My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.
My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).
And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.
I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.
I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:
Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister. What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.
When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).
Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)
On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).
I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!
But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?
“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.
I look for what’s missing.
My daughter sees what’s there.
I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.
And Emmy needs me.
And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.
Next week, Working Girl.