Mothers as “prison guards”

If my adolescence was a high security prison, then my mother was the 20 feet walls that took the wind out of my gale forces, so to speak, defeating me at every attempt to coax her into getting me what I wanted.

She was unbending, and adroit at keeping me on the (deprived) side of teen temptation.

I remember at 14 I had decided to get my very own Sony Walkman, the hot product of my era. I was so excited at my purchase that I failed to contain myself when I later met up with my parents at our car.

“You bought a what?” My mother had asked. “Oh no, you are returning that. NOW.

I protested and within minutes found myself shouting and then crying. Even my father intervened in my defense. But my mother was unyielding, confident, resolute, so sure was she that my new headphones would burn me like crack.

Losing yet another battle, I pulled myself back to the store and up to the customer service desk, sobbing as I explained to the 20-something year-old behind the counter why I was returning this Walkman just minutes after I had bought it. He sucked his teeth in sympathy. “Man, just wait till you come of age; ain’t nobody gonna tell you what to do.”

I nodded in appreciation and walked away.

Somewhere in the decades that followed, that teen memory morphed into something to look back and laugh about and then, recently, into something to dread. The tables would be turning, I knew, and soon it would be my turn to be prison guard. We mothers all know this moment is coming, right?

I just didn’t know it would come so soon.  

Over the winter break, Fred came home from his best friend Jack’s crying, “I want a Wii. I am the ONLY person at my school and in this neighborhood who DOESN’T have a Wii!! WHY are you being so MEAN to me??” He had found out that yet another friend of his had gotten a Wii for Christmas.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time we’d heard this. We’d been hearing it for months, and each time I’d staunchly put my foot down about “NO VIDEO GAMES” – end of discussion. It is probably easier for me to gloss over this obsession of Fred’s because I am so “lo-tech”; to this day I do not have and do not care for an iPhone and the idea of Kindles taking over books leaves a pit in my stomach. I’m still a bit dreamy in my 1970s/80s world of books, board games and all things natural. It is hard for me to appreciate Fred’s need for a Wii, and so much easier to chalk it up and dismiss it as his puerile flavor-of-the-week.

Two weeks after Christmas, though, Max, my lo-tech ally in all of this, showed signs of bending. Our neighbors got their daughter a Wii for Christmas, and Max played a few games of tennis on it when they had us over for New Year’s. He liked it. In fact, he was hooked. He could see why Fred wanted it so badly. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all, he’d persuaded me. It would be fun for all three of us, plus it would get me to move.

And, so, as a poorly disguised early birthday present for me, we indirectly got the Wii for Fred. Secretly thrilled for myself, I remained nervous for Fred. His strongest intellectual quality is his intense curiosity and creativity. Will a videogame replace the time he used to spend building Legos, folding Origami, and conducting his own science experiments? Will the mind-numbing instant gratification of technology quash the meaningful but more arduous work of creating?

Perhaps these are similar worries my mother had when she made me return my Walkman nearly 30 years ago. The Walkman could’ve come from out of space for all she knew, and she was afraid of the potentially addictive quality of portable music. She was afraid of what I’d be listening to. She was afraid of what it would do to my ears. The thing is, she was so confident, or at least she appeared so.  It would only be last year that she shared her doubts as a mother for the first time. “I didn’t know how to be a mother. No one teaches or tells you anything.”

But I suppose if we listen carefully, we can find lessons – in our mothers, and in our own experiences. While the Wii does make me nervous, I’ve finally decided it’s good for Fred to have it in his life. It’ll give him a chance to figure out how to balance his different priorities and desires. It’ll force him to learn how to stay in control. As the mother, I, too, need to listen a little better, and learn how to balance keeping those gates closed and letting them open once in awhile.

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10 thoughts on “Mothers as “prison guards”

  1. I feel like there’s another thread in your story that deserves further comment: you saved the money to buy your Walkman, which is very different than you buying your son a Wii. One of the things your mother’s actions took from you was the chance to make a decision about the fruits of your labor. There is a value in learning as a young adult to set and accomplish a financial goal. Buying your son a Wii– whatever the reasons– is, to me, a different (albeit interesting) story.

    • Thanks very much for commenting, and that’s an interesting point which I hadn’t considered. It’s true that I was at a vastly different age than my son in this story which makes the two stories slightly different. Ultimately what I wanted to talk about was how difficult it is for us as mothers to be strong as “gatekeepers” – how do we make decisions when our children insist on something and do we make those decisions for them? – and these were the two examples that came to mind. (Just for the record, we did make our son contribute financially to the Wii.) Thanks again for the insight and feedback.

  2. Your family interaction is one of a democracy, your mother had a dictator style.

    You seek cooperation from Fred, you don’t demand.

    Apples and oranges.

    You are so very different. Can you see it?

    • Thanks Alexandra. My mom and I come from different cultures, and certainly I have had the benefit of much more access to information as well as a happier, easier and more peaceful life. At the core we are actually quite similar, as I get my understanding of children from her (a surprise for me, but I have seen her with Fred, and realized how deeply she understands children). Like all mothers, I believe she was simply trying to find her own way and to do what she felt was best at the time.

  3. Sometimes mothering does feel akin to being a warden. I think it’s a part of the job description.

    Clearly, everything you do for your son is motivated by love. You are the kind of person who will allow him to use the wii, not abuse it.

    It is a shame that your mother forced you to return the walkman, after you had saved your own money to buy it. But, it’s true, kids don’t come with instructions. Probably your mom was doing what she thought was best for you.

    • Thanks for your understanding, Mrs. Mayhem. I wrote that Walkman episode while chuckling, but realize how strong it might appear to others. My mom and I have had more open conversations now about motherhood, and she’s confessed to how hard being a mom was for her. She, too, was always motivated by love. I guess we all are.

  4. Great post! My mom was also the warden in my family, to my siblings and I, and, I should add, my father. In her role, she tallied our “good acts,” our “bad acts,” against our family’s bank account and permitted us very few material possessions, ones that she deemed necessary, valuable, and “good.”

    While often a subordinate under her rulings, when he felt up to it, my father would sneak and get us the very, wasteful material goodies that she denied us. Hahaha. So, I guess you could say things would always work out in the end.

    I hope that I do not become the kind of mother that my mother was, but there are moments, where I feel I have warden-ish tendencies.

    • Thanks Jessica! I think it’s inevitable as mothers (or fathers) to feel like gate or prison keepers! It’s our job. The hard part is knowing when to let the doors open…

  5. Pingback: “Am I making myself clear?” | Only You

  6. For me, it’s about knowing when to bend. About sticking to the rules until the reason behind the rule becomes less important, or no longer important at all. And how do I know when that is?? I have no idea. But, like you, I’m working on it.

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