“You’re a mother with tattoos,” the cashier, in the orange Home Depot vest with platinum hair, cackles. You are just trying to purchase some magnets, two lollipops, two Coke Zeros, and fire-ant killer.
You try to smile and nod, but only manage a grimace. The cashier doesn’t seem to notice. Both of your kids stare at you expectantly, but you realize they are only waiting, as patiently as they can, for the lollipops in garish flavors like watermelon and cotton candy. You hand them lollipops, and they both grin like gremlins.
With all of your purchases in their separate bags, you turn to leave. Your husband pushes the three-year-old in the dayglo cart while your eight-year-old daughter walks beside you.
The cashier isn’t finished: “I mean, you’re a mom with tattoos. What do the people at their schools think? I mean…”
You know what she means. You stifle a sigh that starts in your toes and inches up your body, trying determinedly to get out. You nod and exit the store quickly. You’re remarkably clear on what she means. You live with what she means day in and out. Some days, it’s easier to live with other people’s expectations of what makes a mother. Today is not one of those days.
What she means is how can someone like you, with tattoos and piercings, also be a mother.
What she means is that you don’t look like what she expects moms to look like. What see means is that there’s a narrow ideal that matches the term “mother” that you’ve somehow missed by miles. What she means is that your body doesn’t match what the other mothers she encounters look like. What she means is that visible tattoos don’t fit neatly with what our culture tells us mothers are supposed to be. (And really, what does our culture expect mothers to be? What kinds of bodies are mothers supposed to have? Why don’t we expect mothers to have tattoos?)
What she means is that you’re an outlier, an anomaly. What she means is that a mother with tattoos doesn’t seem like much of a mother at all.
While you spin through all the possibilities of what she means, you think again of how the parents at your daughter’s school react when they see you. Mostly, they attempt to be polite while their eyes slide over the tattoos that cover your arms. Perhaps, their eyes linger on the black panther that leaves red scratch marks on your skin. (You’re particularly proud of the militancy of that tattoo).
Or they tell you that they like “your koi,” which are actually goldfish, but you stopped correcting people about what your tattoos actually are a while ago. People see what they wanna see, and people don’t hear what you say to them about the art you carry on your body. Or they ask supposedly benign questions about all of your “ink,” which carries an unmistakably passive aggressive tone. Or maybe they visibly flinch when their child excitedly shouts, “Hey, Mrs. Baker!” from four aisles down at Publix. They always flinch before the recognition creeps into their eyes. You can see the consternation and confusion: How does their kid know this woman with tattoos? Because you volunteer at their school. Because you’re the mom of one of their friends. Because your kids go to the same school. Because sometimes moms defy our expectations of what they think moms should be.
Your kids slurp their lollipops, and you’re pulled back to the moment that you’re in, not the one that intruded. You turn to look at both kids. The eight-year-old giggles and then chirps, “Sorry, Mom.” You should note that she’s not all the sorry, and you don’t really expect her to be.
You think about how many times each of your kiddos call you “Mom” a day, and you realize that your kids don’t care if their mom has tattoos or piercings. They only care that you are their mom. The oldest kid already knows that you don’t look like other moms, but she’s content that you look like you. And you are her mom and her brother’s mom. That’s enough. Her expectations aren’t limited. She sees no contradiction between mom and tattoos. She doesn’t care about the stereotype. That’s the awareness that you should bask in, not a stranger’s commentary.
So, you do.
This essay was originally published in my TinyLetter, Cold Takes, before Mother’s Day in 2017. Since I continue to have complicated feelings about Mother’s Day, I thought I would share it again.