il_570xN.448416623_9a4nIt’s been a week or so since my awesome stylist relieved me of about three inches of hair, taking my ‘do from below shoulder-length to chin-length layers. I like it. The longer hair just…sat there. Sad and limp. This new cut brings my hair into the “sassy” category.

But my 13-year-old son seems almost personally affronted, and he needs to let me know. I’ve been catching him gazing at me thoughtfully, trying to synthesize this new development.

“What?” I ask.

“Your hair. It’s too short,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. I like it long.”

A few days later, he’s playing FIFA 2013 on his Xbox in the living room, his back to me. I’m at the dining room table, reading a magazine.

“Mom.” He expertly maneuvers his player down the virtual field.

“Yeah, honey?” I’m distracted by a feature titled “Dating Deal Breakers: 8 Signs We All Overlook.”

“I think I’ve told you already, but I don’t like your haircut.”

I look up from the article and glare at the back of his head. “Dude. You’ve told me about 10 times.” I flip a few of the magazine’s pages so they snap. “I actually don’t care if you don’t like it, but telling me you don’t like it is getting irritating. Chill.”

Finally he turns around. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

My son may have that newly-minted teenager swag thing goin’ on – he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thanks — but changes like my haircut make him act like he did when he was two, or four, or five, throwing a tantrum if his nap schedule was disrupted or whining if the chicken on his plate came into contact with the broccoli. I get it: he has a deep stake in me staying the same. His sense of security is based on the fact that I’m predictable, and he not only wants my behavior to be consistent so that he can feel safe, but also so he can figuratively push against me as he tries to find out who he is. If I’m a moving target, this is a lot harder.

‘Course, the updated hairstyle is the least of it. I’ve changed so much since he was born it’s ridiculous. Most of these changes have been internal (except maybe the gigantic tree tattoo I have on my forearm now) and I’ve tried to protect my son from my messy adult growth process. My inner workings aren’t his concern: my job is to give him as much consistency as I can, to smooth out my inevitable emotional kinks before I interact with him. That doesn’t mean I should be emotionally controlled all the time – that’s impossible — but it does mean that sometimes I have to detach from whatever is going on inside me so that I can take care of him.

It’s not easy, and I’ve had varying degrees of success. I can’t always muster the skill to set aside my jumbled emotions and deal calmly with my son. And that’s okay, too – this is not The Giving Tree, people. My son and I get to be in a real relationship, one that has lumps and bumps as well as calm stretches; he gets to know me as a real person: a woman who changes her look every once in a while, who yells sometimes and then has to apologize, who reacts defensively or with sarcasm but also who knows how to stand up for herself. Good old regular interpersonal unpredictability, set in the context of me showing up, every day, to be his mom. Whether he likes my hair or not.

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About Kate

Things are weird in the wide world -- and like everyone else, most days I'm used to it. But to shake things up for myself, I like to notice and write about stuff that strikes me as both beautiful and strange, fascinating and repulsive, sweet and sour -- like how the steamy, stinky air that comes up from the BART vents at 16th Street Mission reminds me of being twenty-two, apparently immortal, and in love.

3 responses »

  1. Jaime Oyea says:

    I think that you’ve just created a great definition of Mother. Happy Mother’s Day, Kathleen. Love, Jaime Oyea.

  2. Anne Hillman says:

    Wonderful, Kate! Keep it up. You’re a great model for the world.

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