"Because I said so," were not words I ever planned on saying to my daughter (now 13), though I'd heard them plenty of times, back in the faraway 1960s days of my own New York City childhood.
My educated parents protested the Vietnam War, voted for Humphrey and McGovern. As part of the post-World War 2 generation, they furnished our living room with cool Danish Modern and molded plywood chairs designed by Charles Eames. I remember the day when my dad brought home The Rolling Stones' "Between the Buttons" and the Beatles' "Revolver"—my brother and I did our version of The Swim in our living room, my ponytail bouncing up and down to these wild new sounds. And like other parents, mine owned a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Spock's then still revolutionary Baby and Childcare, the book that was moving America away from the severe parenting styles of previous generations.
The world was in rebellion as a new generation pushed for change, but our home, while loving and safe, was no democracy. My mother, who had been raised in Europe (where children were reputed to be better behaved than my American peers), enforced strict single party parental rule. As a consequence, I learned proper table manners, curtsied when directed, and when she took me to the ballet, I wore white gloves and ladylike shoes I did not choose myself. I ate everything on my plate, even the boiled beef tongue that skeeved me. Sometimes I successfully tucked twitchy unwanted forkfuls into a napkin, other times I had to choke it down (did I mention that my mom had an eye in the back of her head?). "Because I said so," were words I took seriously. As a teenager, I learned wiliness, but on any ratings scale, my rebellion was tame.
When I became a mother, I vowed I'd do things differently and armed with a stack of parenting books, I was sure I'd be patient and respectful through every "how come?" and "why?"
The school of parenthood is sobering and while I was fortunate to receive a daughter with a calm and mature intelligence, the inevitable battle of wills began during her toddler years. As I desperately airplaned unwanted broccoli florets past the firmly locked gates of her adorable lips, I understood why my mother, who worked full time and managed a home, ran such a tight ship. Her over-packed life required order.
I also worked full time and the presentation of an ordered life was important to me. I shocked us both when the words: "because I said so" formulated in my brain and exited my mouth. Oh, no! I thought, uttering an inner shriek, clamping my hand over my mouth, and wishing I could rewind, I am becoming my mother!
During my daughter's sixth year, everything changed. Without fully understanding why, my marriage to a man I still loved seemed to be falling apart. One winter afternoon, he collapsed on the kitchen floor of our home and died in my arms. This loss was traumatic enough, until the discovery six months later that he had been living a secret life, with at least five mistresses, one of whom lived in my town and was the mother of my daughter's best friend. I was certainly not living my mother's well-ordered life anymore. In addition to feeling deceived and bewildered, my sense of competency was shaken. My old life wasn't perfect, but I had certainly done my best to make it look good from the outside.
I slowly rebuilt over the next two years. I met a new man who loved me, and my daughter. We moved back to my home city. In the hope that my story would help others who have found their lives upended in midlife, I began writing about my experiences. In 2009, I published my New York Times bestselling memoir, Perfection.
We were a new kind of family and we'd been through a lot together, and I liked to think we'd learned how to honor each other's individuality, while we adults still maintained parental authority. But when I felt overwhelmed with tasks, that same urge to say, "because I said so," bubbled up.
Then my daughter signed up for middle school debate. Now everything (and I do mean everything) is a discussion. It has taken a while, but I am trying to embrace this new reality, even on days when it would be so much easier to rule like my mom did. If there is one thing I have learned, it's that real life is messier and more complicated that we'd like it to be. In spite of the urge to create and ordered surface, I try to embrace the beautiful chaos of real life.
But I do cling to some orderly traditions from my childhood. As I tell my daughter (sounding a lot like my mom), you can go far in life by having a plan, showing up on time, and being polite once you get where you're going. I smiled when I saw that even the professionally outrageous Lady Gaga curtsied to the Queen.
Photo courtesy Sigrid Estrada
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