A couple of weeks ago I went with my daughter when she got her tattoo. If you have tattoos you know that what you want to say is “her first” because it’s hard to stop at one, but for now just “her tattoo.” She is 19 and a junior in college living in her own house for the first time. I went to visit and provide mom support for the house transition which consisted primarily of approval and groceries. But she also scheduled the tattoo for while I was there because she wanted me with her for the event.
I have a number of tattoos and back when I was 18 and got my first one probably the last person on my list to invite to the event would have been my mom. I also don’t think she would have accepted the invitation even if I had offered it given that the words she used to describe me with the tattoo are not the kind of words that should be repeated. I went alone back then and on subsequent tattooing visits. Once I went with my college roommates but all the others have been solo ventures. Until now.
I’m different than my mom, and the times are different. At least for my generation ink is a part of self-expression, it is part of the way we carry with us the things that are important, it is a story and a lesson and a shift in how we approach the world. I wear on my body things I want you to know about me and those things are not the things that my parent’s generation said they would be.
My daughter put a beautiful tribal turtle on her back. There is much meaning for her in carrying the turtle with her and within her and though I was confused about my role there I also knew deeply that it was a gift to be invited, to be present, and to be able to mother in that space. My job was to hold her hand, to distract her from the hurt, the tell her stories of mothers and daughters and the magic of turtles, and to give periodic updates on the percent to complete. Basically, and not very metaphorically the exact job of being a mother.
We told the artist working on her that if he could I would also like to add something to the canvas that is my body and he so liked the idea of mother-daughter work that he moved some things around to make it happen. I rather cynically pointed out to my daughter that he was also making some more money so maybe it wasn’t just the goodness of his heart motivating him, to which she said, “Mother!”
My children are both almost grown. The youngest is sixteen and thinks it infinitely entertaining to grab me up into his arms proving how strong he is. I am less fond of this game but I get the point. There is a different kind of caring that has to happen now and I struggle with remembering that the speed of change for young people is much greater than it is for me. Who they were two years ago is all mixed up with today for me, but was a lifetime ago for them. The things I am afraid of, the things I can’t see, the changes that are happening are just coming too fast to be processed so sometimes, oftentimes I have to sit calmly and wait, accept the not knowing, be wiling to learn. It is so hard.
I put on my back two butterflies with the dates of my children’s birth. Butterflies have always been special to me because of the duality of their incredibly delicate beauty and remarkable strength. And butterflies are a symbol of the magic of transformation. When you see the caterpillar destroying a plant there is little room to imagine the potential contained in that creature. The butterflies remind me that there is something magnificent contained within us, all of us, and that these two beings in particular who are a part of me contain their own transcendence. I put them on my back so that they know I will always carry them when they need me, and they are there as outlines only because I can scarcely imagine what magnificence will emerge as they continue to grow.