Last night, Abby Jeanne, my youngest daughter, asked me to take her to get her ears pierced. Now, most normal moms would probably have a crystal clear decision made about this. Something black-and-white. Not wishy-washy. You know? Like, “We don’t do that until your First Holy Communion,” or, “Not until you’re 16,” or, “Silly girl. We got your ears pierced at the pediatrician’s office when you were three months old.”
But my mind? It is messy. Like my house. I think it comes with the creativity gene. Clear, fact-based decisions don’t just come to me. Responding to a wedding invitation, or deciding whether to do laundry first, or to vacuum, sends me into an indecisive, paralyzing tizzy. It’s like, instead of an idea going straight through my brain and popping out with a clear answer, it has to filter through all kinds of memories, and then travel down to my heart, where it gets stuck for a long time, and then if I wait long enough with the idea sitting in my heart, maybe I won’t have to decide. But sometimes, I do anyway. And by the time I make a decision, I’ve probably really hurt or annoyed the people who were waiting for an answer to a very simple question.
So instead of giving Abby Jeanne a clear “yes,” or “no,” I froze up and relived the day I took my oldest daughter, Madeline, to get her ears pierced. It was a long time ago, but the memories came back and flooded my soul. February 15, 2006 felt like it was happening all over again.
and my thoughts
traveled through all the curly, cloudy parts of my brain,
and down to my heart,
and I relived the day my oldest daughter got her ears pierced.
All of it.
Sometimes as a mom, you think you’re ready for something (whether it’s giving birth, self-weaning, the first class picture, or sending your child to college), only to discover too late that you’re not ready at all.
My experience with Madeline yesterday was enough to challenge my knowledge and intuition, and shake my confidence as a mother. I am nauseous as I write. Love does hurt.
Since Madeline was 12 months old, I knew that, at some point, I wanted her to have her ears pierced. This probably stems from my own youth, with wild Shirley Temple curls so unruly that my parents didn’t know how to tame them without cutting my hair short. At least in theory, wearing earrings would stop well-meaning old men from complimenting my parents on their son’s curly hair and dimples.
At 15 months, my friends and husband said to wait, that earrings wouldn’t look right on a child so young. My mom said to wait until Madeline really wanted earrings.
Once she became fascinated with others’ earrings, at about age two, I started to talk to Madeline about getting her own. “It’ll hurt at first, but you can get your ears pierced if you want to,” I’d say time and time again. Madeline always responded, “No thanks. Maybe when I’m a teenager,” which was just fine by me. (She doesn’t want to poop on the potty until she’s a teenager either!)
Much to my amazement, last night, on the way to the mall, I asked Madeline if she wanted to get her ears pierced, to which she agreed. I wasn’t too stunned. She’d been talking about it a lot lately. I imagined all the little flowers & hearts she’d someday wear, and how we could share earrings. I remembered how my mom put her very mature-looking gold hoops in my ears when I was six or seven, and how I’d felt like a glamorous, sophistocated mom. (Was anything more glamorous than being a mom?) I remembered, too, how I lost one of those earrings as a careless twenty-year old. (I think grabbed it from my car’s ash try as I donated a handful of change to the Knights of Columbus guy who was standing in the middle of the street to collect.) They were special. A gift from Spain. When I called to tell my mom, she wasn’t angry. Just relieved that the bad news wasn’t that I was pregnant.
I quickly called my husband on the cell phone to get his permission. He hesitated, and then said yes, as long as I didn’t force her. He said yes to make me happy, didn’t he?
When we got to the mall, she still wanted to get her ears pierced. She excitedly listed her plans for the mall, “Buy a birthday present for Samantha, return something to Old Navy, get my ears pierced, theeeeeen, ride on the carousel.” God, I love the way she holds up her tiny fingers as she lists these objectives.
At the first store, they didn’t do two ears at once. Knowing that, at age, five, after begging for earrings for – literally – three years, I had to be held down after the first piercing just so I’d be symmetrical, I asked if they did two ears at once. They didn’t have two “guns,” (“GUNS?” they’re using something called a “gun” on my child?”), and suggested we walk further down the mall to another store. We don’t believe in guns. I should have walked back to my car instead. A tiny voice in my head told me this wasn’t right, but a bigger voice wanted a daughter with pierced ears.
Madeline and I walked, hand in hand, through the halls of the mall. Whenever we’re out without her brother in the stroller, I love to hold her hand. She so big now. She can use the escalator, and walk for a mile or so without needing a stroller. At this moment, though, her hand feels like skin and tiny bones, her entire hand barely spanning two of my knuckles.
