By Andrea Askowitz
Victoria is at work. She’s a financial advisor at a prominent firm. She texts me back, “You are the most beautiful and sexy mommy.” Feels good for a second. Then I think: That’s like saying, “You look hot doing the dishes.”
I look up at the other mothers diddling on their cell phones; at the sick kids crawling all over the floor; at our two-year-old, Sebastian, putting a filthy toy in his mouth.
I write my cell number on a sticky note and ask the receptionist to call when it’s our turn. “You guys need pagers,” I say, “like at restaurants.”
I take Sebastian outside and call my mom to bitch. She says, “Tree…apple. Tree…apple. You have a boy and a girl and a big dog. You don’t have a traditional job. You’re the one who takes the kids to the doctor. You’re just like me.”
I get off the phone feeling very afraid. Am I turning into my mother?
Last weekend my mom and her boyfriend Bob were over, hanging out with the kids. Sebastian was tugging on Bob’s mountain-man beard. My mom tugged on Bob’s beard. She said, “If I didn’t take my estrogen, I’d have the same face.”
My mom has Chaetophobia—fear of hair. She has it, I know, I looked it up on the Internet. She’s obsessed with sprouting. On women.
My mom’s so afraid of hair, she gets her legs waxed, the first of every month. I’ve seen the hair growth between waxings. She has four hairs on each leg, and they’re blond.
My hair is much thicker and darker than my mom’s. When I shave, I get a five o’clock shadow by noon. The day I turned 16, my mom took me for my first waxing. I thought it was a thoughtful gift, until the wax lady pulled off the first strip.
Once during a hippie phase, I let all my body hair grow out as a way of honoring my body in its natural state. Coincidentally, during that phase, my aunt was taking a photography class and needed a nude model.
My aunt and I met at my mom’s house. I took off my shirt and my mom must have caught a glimpse of my armpits. Before I could step out of my childhood bedroom, she rushed at me with a razor.
To cure her Chaetophobia, I tried to get my mom to go to MitchFest. At MitchFest, five thousand women converge on a plot of land in the woods of Michigan to play or listen to music, sleep in tents, sweat in lodges, and make paper mache casts of their breasts.
At MichFest it’s clothing optional. You see bushes as wide as the grasslands. You also see more mustaches than you’d see at a Mariachi convention. If you’ve shaved your armpits, which I made the mistake of doing the first time I went, you are out of style. You walk around with your arms pressed down against your sides.
If you have a fear of hair, that place is exposure therapy. But, I couldn’t get my mom to go.
She said, “I’m too old to be sleeping in a tent.” And that got me thinking. Maybe my mom’s Cheatophobia is really a mask for Gerascophobia—fear of aging.
She’s always talking about how she doesn’t have enough time to do all the things she wants to do, like finding the time to buy green bananas. She also complains about how her knees don’t work without glucosamine. And that she misses the days when my brother and I were kids. “How did the time go so fast?” she says and gets a little tear in one eye.
When I asked her about Gerascophobia, she said she fears getting older less than she fears the alternative, which means she has Thanatophobia—fear of death.
“I’m just afraid,” she said, “if I’m ever mugged, the newspaper headline will read, ‘Elderly Woman Gets Mugged.’ I’m not so much afraid of getting mugged. Just afraid they’ll call me ‘elderly.'”
I knew it. She’s afraid of looking old. She has Rhytiphobia—fear of getting wrinkles.
My cell phone rings. I walk back into the waiting room. Sebastian and I are escorted past the sick kids to one of the tiny offices with the chair for the mom and the paper-sheet covered bed for the child. I sit in the mom chair, just like my mom always did.
Am I that apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree? Do I have all the same fears?
I do get my legs waxed, and I am always on the lookout for stray eyebrows—the ones that show up on the chin. But fear of hair? No. Just a healthy concern. And I don’t fear appearing old. Every time my mom greets me she says, “Would you dye that mop already? You look like an aging hippie.”
“Thanks,” I say. “That’s the look I’m going for.”
But actually aging, that scares me. The other day I was at the dermatologist getting some spots looked at. Spots I’m sure I didn’t have five years ago. The nurse and I discovered we both went to Palmetto High. I said, “I graduated in 1986.”
She said, “I was born in 1986.”
I sucked in my breath and my gut. That was my reaction, like I was on an airplane that did a nosedive.
I had a similar reaction the other night when I was lying on my back reading with my daughter and she pulled and stretched out the skin on my neck. She said, “Mommy, why is your neck like a lizard?”
Fear of aging? For sure. I’m getting old, and fast. I have a lot left to do. And I fear death too. I could die before it’s all done.
It has been two hours and forty-two minutes. I am still waiting for the doctor. Sebastian has ripped the sheet into strips. I know the doctor is meticulous about his room, but I don’t care. I yank the sheet all the way off, crumple it into a ball, and throw it onto the floor as hard as I can. It bounces. I put Sebastian on the floor with the paper ball and two tongue depressors. “Play ball,” I say.
I pull out a pad and paper to tally my mom’s phobias against mine:
PHOBIA MOM ME
Cheatophobia (hair) yes no (healthy concern)
Gerascophobia (aging) no yes
Thanatophobia (death) yes yes
Rhytiphobia (looking old) yes no
We only have one phobia in common—fear of death. I am not becoming my mother. I am not becoming my mother! I sing that the second time, even though that’s not what I’m afraid of.
What I’m really afraid of becoming is just a mother. I know motherhood is the most important job in the world. I was hoping for motherhood and…well, more.
I’m a mother but I’m also a writer. I’ve written one book and now I’m working on another one. I want to be recognized as a great talent. But how will I become a great talent if I spend my entire life at the pediatrician’s office?
When the kids are asleep, I sneak out once a week to teach a writing class. I tell my students never to mention they’re writers in their stories. “Don’t do it,” I say, “unless you’re Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King. Yes, own it in the universe, tell all your friends, make it real. But when you write that you’re a writer, if the reader has never heard of you, he or she will just feel sorry for you.”
The only time it might work to mention you’re a writer, I say, if you’re not Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King, is if your point is, you’re just a mother.
I have Justamotherphobia.
The pediatrician comes in. I have been waiting two hours and fifty-nine minutes. I have gotten old in his office. I hand him my list of phobias. He looks at my list. He looks up and wrinkles his forehead. He is a doctor with a flourishing practice. He’s at the top of his game. He doesn’t understand.
Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared or been heard in places like the New York Times, Salon.com, Jewcy.com, Sliver of Stone, FourTwoNine, NPR, and PBS. Follow her on Twitter @andreaaskowitz