These days, being a mother requires the memory of an elephant—and the thick skin of one too. Thanks to a recent scene with my 15-year-old son, I won’t soon forget that most of us are simply lumbering our way through parenthood, and life.
While my son was at school I was supposed to drop his laptop off at his dad’s house, but I was engrossed in listening to a book-on-tape while driving across town, and it completely slipped my mind. No problem, I thought. His high school is four blocks from my house. I would walk the dog over there after school and catch him before he got on the bus to go back to his dad’s.
I set my alarm as a reminder, and as I was walking out the door that afternoon, I saw my son’s cell phone on the table. Now I was especially pleased with myself. Electronic deprivation is, admittedly, not a true emergency; still, I felt like I was saving his day in my own small way.
As I neared the school, I saw my son come out, laughing and chatting with a friend. They took their place in the bus line. He didn’t see me approaching and I giggled a bit, thinking what a fun surprise this would be. He would especially love seeing his dog and showing her off to his friend.
I tapped his shoulder. He turned and I’ll never forget the look on his face when he saw me:
He was horrified.
His whole body froze and he didn’t say a word, not even hello. It was as if I’d caught him shoplifting. Confused, I smiled at his friend and lamely handed my son his computer. He continued staring at me.
“And here’s your phone too,” I said, backing away with a dawning realization that something was terribly wrong, and that that something had to be me. I had unwittingly caused him unspeakable embarrassment. And so great was his shock that he didn’t even acknowledge his dog. Freeze out your mother if you must, but your dog?
I couldn’t understand it.
The next night at dinner I asked him about it.
“Mom, why did you do that?” he wailed. He quickly explained my transgression to his siblings as I listened, still not understanding my crime.
My older son, who is 17, shook his head and sighed. “Yeah mom, you just don’t do that.”
“Do what? What did I do?”
“You handed me a flip phone!” he said.
His older brother dropped his head in his hands and even my daughter shot me an accusing look. It was my turn to be educated. And while I’m still not sure I fully understand, this is what I learned: There are apparently different realms of existence. One is high school. One is home life. If the two overlap in any way, the universe could possibly implode. Oh, and flip phones suck.
Still reeling from this lesson, I found myself in a conversation with a friend about our own parents. He was struggling to understand his parents’ “cluelessness” around certain social and political events. We had to remind each other that, in a sense, we all live in our own worlds. Those who came before us have decades of experiences that we know nothing about. Their beliefs were shaped by their environment, families, and opportunities. They don’t necessarily perceive any social stigmas around race or sex or gender in the same way I didn’t perceive the social stigma a flip phone has on a teenager.
In the end, everyone is doing the best they can. And in the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.”
Whether you’re a mother, a daughter, a teenager, or middle-aged, you know what it’s like to feel you’re doing everything wrong. We judge ourselves or others, we wish life were easier, more clear cut, and not so damn confusing. We all feel helpless or clueless and berate ourselves with that inner voice that asks, “Is this the best you can do?”
Maybe the answer is Yes. Yes it is.
Maybe the thing to do is to always assume the best.