This past year I’ve stepped back with an artist’s eye to look at motherhood differently. Last month I bought paints, canvases, and an easel, and every day now I stand at my easel with a magenta-covered paintbrush in my hand, Green Day blaring from the speakers, transforming emotion into color, form, and texture. As a child I was afraid of art — afraid that the perfection I saw in my mind could never reach paper or canvas. Later, as a mother, I bought art dreams; I spent hundreds of dollars in the hope that someday I’d magically find time to wield a paintbrush or make a beaded necklace. I filled a basement with unused paints and brushes and beads and tools. Those neglected dreams were a sacrifice to my idea of perfect motherhood that dictated that nightly storytelling, weekly Pancake Days, and constant attention to children were more important than a mother’s personal fulfillment through painting. My art, instead of being expressed in wild colorful trees on messy canvases, was reduced to knitting useful items that my children could wear or play with.
It seems silly to me now, thinking that I once felt I couldn’t be both an artist and a mother. But my idea of motherhood was all about sacrifice, about giving the best of oneself to one’s children. Leaving them was, to me, the ultimate sacrifice, denying myself the experience I once imagined of guiding them from up close, of seeing their faces shine with accomplishment, of holding my warm hands over their small ones while together we drew fantastical trees. My idea of motherhood didn’t leave any room for doing things that gave me joy except those that also gave to my kids, like baking warm blueberry muffins or sitting together on my king-sized bed in my darkened bedroom every night, reading books that brought us to new worlds.
I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t know how to combine it with motherhood. I locked myself into my mother’s legacy in the box along with her own art dreams.
Next week my middle kids, Nathaniel and Serena, are flying out to stay with me for a week or two and I’ll show them my world. They’ll inspect my snug little house and climb the neat little ladder to the second floor. They’ll walk with me on the trails down to the beach or into the forest and toss a Frisbee around with me across the street under the wide maple tree. They’ll stumble over the growing pile of colorful canvases stacked against my living room wall, art that is a part of me I want my kids to see. In the fearlessness and abandon of my art I hope they can drink in the emotions and colors that are their mother. I stayed hidden from them for so long in my quest for perfection. Now the imperfect painting I’m working on stands on my easel, its crazy trees and magenta sky, branches and horizon magically spanning the 3000 miles between us, ready to show them who their mother really is.