By Jamie Pearson
As I waited for my two-year-old daughter to finish her turn on the toilet, I idly studied my reflection in the restaurant’s full-length bathroom mirror. In jeans and platform slides, I looked almost young. A recent bout of stomach flu had left me fashionably thin, and I wore lipstick for a change. Combing my hair with my fingers, I felt suddenly optimistic and carefree. We zipped up and washed hands, then crossed the crowded cafe to our table. As I squeezed into my chair, I bumped the man behind me. He looked up from his lunch and smiled admiringly.
“You know what?” said my daughter. “My mommy made a poo.”
The change had occurred some months earlier and literally happened overnight. One day my daughter was a harmless cherub, the next she wasn’t. The moment she handed the electrician a pair of my underpants from the basket of dirty laundry, I realized precautions would have to be taken to safeguard what remained of my dignity. I was being given fair warning. As I charged the astonished electrician and snatched the panties from his hand, my thoughts turned to my friends’ stories of maternal humiliation. They had never seemed real to me before now. Pink plastic tampon applicators fished from the bathroom garbage by Virginia’s children and worn as fake fingernails in front of her dinner guests. Kimberly opening her front door to find her diaphragm being thrown to neighbor kids like a mini-Frisbee. For me, it began with underpants.
The electrician and I avoided eye contact and acted as if no lingerie had changed hands. Explicit etiquette guidelines for this sort of situation are hard to come by, so we improvised. I offered him coffee. He politely declined. He installed a few dimmer switches. I slunk off to my room. The moment passed. Months passed. I put the experience out of my mind.
The story got more bearable over time. With each retelling, I laughed more and cringed less. I weathered other mothering humiliations. The restaurant incident. A colorful failure to buy my daughter’s cooperation with jellybeans at the pediatrician’s office. Her fixation on the adjective teeny-weeny. And her stalwart refusal to speak aloud the noun it modified. “Look, Mommy!” she once hooted as we approached a man walking a miniature Schnauzer. “That man has a TEENY WEENY!” I held my head a little higher with every embarrassment, imagining that I was no longer so easily defeated. Then she pulled my pants down in front of the Federal Express delivery man.
Much in the manner of a nuclear accident or an airliner crash, this catastrophe occurred because many systems failed sequentially. I had a newborn baby. All my pants had been vomited on or worse. The resulting laundry pile was insurmountable. I was wearing my husband’s loose-fitting sweats. My normally independent daughter was tired and clingy. The baby fussed to be picked up. By the time the doorbell rang, the dominoes of disaster were already in motion. I scooped up the baby, opened the door, and attempted to sign for the package one-handed.
The FedEx guy smiled at my daughter. “Hi there.”
At once terrified and delighted, she gripped my leg and cowered behind me. Had I tied the drawstring of my sweatpants? I couldn’t be sure. I casually leaned against the door, applying extra pressure at my hip for securitymother
The FedEx man was not so easily dissuaded. He knelt down to toddler level. “How do you like the big sister business so far?”
At this, my daughter held on tight and slid down my leg to sit on my foot. In one hand I held my infant son, in the other the electronic signature clipboard. I was entirely without pants.
It’s hard to say who was more aghast. The FedEx guy developed a sudden, fervent interest in our landscaping while I remarked favorably, and repeatedly, upon the weather. The nice thing about humiliation in the company of strangers is that the experience is transitory. However often I would replay this mortifying scene in my head, it was over as soon as I signed the clipboard, agreed to have a good day, and closed the door. Time passed. The Pavlovian urge to take cover at the sight of a Federal Express truck did not.
Our afternoon playdate with new friends, however greatly anticipated, was not going well. Toys were not shared. Words were not used. Feelings were not respected. The disputes, largely instigated by my daughter, escalated from tense to tearful to hysterical. I intervened repeatedly, to no avail. Just as I was debating whether to politely end the visit, the house went suddenly, unnaturally quiet. As I stood to investigate, the girls skipped into the room and ducked behind an oversized armchair. In retrospect, I realize they weren’t skipping so much as skulking. I checked on them, of course. Hidden from our view, they took turns steaming up the window with their noses and drawing in the fog with their fingertips. I chatted with my new friend, determined to put the girls from my mind. And yet, I was reluctant to do so. Their muffled laughter made me uneasy.
Then I heard it. A wet, slurping sound that filled me with instant dread. I was on my feet in a second. “What are you girls doing back there?”
There was tittering. “We’re washing the windows.”
They had discovered my nightstand drawer.
The moment unfolded cinematically. The girls emerged from behind the chair. I crossed the room in two strides, hoping to be first on the scene. Too late. My daughter’s friend handed something to her mother. A tube. I held my breath, wanting so very badly for it to be diaper ointment. It was not diaper ointment.
The slimy, depleted tube of personal lubricant jelly was somehow transferred from my friend’s hand to my own, although I have no clear memory of how this was accomplished. My ears buzzed, and my face burned. In addition to the windows, the girls had washed their faces and hair. My friend and I grabbed our children and ran to separate bathrooms. As I scrubbed my daughter’s well-lubricated head a little too vigorously with one of our guest towels, her intelligent brown eyes searched my face for some reaction. Mortified into silence, I could neither comfort nor condemn her. Grimly soaping her hands and arms, I blamed myself. I struggled to think of something light or witty to say to my friend. Nothing came to me.
In any event, the playdate had come to its natural conclusion. From this point, it was not possible to segue gracefully into playdough or stickers. We filled the conversational void with mindless clean-up. I sorted stuffed animals and dolls. My new friend gathered shoes and searched for a wayward sippy cup. She suggested another playdate. I agreed. My daughter and I walked them to the door and waved as they drove away. We have neither seen nor spoken to them since.
As a young associate on Wall Street, I once returned from the restroom to my post on a predominantly male trading desk with my dress tucked into my pantyhose. At my own wedding, I stage-whispered to my husband that I was not wearing underwear and was overheard by his seventy-eight-year-old grandmother. I thought I was a person who knew what it was like to be embarrassed. Then I became a mother.
Author’s Note: Even though we had talked up the passport concept to three-year-old Avery, when it came time for photos, she balked. She met our whispered offer of lunch at McDonald’s with stony silence as the other patrons sighed theatrically. “We need this picture so we can go to a VERY SPECIAL PLACE,” I hissed. “It’s almost EXACTLY LIKE DISNEYLAND.” Avery consented, and has so far been uncharacteristically diplomatic about the many disparities between London and the Magic Kingdom.
Brain, Child (Fall 2003)
About the Author: Jamie Pearson is the mother of two wildly unpredictable children. Her writing also appears in Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press, October 2003). Before uprooting her family to live in London this August, she spent many lovely summer days shopping for foul weather gear.
Art by Oliver Weiss
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