Now, at the second store, Madeline still wants to get her ears pierced. We pick out the tiniest sparkling studs. This isn’t right. We can leave. I feel like I have groomed this, manipulated this, but there’s no turning back. I can’t say why there’s no turning back, but there isn’t. They sit my 32-pound girl in a tall chair that is triple her width. Her legs don’t bend at the knee because she is sitting all the way back, and her feet stick up, with her toes pointing in and her shoe bottoms facing me. She looks so tiny and so perfect in this moment – naked ear lobes and all. Her eyes are sky blue and look hesitant, but excited. Her golden curls, for once, are falling perfectly around her face despite a day of wonderful, careless play.
“STOP,” I want to say. She’s still a baby. This is the way she came out of me. Don’t change her. Is she not beautiful enough just the ways she is? What if earrings make her look older?
I have done this. I have planted this seed that her ears are too bare. But they’re not. They’re perfect. Besides, it’s going to hurt. Yes, I’ve told her it’ll hurt. Lots of times. I can reason with Madeline, you know. She is very mature. She knows she can touch her own brother, but not other people’s babies. She gets it. She gets lots of stuff she doesn’t need to yet. But I don’t say to stop. The guy is already taking out the sterile earrings. I don’t want to inconvenience him. I know! I’ll pay him anyway. I’ll buy the unused studs and take then home. But now, I don’t want to disappoint Madeline. Certainly don’t want to make her as indecisive as I am.
She’s ready. She wants this. I ask the excessiviely pierced guy if everything’s perfectly safe and healthy. He says, “No. We’re going to do a hack job on her.” I think I should laugh, that would be socially appropriate, but I don’t. Everything is wrong about this. He tells me everything’s sterile and gives me paperwork to sign. I’m not going to sign without reading it. I didn’t know I’d have to sign something. Why don’t I stop? Why shouldn’t I take the clipboard, with the 3 X’s that are pregnant with my signature to a bench? Yes. Madeline and I can sit on a bench while I read carefully, and talk myself out of this. But no, as I hurriedly read, the people are preparing, and tending to Madeline. I want to tend to Madeline. “Anxious mom,” they must have thought, “let’s get this overwith quickly.” I sign. I skim, I sign some more. I flip to the second page, just a carbon copy. I know it’s just a carbon copy, but I flip to convince myself that I’m being thorough. Vigilant.
Madeline is ready. She is told not to move. She looks scared, but she’s a good girl. She does what she’s told. Her eyes look up to the side and away. I love how her eyes do that. I take her hands. This is wrong. Not for everyone, but for us. “1, 2, 3.” SNAP! Pause. Shock. Betrayal? Pain. Lip. Tears.
I try to pick her up and hold her, but I can’t yet. Cotton balls. Backings. Tears.
Teenagers and a tired mom stop browsing for tacky jewelry. They look up. “What has that mother forced her daughter to do?” I project their judgements. I stand firm for a second. “She wanted this,” I think.
But Madeline didn’t want this. Not badly enough. I thought I did. “It’s going to hurt” doesn’t mean anything to a person who has experienced a mere 37 1/2 months outside of my body. I instinctively look for blood. Don’t know why. Don’t know what I’d do if there was blood. There’s not. Good for me. I almost feel better. Not really.
“It’s okay, Madeline. We’ll pay, theeen we’ll go to the carousel.” Life goes on. You’ll be fine. Your mother will never be the same.
She stops crying almost immediately, and stops at 3 mirrored stores to check herself out on the way to the carousel. She likes what she sees. I think they must have put the wrong earrings in. Those microscopic studs look huge now on tiny Madeline.
As we walk out of the mall, her hand in mine, I absorb the moment. Breathe it all in. The air is too warm for February.
I feel terrible. This isn’t about the earrings. It’s that overwhelming sense of responsibility. It’s back. This is the third time – the day we came home from the hospital with Madeline, on the day my bicycle tipped over with both of us on it, and today.
I’m not ready to be a mom. I’m not in my 30′s right now. I want to go home – to my mom and dad. I want to cry about how badly I messed up. Damage I can’t undo. I want my old room, my old bed, and I want to crawl under the covers and sleep, with long-gone Tiger the dog curled up at my feet. Safe. Warm. No decisions. No mortgage. No husband. No babies.
From the dark, a tiny voice snaps me back to reality. “Mom, I don’t ever want to go to that store again.” I know the one she means. “You don’t have to, Madeline.”
Outside, Madeline follows behind me as we balance on the curb, our imaginary balance beam. I look behind me. Her arms are outstretched just like mine. She laughs as I trip. Her eyes – and her earrings – sparkle in the moonlight. “I love you, Madeline.”
“I love you too, mom.”
After the movie of Madeline’s ear piercing flashed through my brain, I did the only thing I know how to do. I told Abby I wasn’t sure yet, left the dinner dishes in the sink, took my girls out of my messy house, and captured them. For who they are. Right now, on this night: messy, beautiful and all.