I was standing in line at the grocery store one night recently when Dennis DeYoung’s “Desert Moon” started playing. That album has the dubious honor of being the very first album I ever bought with my own money, at the tender age of 12. I brought it home and popped it in the tape deck of the living room stereo, and then went into the kitchen with my mom and tried to act all nonchalant, oh, we’re just listening to some music that I picked out, no big deal, not going to act like it’s important to me that anyone likes my musical tastes… I don’t remember anymore how my mom actually did react to it–I think I was trying hard not to see her reaction because I didn’t want to know if she disapproved.
For most of my growing-up years, the primary motivator behind my choices was whether Other People would approve of them. I was a chunky kid with brains, glasses, and braces. I didn’t know how to do my hair or makeup and I had no sense of style. Junior high girls can be some of the most insecure creatures on this planet, and often the only way we know how to build ourselves up is to pull down others. We do things that make no sense to adults because we think those actions will make us look cooler to the boys we want to impress and the girls we want to surpass.
In my struggle to not be at the bottom of the social ladder, I had this idea that anything and everything I did during non-school hours was going to get back to the popular kids and give them fodder for talking behind my back. It wasn’t supposed to be cool to have a close family life, so I tried to push it away. I scowled in family photos, and I sequestered myself away from my parents and sisters rather than risk someone catching me actually having fun with them. Heaven forbid! I’d be ostracized forever.
Yet, at the same time that I wanted my classmates to approve of me, I also wanted my parents to approve of me, and that was a tricky tightrope to walk. I wanted to be the kid who could come home and talk with her mom about what happened in school and what this boy said and what it all meant. But I always felt awkward doing so, because what if she thought my worries were dumb? So I damped it down, tried to pretend it was No Big Thing, just something I was casually wondering about. Even now I sometimes reflexively hold back a bit when talking about my life, because it’s crushing to be told that something you’re passionate about is stupid, or worse, uninteresting.
With the birth of my son, it was as if the lens through which I viewed my childhood was twisted ninety degrees. I gazed adoringly at my tiny newborn, thinking Oh my god, this little boy is less than a day old and I already love him so much that I can’t believe my heart can actually hold all that love.
Followed by Oh my god, THIS is how my mother feels about ME!
And then Oh my god, I was such a little shit!
I used to cringe when I looked back at my younger years because of all the ridiculous things I did. Now I cringe as I look back and realize how I unintentionally hurt people.
When I was in fifth grade, my mom made a maroon blazer for me to wear for school picture day. She bought the pattern and the fabric and stayed up late nights sewing it. The night before pictures, the blazer wasn’t quite finished when I went to bed, but when I woke up, it was hanging on my bedroom door. What were my first words? Not “Yay, Mom, you finshed it, thank you!” They were “…but it doesn’t have any buttons on it.”
Someday I’m going to get my own time machine, and one of the first things I’m going to do is jump back to ten-year-old me and smack myself upside the head.
I don’t know where that blazer is now, but I might dig up one of the old school pictures and keep it on my dresser as a reminder. Because one day, I’ll be on the other side of that conversation. I’ll be the mom who just wants to make sure that her child is doing OK. He’ll be the one balancing peer approval with parental approval and unthinkingly saying things that hurt my feelings.
We are the product of our accumulated experiences, and if I hadn’t had all the twists and turns that I did, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I like the person I’ve become, but I wish there was a way I could tell fifth-grade or eighth-grade or eleventh-grade me to worry less about what my classmates thought. It’s OK to love and be loved by your family. They’ll keep doing it, even if it’s uncool, so you might as well love them back.