It’s the third or fourth Saturday in which I’ve made a conscious effort to get out and see friends more, but my guilty conscience is keeping me busy, almost as if it wants me to miss the next train to Manhattan. I dole out one, then two and then three last hugs to my toddler son. I make sure I’ve cut up my 5-year-old daughter’s apple, even though she’s capable of eating it like a big girl. I fret about whether their most comfortable pajamas are out of the dryer. I’ll be gone for no more than five or six hours, yet I’m acting like the planet will fall apart if I don’t tend to every last detail.
Just when I’ve realized I will have to wait another hour for a train if I don’t leave right this second, my daughter begins to whine and pout. “I don’t want you to go,” she says, then reaches out for another hug. Without thinking I reply, “We’ll do whatever you want tomorrow — you choose an activity, and we’ll do it.”
My husband, who is sitting in the living room, overhears our exchange and rushes in to save me from myself: “Go,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”
He’s right. But it’s difficult to shake memories of my own mom and her active social life every time I step out for an evening with friends or embark on a solo journey to check out galleries. It isn’t the same feeling I get when I attend an event related to work — that’s not optional as far as I’m concerned and offers my family financial comfort. It’s the whole I-have-a-choice-here-and-I-don’t-choose-you-ness about the situation of hanging out with friends that I am working on abandoning.
Growing up, my mother was a disco queen with a closet filled with high heels made from Italian leather. She had and still has the same group of friends since high school. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who got married, gave birth to two kids and continued to add to her collection of friends with even more friends — friends from work, friends of friends, a good friend she met while waiting for me outside of ballet class. There were plenty of times when her extroverted personality did a world of good for me by serving as a model for how to cut the umbilical cord and enjoy an adult life to the fullest. Hers was an attitude that is largely looked down upon by many parents these days who feel they must put all of their children’s many activities and needs ahead of their own at all times.
I was fed well, had beautiful clothes, nightly baths and all the other privileges given to children who don’t have to worry about a damn thing. That’s why I’m embarrassed to admit the smell of Opium perfume still makes me sad. That disgustingly potent mix of coriander, plum and mandarin orange, which will forever remind me of brothels filled with 15-year-old orphans, was the last trace of my mother that I could hold onto after she whizzed out the door after dinner.
When I was 4 and 5, she left to be with friends and, later, to work a night job that she needed at the time to maintain her sanity. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she and my father were at the beginning stages of having marital problems that wouldn’t officially blow up until I was 12. Her absence was a way to escape and protect herself — but her absence also forced me to take sides in their conflict.
As a child, and especially as a daughter, I desperately wanted to identify with my mother. I wanted to know that she would take me back, over and over again, no matter what I did. But when you find yourself at age 5 hanging on the couch with your dad every night, watching Three’s Company and Jeopardy! and singing along to ’60s pop songs by Italian singers as he strums his acoustic guitar and shows you why E7 is the most beautiful chord of all, you begin to equate dads with stability and unconditional love.
When your evenings involve being dragged to Dad’s soccer games, Dad having no clue how to detangle your hair so he either pulls too hard or leaves you with a rat’s nest, sitting outside in your pajamas with your older brother and a telescope, eating another cookie because Dad isn’t actually watching, and somehow getting to watch episodes of Dynasty when it’s past your bedtime, you start to think: I may not get Dad, and Dad doesn’t get me all the time, but Dad is there, and that means Dad thinks I’m important.
It took years to understand that my mother felt she was serving both worlds by being there for us during the day and attending to her needs at night. It took becoming a parent to fully comprehend how much we do for our kids and how easy it is to neglect ourselves. But I still struggle those nights when I voluntarily leave my family to have fun. I picture my daughter rummaging through my closet and trying on my shoes so that she feels closer to me.
Then I pull myself together and remind myself that my children are not living my childhood, that I am not my mother. At the end of the day, my mother was a human being with desires, fears, flaws and many strengths. It’s possible I would have grown to despise Opium even if she never left the house.
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