The first thing I remember ever wanting to be was a mom. This was just one of the many ways in which I was a huge cliche as a female child -- others included my penchant for Babysitters' Club (and subsequent hatred of Goosebumps, even though Trevor Hancey liked Goosebumps and I was hopelessly in love with him), and the sheer number of Barbie dolls I had (hundreds. I did mutilate them when I got bored with them, but in a way I think that's a cliche too).
This probably came from a deep-rooted desire I had for power. Maybe that's what all wannabe moms have had since the beginning of time: just an unbridled hunger to be the ultimate authority over someone else's life. When my sister was born, I switched into gear immediately, forcing her to play all the games I wanted to play, and giving myself seniority and thus ultimate authority over every decision we were supposed to make together.
One of my favorite things to do was to force my sister to play school, which she never wanted or liked. But I told her that "she had to have it," and she was so young that she did't know how to rebel. I locked her in the basement and made her read sentences like, "This is so fun," and "I love to go to school."
I liked the version of Mom who got to be in control, like I saw portrayed on television. This mom went on field trips to make sure that her daughter didn't get mixed up in the wrong crowd. This mom punished her children when they brought home anything less than a B from school, and did so with a benevolent but-firm hand, wielding logical consequences such as "being grounded" or "not being allowed to listen to records for a week." This mom was never mad but was always disappointed, made balanced meals in four parts, and had just two female friends who both lived nearby and were a little uglier than she was. This mom looked like she was living the dream the way only a woman in America could.
My friends had moms like that. I remember going to their houses and seeing their smiley moms with painted toenails, driving minivans. When I became a mom (which I planned to do by the time I was 23 at the absolute oldest, so I could continue to be hot when my kids were in high school), I would be just like my friends' moms. I didn't care about having a husband. (I understood that I needed one, but I didn't really care who he was. I assumed he would be Trevor Hancey, who by that time, I was sure, would have better taste in literature.) I didn't care about having a job. (Being a mom was a job!) I just knew that I was built to have children, and that I was going to do it right.
My own mom, on the other hand, hadn't ever wanted to be one. She was the third of four daughters in a big Italian family, and she hadn't thought that highly of her childhood. She was dark and beautiful and liked reading alone and smoking cigarettes; she didn't hear the word "childbirth" and get sort of giddy and short-of-breath the way I did. I didn't know my mom when she was 20, but based on all the pictures and accounts of family members who knew her then, she was a hipster before there was a word for it. She was too cool to wander around fantasizing about motherhood. She was reading Bukowski, and rejecting him as a misogynist.
She met my dad in college, knew immediately that she wanted to marry him, and sort of bullied him into it. (This involved moving to Japan to study and work as a model, while writing home frequently and bragging about the attractive Japanese men who wanted to sleep with her.) Within a few months, Dad was on his way to Japan, and they got married on a boat going to Russia. They hitch-hiked across Europe (in the sixties, so I'm sure drugs had at least supporting roles), ran out of money, and went to graduate school in New York, where they rubbed elbows with the literary elite and got Ph.D.s before people really did that. Then they moved to Portland, Oregon because my dad got a job there and they heard it was cool (it turned out to be the definition of cool), and kids were never really on the table.
My parents had me when they were 38. They'd lived an entire life together at that point, with lots of drinking, smoking, partying, and being "the only fun people on family vacations," according to my older cousins. I'm not going to say I was an accident, but I will say that people don't just turn 38 and decide to have a baby.
My mom was not the kind of mom I saw on television. She couldn't be bothered with field trips, and she didn't really punish me for anything like she was supposed to. She told me to do what I wanted to do and pursue my dreams -- even though they were wild and illogical (I wanted to run my own newspaper, and write every story in it). She happily read my piles of writing and responded with effusive encouragement and copies of books by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. She didn't mind when I said "shit" in front of her. She didn't "lay down the law" about anything.
My mom read to my sister and me every night, which was the most mom-like thing she really ever did. She also came into our elementary school classroom and read to the rest of our classmates. She seemed tickled my children's books and bought them by the boatful: other mothers marveled at our huge collection, but I have a suspicion that my mom bought them more for herself than she did for us. She liked to read. She took every chance she could to do it.
I thought she was doing this all wrong. She was supposed to have rules for me. She was supposed to know about all the PTA meetings and want to go to them. (To be fair, I think she went to one once, but someone at the meeting accused her [in seriousness] of being a communist, so she had three cigarettes and said that PTA meetings were pointless.) I was not supposed to be allowed to stay up all night long watching TV or making paintings, but I was. She was supposed to take away my boom box. She was supposed to be mad when I dyed my hair pink. (Instead she said she thought it was "exquisite.") Basically, she was supposed to tell me what to do. That was what moms did. That was the point.
It wasn't until I had been teaching for five years that I finally realized what she had given me by choosing to mother by not mothering. She had given me permission to fuck up and make mistakes. She had let me knock stuff over and then figure out how to rebuild the stuff on my own. She'd let me discover my own truth.
I'm 28, and I'm not a mom. I was sure I would be a mom by now, but I'm not. I do, however, "play school" with kids every day, and at first, I shamefully tried to be a teacher the way TV told me to be a mom. But it was for naught. Kids are going to screw up, no matter how much you warn them against it. The trick is to let them know that no matter what happens, you are going to love them. Even if everything breaks apart and they make an unthinkable mistake, you are going to love them.