When I was a teenager growing up in the '70s in Southern California, I had a cool mom. Among my friends she was known for tolerating a lot of nonsense that prompted other moms to scream and yell, issue life-long groundings and guzzle martinis. Other mothers never wanted us hanging around, would never let us have impromptu dance contests in the living room when we pushed back the Danish modern furniture and rocked out on the orange shag, Elton John crooning on the stereo. At slumber parties -- of which I was allowed more of than were my friends -- my mom would let us make prank phone calls ("Hello, sir, is your refrigerator running? Go catch it!") or toilet paper someone's house.
This arrangement worked because there was an unwritten agreement between cool mom and me. She gave me a reasonable amount of freedom and respect, and in return I did my chores, got good grades and hid from her the stuff she didn't want to know about: my passion for Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, the occasional joint, a boy named Mel who gave me beard-burns at keggers after football games. I knew what to hide from her by following the moves of Eddie Haskell, television's archetypical teenage suck-up.
"Leave It to Beaver's" Eddie, with his suspiciously tidy crew-cut and bland, ever-present grin, was the sidekick of Wally Cleaver, the Beav's older brother. Eddie was always admiring Mrs. Cleaver's nice drapes or pretty apron, then setting the school on fire. Eddie Haskell was hilarious, one of the only ongoing bits of irony on '60s TV, in part because we all instinctively knew that his was the best way to negotiate the parent-teenager relationship. In my house, I let my mom think I was more obedient than I was so that I would be worthy of what she called "the freedoms" -- to date, to talk on the phone, to call people and ask, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Better let him out!"
Now, 20 or so years later, I have a 13-year-old stepdaughter. Sarah was abandoned by her own mother when she was 5, so as far as we're both concerned, I'm it -- the buyer of bras, interpreter of male behavior (including that of her increasingly bewildered father), provider of appropriate CDs, books and glitter nail polish.
Unlike every other woman I know, I was perfectly happy to turn into my mother. I thought I could easily be cool mom for the '90s. For one thing, I had a head start; my mom was not cool in what I thought of then as real life: She was a housewife. As far as I could tell, her day revolved around going to the A&P, dusting the Danish modern and waiting for me to come home from school so she could grill me about my day. I'd become a writer. I got to travel to cool places -- Hawaii, the South Seas, Paris, Chile -- and interview cool people -- Winona Ryder, Picabo Street, Gus Van Sant. I imagined -- wrongly -- that this fact alone was good for a high rating on the cool mom-o-meter.
When Sarah turned 13, I threw a birthday slumber party. I bought her disposable cameras for party favors and pounds of peanut M&Ms. I bought her a Ouija board and a computer game especially for pre-teen girls called Let's Talk About ME.
She had six girls from her seventh-grade class over. I should have been concerned when they arrived and didn't bother to say hello; Eddie Haskell was forever making a fuss over Mrs. Cleaver when he made an entrance. The girls immediately holed up in Sarah's bedroom, where they yammered hysterically for several hours. The arrival of a pair of olive and cheese pizzas flushed them out. Before I could even get the cardboard lid open, several of the girls tore at the corners like hyenas stumbling unexpectedly upon a fresh zebra carcass. This should have been an intimation of things to come, but I thought they were merely demonstrating their high spirits, even though I knew Eddie Haskell would never, never have torn open a pizza box in front of Mrs. Cleaver.
When it was time to bring out the birthday cake, I expected that some natural sense of occasion, and the approach of something large and chocolate, would bring them around. After Sarah blew out the candles, I began to have the impression that I, along with the double-chocolate truffle cake with 14 hot pink candles (one to grow on), was imposing on these girls. I began to feel like kitchen help, or the exterminator come to rid the house of carpenter ants, or the furnace guy. I was invisible.
I passed out the plates, and just as I was about to set a piece of cake on the plate of a particularly lively girl named Amber, she said, loudly, looking past me to the other girls, "You know Amy and Josh? They're already 15 and I know they're fucking." She illustrated this announcement with the universal, index finger poking into the OK-sign gesture.
