Have you ever looked at your parents and wondered why they made the choices they did while raising you? It’s the type of thing you don’t really reflect on until you’re a little older, perhaps because when you’re older, ruminating on your parents’ parenting choices is the result of curiosity (rather than the result of resentment).
Now that I’m in my 30s, I find myself thinking about my parents’ choices often, specifically my mom’s choices because I find myself acting more like her as time goes on.
I recently started to reflect on how laid-back my mom was when it came to things like me dying my hair, shaving my legs, and wearing makeup. And in honor of Mother’s Day, I decided to have an actual conversation with my mom, Mary, about these things.
My mom and I during a weekend trip to New Glarus, Wi., in 2019
Mary: I don’t really remember that.
No, I didn’t really care what you did with your hair. I remember when you graduated eighth grade, I took you to get your makeup done. I remember that more than the hair.
Yes, we went to the makeup counter at Clinique. I wanted you to have an idea of how to put it on, instead of having you going into high school with garish makeup.
No. It might have saved you some distress, that’s all. I always wished I had had the opportunity. We always bought drugstore stuff because that’s what you could afford. Of course that was the ’70s so we didn’t wear as much makeup. It certainly didn’t look as good.
Yeah! And not to be embarrassed or have people teasing you because you looked like you didn’t know how to put your makeup on. That’s the only thing I was thinking.
We all did!
But to go back, when you get to high school, you’re 14, but you have 18-year-olds that are so much more mature. Teaching you how to do your makeup seemed like a way to avoid you feeling inferior to the older girls. Again, I don’t know if that would have happened, but ...
I think when I was young, it would have been too young. Like when I went to junior high, the gym teachers would walk around, and if they saw you with makeup, they made you wash it off. Seriously. Or if they saw you putting it on, they threw it away.
But I remember being in junior high and the girls just wore makeup—and would put it on surreptitiously. So I remember junior high as a time when girls wanted to wear makeup, so it didn’t surprise me that you were wanting to try it then. And it didn’t bother me that you did.
I don’t know if I wasn’t allowed to do it, like, I don’t think my dad said I couldn’t do it. It was that someone else was deciding what I could and couldn’t do. I think to try to prevent somebody from wearing makeup doesn’t make sense—because it’s harmless, it doesn’t hurt anybody. So why fight a battle over something that in the long run wasn’t important?
My mom and I at my First Communion when I was 8. My mom let me get my ears pierced at this age.
Nope! You could shave your legs whenever you wanted. I didn’t care. The only thing I really cared about was the tattoo thing.
Right, I would probably not like it, but I would obviously recognize there’s nothing I can do about it. And it’s not really for me to say, it’s your body. I personally don’t think they’re that attractive, and I’ve seen some beautiful tattoos, but they fade and just don’t stay looking very good for long. They’re just not as clear and sharp as they once were.
You and your dad decided to go get your bellybutton pierced. Or, you wanted it, and you persuaded him to take you somehow. I didn’t think it was a great idea, so I wasn’t going to encourage it, but it’s not like a tattoo that was going to be there forever. The hole might be, but it’s fairly unobtrusive.
And the good news was that you didn’t faint cause you got to lay down! [Note: I had a habit of fainting when I was younger and getting stuck with needles.]
But I did take you to get your ears pierced. And that was fairly young. Wasn’t it for First Communion?
Yes, then it was for your First Communion.
I wanted you to think about it, so we didn’t just run out and do it, so I said a target day. As an adult, I can make an informed decision about having someone stick my ear, but I think it’s harder as a child. I wanted to talk to you about it happening and make sure it was something you still wanted to do.
I also wanted to give you a target day so it wasn’t just like “some day we will do this.” I wanted you to have a definitive date so it wasn’t frustrating and you wouldn’t become impatient or upset that you kept asking and it didn’t happen.
Plus I felt like, well my ears are pierced, and to say you can’t have it, when I did, seemed wrong. I know you can tell your child that I’m the adult and you’re the child, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. I didn’t think there was anything tawdry about having pierced ears. I thought they were pretty, and it was something I personally liked, so I didn’t have a hard time saying you can do it too.
No, I didn’t care. I felt like that is something that is so transient it’s like putting on a pretty dress and wearing it for a while and taking it off. Nail polish is so transient that it never bothered me.
My mom and I when I was probably about 5 or 6. I started painting my nails a few years later and my mom didn't care.
[laughs for a while, a little too long]
I don’t really remember that outfit. I wasn’t really monitoring stuff because most of the time, I was getting ready to go to work myself and didn’t have time to make you pass inspection before you walked out the door. I figured that if your outfit was inappropriate, school would make you change.
I think if you had said, “Hey, look at this outfit,” I would have said no. But I don’t remember anything bad. I think you gotta pick your battles. And I think every junior high and high school girl has questionable taste at some point, unless they grow up with a super fashionable parent. And I’m not a super fashionable person myself so I didn’t pay close attention to the clothes.
I think it’s both those things. I think you should've been able to choose how you wanted to look. Unless it was dangerous. Or a tattoo. I was just never able to wrap my head around that. But yeah, you weren’t doing anything dangerous.
I think it’s my personality, too, but also that you need to have freedom to explore on your own. When you have a strict environment, you rebel. Of course, there’s a strict environment when it comes to safety and health, but when it comes to things that in the long run don’t really matter—personal expression, your appearance—those aren’t really important things to fight about. Those are little decisions you can make for yourself that help you learn who you are and make decisions on your own.
If you make a bad decision, you have bad hair or wear blue eyeshadow or cut your leg with a razor. And you learn.
[laughs] Oh yeah, that’s true! I forgot about that. But to me, that comes back to safety and health. We know that tanning beds can ruin your skin and make you more likely to develop skin problems and cancer, so yeah, they were a no-no. That is true.
Now is not really the time when you’re gonna notice, but when you’re in your 50s and look like you’re in your 30s, you’re gonna think, glad I didn’t use those tanning beds.