One of the strangest things I know about my mother is that she lists “The Untouchables” as one of her all-time favorite films.
If you know my mom, you know how bizarre this is. This movie is about gangsters in the Prohibition Era; it was not written by Nora Ephron and it does not star Meg Ryan. There are no flowers in it (to my knowledge).
I’ve been thinking lately about the secrets parents keep. And how well do we actually know our parents?
I’ve also been thinking about the act of getting to know one’s parents as people, not as these infallible authorities or these emotion-free caregivers. Because we often think of our parents this way, as childrearing machines. At least, I do. I don’t think I’m alone.
Do you remember the first time you caused an emotional reaction in a parent? Most of the time, we were probably too young. But I remember vividly and painfully the first time I hurt my dad’s feelings. It was so startling to me. I felt wretched, but mostly I was just astonished. It was as if I really didn’t know he even had feelings to be hurt.
Obviously, I haven’t had any kids myself, which is why this slow realization of my parents as individuals is still occurring. But I have always been very interested in parents, in general. (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mothers, after all.) With parents, I am fascinated by what happens to their personhood, to their personalities and desires, when they have children. For mothers, in particular, this personhood is often obliterated. You become a physical and emotional slave to your children. And this is often done willingly and joyfully, but you are no longer responsible for just yourself.
I remember when I was 10 and I was tasked with writing the family Christmas letter. I went around and polled everyone on their hobbies. Grace was obsessed with playing dress-up; baby Sam hoarded sports equipment (which he still does now, come to think of it); Kelsey loved gymnastics and jumping off of furniture; Dad played tennis and built model airplanes. And then I asked Mom what her hobbies were. “Raising you kids,” she said, standing at the stove, making dinner for the six of us. “That’s not a hobby!” I protested. “What do you do for FUN?” She got this far-off look in her eyes. She didn’t answer me for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. I sighed, irritated with her for ruining my perfect holiday epistle. “Fine. I’ll make up a hobby for you.” And I did. I wrote that she liked scrapbooking.
But this is one of the joys of growing up: getting to know your parents as people. They start to tell you things they would have never told you before. They confide in you. They might even cuss in front of you now. I like this stage. I like knowing that I actually like my parents as people. I like hanging out with them. I’d invite them over to dinner at our house even if they weren’t related to me. This is great. And this is why, sometimes, I am afraid of becoming a parent. It’s because I am really enjoying being a child.