To Amber's credit, she did glance up at me like a dog who's about to get smacked with a newspaper for chewing up a shoe.
I did nothing, said nothing, just continued serving as if nothing had happened.
This was all wrong. I was supposed to let them act up under adult supervision, and they were supposed to say, "Karen [no one calls anyone Mrs. anymore] I really like your new distressed pine hutch," then wait until I turned my back to whisper about the sex life of Amy and Josh.
I tried to make sense of it; I didn't think these girls were probably much different than any other 13-year-olds. I combed the culture for guilty suspects. Sappy suck-up Eddie Haskell has been replaced by Bart Simpson, whose main comic shtick is showing up his dad as a major dolt. Other TV role models are the gorgeous kids of "Party of Five," who always wear great clothes and get to have grown-up problems with no parents around to say I told you so. In some ways, my mom had it easy. She was a cool mom during the days when the American cult of youth hadn't oozed into every crack and cranny of our culture; before "Tommy Boy," Teen People and Let's Talk About ME, when being an adult was still, more or less, where it was at. Now even being 13, an age formerly thought to be one of the worst years of human existence, is still infinitely preferable to being grown-up. Cool mom has become an oxymoron.
Sarah and her friends had my number, and the numbers of all the 30ish to 40ish mothers I know. I could have jumped on Amber, could have put my face in hers and said, "We don't talk that way in this house!" which, besides being a lie (when the kids aren't around I use the F-word as liberally as the hero in anything written by David Mamet), would make me the one thing my mother was not. Uncool.
I read once that the only way to be loved is not to need it, and the same goes for being a cool mom. My mother could be cool because on some level she didn't need to be cool to know who she was. She was ipso facto cool simply because she could drive, buy beer, smoke cigarettes and control the telephone. She could shut down the party any time she felt like it. Once, in a fit of pique over something or other, I hurled the most hurtful accusation I could muster at her: "You are so out of it!" Her answer was to caw like she did when she thought something was really hysterical and say, "Of course I am. I'm the mother."
The baby boomers' Achilles' heel is that we need to be cool. We want to be mothers, but we don't want to be the mother, the one who says no. We want to go on "Saturday Night Live" and play our saxophone, trudge through world tours in which three generations of fans can groove to our long-in-the-tooth hits. We want to splurge for tattoos. Give us coolness or give us death. For most of us, the latter will come to pass before we'll ever admit to not possessing the former.
The fact that this bothered me to the degree that it did was a sure sign that I had already forfeited cool momness. I consulted a friend who has a 16-year-old. What should I have done? Said "Amy and Josh are such a cute couple! I hope they're, like, using protection!" (I am the mother, after all).
"There is nothing you can do," my friend said. "I had a dozen cheerleaders here last weekend, one of whom I had to help down from an acid trip, and according to my daughter, I'm still an embarrassment."
My mother died not long after I graduated from high school. She was terminally ill with brain cancer for several months. Once, as we drove together to her chemotherapy, she said, "Let's put 'Cool Mom' on my headstone. Would that be a hoot, or what?"
In the end my father and I settled for "Our Mom." Maybe that was the difference between her and me. She allowed my friends and me to misbehave under her watch because she liked the idea of being mom to us all. I don't have that desire. Having one teenager is plenty for me. Perhaps Sarah's friends sense this; they don't want much to do with me because I don't want much to do with them. Maybe one of the reasons Eddie Haskell acted the way he did around Mrs. Cleaver was because he could sense she genuinely liked him, and he didn't want to disappoint her.
I told my father about Sarah's party, about Amber; I asked him how my mom did it, how she coped. Were the times so different? It must have been easier. Back then, it was "Don't trust anyone over 30." Now it's "Don't trust anyone who isn't still living at home." My dad rolled his eyes and said, "Clearly you don't remember that song. It drove your mother nuts. That Beatles song you used to sing around the house when you were about 11. "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"
Eeesh. Pass the martinis.