Let’s Talk About Ink, Baby

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According to the New York Times, 27% of Americans now have a tattoo. They’re not just for sailors and loose women anymore, ma!

My uncle John was a sailor when tattoos were just for sailors and “loose women” (and those newfangled motorcycle clubs). Some of my fondest memories are of his incredible storytelling (many long nights reading The Princess and the Goblin aloud to us with unrivaled inflection and drama), and while I loved getting a glimpse of the dragon on his bicep, I always asked for the story behind the question mark tattooed on his forearm.

“What does it mean?” I’d beg while my cousins and I sprawled on a lumpy old bed, in the eaved rooms of the summer house we all shared, for our bedtime story. And with a gleam in his eye, and a conspiratorial grin, he’d say, “Ah, Desiree. . .” and give each time a new version of the answer “that’s only for me to know.” Such mystery! Such intrigue!

So strong was my longing for my own mysterious ink that I tattooed my first “jailhouse,” as they’re called, when I was about sixteen. With Bic ink. I knew that needle + ink = tattoo, but was not so much aware of the imperative nature of that ink being India. I was not so foolish the next time.

As a budding young palm-reader, I had become exceedingly alarmed that my “decade lines” on my inner wrists were rather tragically abbreviated. Palmistry holds that your dominant hand carries the fate you are born with and the other the fate you create yourself. Neither of mine has more than two and a half lines. My birth mother died at twenty-seven. So I tattooed (permanently, at last!) an ankh, the hieroglyph for life, over those lines on my left wrist. (Call me superstitious or silly, but it’s holding strong so far!)

At eighteen I rushed into a small mistake which I regret and will someday cover, but each of my other tattoos holds great meaning for me. . .  A dragon of my own, in honor of my uncle and for my son whose name means Dragon in Old English, on my right bicep: my strength. A butterfly in flight (not pinned down flat and dead): metamorphosis. A wave inside a circle that I needed to get on my first trip to Maui. My brother laughed; he also felt compelled to get a tattoo on his first trip. We promised each other that we would “come full circle” back to that perfect place in the middle of the ocean, together, again and again.

I have a consultation with a new artist for my next ink: a map of the place where those summers with my aunts and uncles and my cousins held so much magic, the place where my cousin and I now each visit our lost brothers buried on a cliffside overlooking the Bay, the place where a piece of my heart will lie forever.

Don’t ask me what I’ll do about my tattoos when I am old. I will be thankful to have grown old at all, and certainly to carry my memories and my sense of self on my skin.

Teen Mom

My Facebook news feed is filled with the gummy smiles of infants and the bizarre over-sharing that is a relative stranger’s sonogram (oh, thank the stars there was no social media in my day!)

My friends are all having babies at the appropriate time. In the NorthEast, that means our 30s. . . .Whereas I had mine at eighteen.

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The girls I grew up with, and women in my adoptive family, were decidedly not teen moms. College and career came first. My birth mother, though, had my brother when she was seventeen. I was with her in New Mexico for four of my five “formative years” (if the psych textbooks are to be believed), so maybe a part of me was stuck back in a place where it’s fairly or even perfectly normal to get married and have babies (or have babies and not get married) right out of high school.

I had some major complications during my pregnancy, so after I was a week in the hospital in Florida, where I was living, my estranged family had me med-flown back up to Boston (just me, the pilot, and my two cats, who had followed behind the ambulance in a taxi) so I could be treated at Brigham & Women’s. If you’re going to be dying having a baby, it’s a good place to be.

I was followed closely there, and every week when I entered the OB/GYN unit, I felt the stares. Stares from suburban women in sensible haircuts and their corpulent, balding husbands, and stares from pairs of sixteen-year-olds with slicked-back ponytails and braces and bright blue eyeliner who were on their way to their special teen wing, which I no longer qualified for. I was stuck in between two demographics: certainly not the typical “teen mom” with my prep school education and Brahmin upbringing; but lacking the requisite years behind me to be anything but a pariah to the pregnant ladies of “proper” age.

As I planned my wedding in summer school (after missing part of my senior year), my algebra teacher got wind of it and laughed, “well, everyone needs a first!

We got married (in retrospect) mostly so that I could prove to my family that I was right and going to have a fairytale life despite my flouting of their (clearly old-fashioned!) traditions.

I shopped for “mom clothes” that I hated– a pale yellow crew-neck blouse and a navy skirt with a dainty floral print to match, rather than my velvet and fringe-y Stevie Nicks ensembles– hoping to be taken more seriously; and signed up for a new mom’s group in my town, wanting to meet women with kids my son could grow up playing with since none of my own friends had babies.

With their Baby Christian Dior layettes and their frosted $200 haircuts, these post-career, stay-at-home moms looked straight down their noses at me. When talking about their husbands they would gesture toward me and say “and your. . . whatever.” They sneered at me for not having a car (there was a bus down the block which went directly to my house. . . it would be different in New York, surely?), and they whispered plans for meeting up to one another to ensure I wouldn’t participate in their clique beyond the prescribed hour a week.

At playgrounds, too, I was typically shunned. Although I found it insulting, it was fine because I was the only mom who seemed to care to actually play with my kid. (He’s pretty cool).

Many years later a friend told me a story of being at the same parks in Cambridge where I found the mothers particularly unfriendly. She looked quite young when her daughter was pre-school age, although she was in her late 20’s. She tried to join a circle of woman chatting while watching the children play, and was stunned when one of the other mothers turned, narrowed her eyes, and spat “excuse me, we don’t speak to nannies.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My son missed out on having kids he was always with because the parents are best friends. He also has no close cohort of cousins, as I did, because my cousins are having children now, in their 30s, and he’s a teenager. This is one of the sadnesses I harbor for my choice, because for me they were the closest thing I knew to sisters. I hope he will have that closeness with my niece, at least, although they are seven years apart.

It is difficult, too, that we are in an affluent area, especially his father (we’re long-since divorced, unsurprisingly): my son’s friends have media rooms and playrooms and basketball courts and koi ponds and sixty-inch televisions. . . Of course I wish we’d been more financially stable when we had him, and could have bought a big house with a beautiful yard instead of a small condo. But I don’t think that having everything handed to you builds any character, anyway, even if it were an option. I do believe in spending on the things that matter, like music lessons and instruments and great summer camps and art supplies!

Even if my son hasn’t had the Caribbean vacations and palatial playrooms we both envied as children growing up with wealthy peers, he, like me, has been raised to believe in the importance of education, art, family, and home-cooked meals, and in embracing peoples’ differences rather than denigrating them. It’s what’s inside that counts (although if the outside is Stevie Nicks, that’s cool). After all of these years I’d still rather hang out with my kid than those catty women, anyway.