Seven-year-old me stood in front of the mirror. My mother stood behind me, pulling my thick wavy black hair into a high ponytail. My dress was pale pink with black polka dots and a tulle skirt. I wore black Mary Janes with white ruffle socks to complete the look. She loved it, I hated it.
It was picture day, and we went through the dance we went through every time she wanted to dress me up. She wrangled me into some frilly outfit while I bucked and complained throughout. I had turned into a little tomboy, and I hated having to look like a little girl. Everything about girl’s clothing was so restrictive to me, but I complied solely to satisfy my mother. I was the youngest, and she doted on me. She had been told, after suffering a miscarriage in the mid-seventies, that she couldn’t have any more children. Just as my parents had resigned themselves to the fact, I came along in ’82. To this day, she calls me her miracle baby, and as such, I knew I had to silently play the part of the beautiful little doll, so I did.
But I wanted my style independence so badly. I was so determined to be responsible for myself, at least in this way. At home, I didn’t have control over anything: my father drank excessively, my older sister was about to leave the house, and my brother was getting into drugs. Life at home was in constant turmoil, and all I wanted was to have agency and control over this one thing. My soul longed for the menswear-inspired fashion of the 90’s. This was the era of TLC, Denise Huxtable, Blossom, Punky Brewster, and other fashion-forward icons. I wanted to look like THAT. I wanted to be out there living my life, not sitting on the sidelines so that my pressed white shirt didn’t get dirty.
Luckily, there was a shift at home, she got busy with work and my always-in-trouble siblings, so I slowly began to take control of my own wardrobe. I was, of course, still beholden to whatever she bought me, but little by little dresses started getting replaced by jeans, and kitten heels replaced with Vans. It was glorious. Even though I had been given free reign for the rest of the school year, she still had control over picture day, and apparently, that was too much for 10-year-old me. Subsequently, I decided to declare war. This too should be mine, I thought. That year, I hid the date of my 5th grade picture day from my mom. Because she was so preoccupied, she also forgot to ask me about it. I knew what I was doing. She wouldn’t have the time to take me shopping or put anything on layaway. She wouldn’t have a say this year. It was all me. It was a perfect plan.
That day I wore a Brenda Walsh-inspired men’s button-up. It was baby blue with white pinstripes. I accompanied that with knee-length jorts and black loafers with white tube socks. The outfit itself coulda passed, just a by-product of the 90’s, but I was completely disheveled too. I’d played dodgeball earlier, my hair was a frizzy mess, my shirt was dirty, my glasses smudged. I was a spectacle. By the time the picture was taken, I looked like a homeless child, I could have played an extra in Les Misérables. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t care. I was happy to have made a choice myself. I felt satisfied.
Then the stupid picture arrived. Since I hadn’t told her about it, I didn’t have any prints of myself, but everyone got a class photo free. There I was, in the front row no less, my knees dirty and scraped, with a smug look on my face. When she saw it she didn’t even get mad, it was more like disappointment, “Te ves como una chipalota! ” (You look like a bum!) As usual, I braced myself for the chancla or the belt, but it didn’t come. Instead, she put the picture away, silently, and said nothing more.
That’s when it hit me. Just as much as I wanted control over my life, so did she. Not because she didn’t want me to have independence, but because everything else in her life was in such disarray. She had wanted to hold on to me as long as possible, and my disobedience told her that I too was slipping through her fingers. I took away her annual tradition, her one day to capture her child at her best. I couldn’t even allow her that. Except for major holidays, she quit telling me what to wear. It was the end of an era.
I wish I could say that realizing all this made me softer, more empathetic and caring, but of course, it didn’t. Our power struggles would continue well into my teens and twenties. Sometimes she would win, and sometimes I would win, but there would be a battle beforehand, that was a given. My need to control my life would lead me to do many things without her approval. The biggest of which was probably getting married. She wasn’t even mad when I finally told her, much like that picture day so many years ago, she was mostly disappointed and sad. Once again, I was so wrapped up in “having won” that I didn’t even register that I had hurt her feelings, yet again.
Today our relationship is different. I’m in my mid-thirties, my mom’s in her mid-sixties, and the roles have been reversed. Both my parents are retired, their bodies debilitated after decades of hard labor, their savings depleted, and their bravado dimmed. There’s no reason for me to act out now, no need to exert control because I AM in control. They are looking to me for help and support, and the older they get, the more intervention they’ll need. I don’t have to yell, to put my foot down, to hide secrets, and make decisions by myself. Finally, I have real agency, and with great power comes great responsibility.
Sometimes the control freak in me rears its head, out of habit, and I have to remind myself to be softer, kinder, and more patient. I see my mother roughly every other weekend. I take her to lunch and to run any miscellaneous errands. I take this as an opportunity to practice my newfound empathy. Because it wasn’t so long ago that the roles were reversed, and she was trying to be patient with me as I fumbled blindly through my life. And just as she patiently stepped aside and watched me make some of the worst decisions of my life, so I too must support her, no matter what. That’s how it works. I finally get it.