Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Far From Cool

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When did I stop being a "cool mom"? The hip mama, the youthful one, the understanding mom? When did my kids start pretending they didn't know me? With all those years of family bedding, we were pretty together, pretty close. My three kids were usually happy and well-behaved without being, you know, scary good. They ran around and pulled hair and bit, but they were nice about it all, and we were welcomed at their playmates' houses. They liked hanging out with me, held my hand in public, and loved it when I chaperoned class field trips.

But when did I stop being cool? When did my kids stop wanting me to pick them up at birthday parties, but instead asked me to wait outside with the car running? When did they start walking ahead of me, or half a block behind me, on the street? When did they start sitting in a different part of the movie theater from me and their dad?

I'm sure you can guess when my fall from cool began: at the same time their childish complexions starting changing, when the girls' bodies began blossoming and the boy's voice started changing. When they didn't want to wear hand-me-downs and resale clothes anymore but wanted to choose their own clothes at Gap and Old Navy. When did they start pushing me away? At the same time they started to claim their bodies as their own, to decorate, attire, hide and reveal as they wished. When they began developing into adults, they cued me to back off.

As a mother of teenagers, I look back on those exhausting years of parenting babies and toddlers and grade school kids with a soulful yearning. Ah, to have one day of little ones I could cradle and sing to. It's a physical longing: wordless, profound, aching. Not that I would want to find myself pregnant again at 41! I'm enjoying my early 40s and looking forward to many hale years of empty nesting. Still, I harbor a nostalgic appreciation for the mutual adoration of those early years, the easy affection, the physicality.

The other day, my five-year-old neighbor came over, and as we chatted, casual as can be, she slipped into my lap. I tried not to react too much, afraid to scare her away if I made a fuss about her gesture. I wrapped an arm around her without squeezing her. We talked about this and that, whether cereal was better soggy or crunchy, that sort of thing. Then she slid off my lap just as casually, moving on to the next activity.

I rarely have spontaneous moments like that of physical connection and nurturing with my kids now. Oh sure, they welcome the occasional back rub, the hair stroke, the foot massage, but they just don't hang and cling like they used to, and damned if I ever thought I would miss that, but I do.

I try to be cool, even if my teens don't appreciate it. I try to be cool by giving them space while still providing a strong boundary to bump up against. If I'm just cool enough, I get to hear things in the car or over dinner. Small confessions about who likes whom, or "Hey, Mom, what would you do if . . ." They tell me about their friends more than they talk about themselves, and I hear about the eighth grade girl who supposedly gave a boy "a BJ" and "a HJ too."

"How do you know?" I asked my 13-year-old son, Malachi.

"Because Brittany IM'd me about it."

"How does Brittany know?"

"'Cause she was there."

"She was really there? Hmmm."

Mostly I "hmmm" and "oh" like an A.A. Milne character, even when I feel like ranting ("YOU STAY AWAY FROM HER DON'T YOU DARE GO TO ANY GIRLS' HOUSES WHERE ARE THIS GIRL'S PARENTS!"). I have to guard myself so I am neither effusive nor alarmist. Teens are notoriously unreliable sources, and terrible at keeping secrets. They love rumors and gossip, and it's hard to know what's actual, exaggerated, or wishful thinking.

"I bet Brittany's lying," Malachi says, jumping up to touch the door jamb as he leaves.

If I'm thrilled with their decisions, they don't get the satisfaction of making their own choices and separating from me. If I come down too hard on everything, it'll just piss 'em off, and my disapproval becomes meaningless. I don't want to be a pushover, but I have to save the lectures for those really necessary occasions.

My 16-year-old, Katja, recently dyed green streaks in her hair. I managed to talk her down from dying her whole head green by suggesting she save that grand gesture for when the cross country team won the State championship. Next week is State, but, shhhh, I think she's forgetten my idea.

To be perfectly honest, I think her hair looks pretty cool. And she, at least on some level, took a cue from me, when I dyed vampire red streaks in my black hair to celebrate my 40th birthday last year. But again, her hair adventure was one of those occasions where I had to hold back and give her space to experiment. I even summoned up a bit of indignance, so she could have the satisfaction of rebelling. So far we've been spared the piercings and tattoos debate.

Who really wants a cool mom when you're a teenager? Eewwww. Malachi described riding in one kid's car when Sir Mix-A-Lot's "I Like Big Butts" came on the radio and his mom started singing and dancing in the driver's seat.

    So your girlfriend throws a Honda
    Playin workout tapes by Fonda
    But Fonda ain't got a motor in the back of her Honda
    My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns hun

Malachi was mortified and had to look away to keep from bursting into embarrassed laughter. He said she actually had her hands off the steering wheel as she danced.

My 18-year-old high school graduate, Meiko, is coming around, and I can be more fully myself around her. We talk about literature and politics, we gossip about extended family, we laugh, we say "fuck" and "shit." But with her younger siblings, I have to be the mom, a benevolent authority. I have to be uncool to be cool. Young people have to grow up and move away from their elders, not have their elders come chasing after them in imitation. It's not my dance, not my party. I have to keep my distance and let them come to me. I have to wait until no one is home, and only then can I blast the music and dance in the kitchen.

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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