As a teenager, I had no idea that separating from your parents is a normal phase of development, thinking I’d invented it as a strategy to cope with an overly devoted mother. She’d found me completely engaging mostly because I arrived eight years after my twin brothers and was the girl she’d desperately wanted. Believing I didn’t deserve her admiration, I squirmed with embarrassment each time she praised me to anyone, which she did to relatives, neighbors and the entire synagogue congregation.
Still young enough to be playing with a torn Raggedy Ann doll, I resolved that when I grew up, I would be a cool mom, the kind other kids wished they had. My plan was to model myself after Martha Stein, our neighbor who never yelled at any of her sons and clearly adored them, but left them with a babysitter and took off in a British sports car to take tennis lessons. She had what I saw as just the right amount of a personal life and wasn’t like the other women on our suburban street who left their houses only to buy groceries.
I’d assumed I would become a mother so was stunned to discover after getting married at the age of 38 that I had multiple fertility problems. It was extremely unlikely that I would get to be a mom, let alone a cool one. With the help of many medical specialists, a ridiculous amount of determination and some good fortune, I gave birth at 41. By then, I’d broken into the male dominated field of comedy writing – doing episodes for shows like Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show – so assumed that being a professional writer and having an active social life would assure that my son would think me cool.
For the first year of his life, I barely worked. With eight feedings a day, I discovered that a nursing mother has less free time than the President of the United States. When I wasn’t feeding, burping or bathing one of us, I was pumping and storing breast milk. The freezer was jammed, our house was a mess and I could never catch up or get organized. “I’ll have to call you back,” I said to a girlfriend who’d phoned, wanting to schmooze.
“I’m heading out to get a manicure,” she said. “When do you think that’ll be?”
“Maybe twenty years,” I said, thinking I was joking. I looked at my own nails, which had chips dating back to my seventh month of pregnancy. Mothering was all-consuming and exhausting. Being older, I felt reasonably confident about much of what I had to do, but was unprepared to deal with colic, teething or sleep problems. Penelope Leach and Dr. Spock were my gurus, but babies outsmart you by progressing from one stage to another with amazing speed. Moments after figuring out how to crawl, Nicky stood up and walked. He was always one step ahead of me. Having not lost my pregnancy pounds and developed tendonitis from picking him up incorrectly, nobody would have used the word “cool” to describe me. No problem. That was not a priority. Keeping his little fingers out of electrical sockets, doing puzzles and reading Goodnight Moon were full time activities.
Understanding that my presence and nurturing were important, I was determined to be there for him. No script deadline, meeting or rehearsal caused me to miss a school performances, karate class or athletic event. My husband and I, now a television writing team, had left New York and were living in Los Angeles, working on a sit-com staff, which required going to Friday night tapings at the studio. Because our toddler joined us for dinner at Paramount and then to watch the show, passing a cemetery on the way to pre-school, Nicky called out, “Look, Mommy, a commissary.” He also thought that the actor George C. Scott was President of the United States, the role he played. Sitting in a soundproof booth with us, he was becoming a critic, turning to me after a joke to say, “That wasn’t funny.” I was used to hearing that from a producer, but not from a five year-old. Though it was highly unusual for a woman to be a comedy writer, my son was clearly not impressed. I wanted to return to New York, before he asked why we didn’t have a screening room, like all the other families.
Back on the East Coast, we enrolled him in a Quaker school, where competition was discouraged. Instead of grades, they had private conferences, and there was no honor roll. Accomplished students received letters in the mail. Achieving was like sex had been when we were in school: done, but not discussed. The parents took pains not to brag. There was no bumper sticker on the car announcing that our child was an honor student. When Nicky scored in a high percentile on the SAT’s and I quietly praised him, he would shrug it off, insisting, “You always overestimate me.”
The night he was going to his first dance, my husband and I were walking him there. A few blocks from where we were heading, he pulled his hands from ours and said, “I’ll go the rest of the way by myself.”
“Why?” I asked, “Do we do something that embarrasses you?”
“No. It’s just embarrassing to have parents.” he answered. I didn’t wear housedresses or even Mom Jeans, but maybe no kid thinks his mom is cool.
Backing off, I was learning, was harder than being there. Taking care of him, putting bandages on sores and tending to emotional hurts had been empowering. It was hard to accept that the time had come when I was no longer my son’s first responder. He was letting me know that he’d become more independent, going into a different zip code when speaking on the phone and shutting the door to his room. He stopped short of hiring a bouncer and putting up yellow, police tape to keep me out.
Mothering turned out to be a lot like smoking: easy to embrace, but quitting required determination and commitment. There were no patches or support groups to help with the withdrawal. I did my best to get out of the way but, afraid he might interpret it as rejection or disinterest, I told him, “I’m deliberately backing off, but don’t think I’m not interested in you.”
“Not to worry,” he said, his wry smile communicating he was more than ready for this.
At some point, I realized I was no less obsessed with my child than my mother had been with me. I would have liked to express to her that I finally understood the extraordinary feelings you have for your child and wanted to thank her for the support and unconditional love I’d taken for granted, sometimes even resented. It was too late. She was gone. If once I’d separated from her, she’d been forced to do it from me.
This month our son invited us to join him for a weekend in the Hamptons. When we got to the beach, he stretched out on a towel, unprotected from the sun. I handed him a tube of sunscreen, something I’ve been doing for decades, hoping he won’t end up having to go to the dermatologist as often as I do. Hoping to put an end to the perpetual care given by mothers, he said, “I’m old enough to do what I want.”
“So am I,” I retorted. He laughed. I took that to mean he finds me extremely cool.
About the Author, Sybil Sage
In addition to writing for TV shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Alice and Northern Exposure, Sybil has contributed to many major magazines and recently had several pieces in The Boston Globe Connections Column. Her unusual pique assiette mosaic work can be seen on www.sagemosaicart.com and www.personalized-urns.com. Sybil can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.