“Good enough,” my sister said. “Over there, I could be a good enough mother.”
We sat in a resteraunt that it has become a tradition to visit together when I go to see my dad. She was six months pregnant, and had just returned from a two-week trip to Ireland. She was finally showing a little, her baby curled into a tight round ball in front, the rest of her still tiny and thin.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My friends, they don’t have much money, but they have all these kids, and the kids run around in old stained clothes, sometimes with snotty noses. Cait will just lean over and use some rag to swipe at Aisling’s nose when she’s running by, and Aisling will duck and keep running, and they’re all outside, milling around in the muck, playing in cardboard boxes. They don’t have iPod and playstations and their own rooms. And you know, if they were over here they’d be judged and Cait would be judged, and she’d probably spend all her time worrying because Brendan didn’t have the right rugby clothes or Maura wasn’t pretty or whatever. And now, she just hangs out and lets them play and they’re all out there having a good time with the neighbors’ kids, and she knows she’s a good-enough mother. She’s not always trying to be the best.”
“You don’t have to get kids brandname clothes over here,” I said. “They can run around in the muck and get dirty.”
But I couldn’t help remembering a couple of less well off acquiantances I’d had whose children were Zeke’s friends. One of them specialized in having garage sales where she sold off mounds of expensive, barely used children’s clothes because she wouldn’t let her kids be seen in “rags.” She could barely afford food, and I remember more than once paying to take her kids to the local fair and on the rides, but they sure did always have better clothes than my Zeke. The other friend stopped letting her children visit after the third time she arrived to find her twins and their older sister covered from head to toe in mud. They’d been playing in the sprinkler and then rolling in the ditch, pretending to be pigs. They were all having a blast. A little mud never hurt anyone. I’ve been known to hose off my daughter outside, fully dressed, when she was younger. Before she turned into the quintessential American girl, with her perfect hair and her perfect nails and her horror of anything that might harbor a germ. Sigh. Everything I did to raise her like a little hellion, the way I grew up, was subsumed under American commercialism.
I’ll never forget the day after her seventh birthday. We had bought her a pair of dance pants that she’d been begging for. She came home with a huge grin on her face. “I have friends now,” she said. “They liked my pants.”
I should have taken her out of that school right then and there. But what school over here is different? The pressures on girls to look a certain way, act a certain way, be pretty in a certain way are unrelenting. Zeke held out for a long time. In the most important ways she still holds out, an incredibly strong kid with a willingness to befriend everybody. Really she’s the only kid in her school I know who has friends amongst the skatboarders, the preps, the jocks and the stoners. But still, she likes her Hollister.
We’ve come to an agreement. She allows me to be dowdy Adah, with the well-patched and worn (and not purchased for $60 that way!) jeans, with the “crazy” hair and the ragged fingernails. And I allow her to be Zeke, always groomed, with the always -painted nails and the straightened hair. She wears makeup (not much, and tastefully applied), and I don’t. She buys brandname clothes, and I don’t. I marvel at how different we are on the surface, but I marvel even more because deep inside we’re really the same.
Back in the sandwich shop near my dad’s house, my sister sighed. “I wish I could move home,” she said. I felt the usual prick of resentment, and pushed it down. At least moving home could be an option for her. It isn’t, for me, the one sister who wants access to Ireland and who doesn’t have citizenship.
“Why can’t you?” I ask.
“Remember Cait and Ian’s house?”
“I do.” I have memories of an older council house on a corner lot on the outskirts of Dublin. Nice enough on the outside, but cracked walls and leaking ceiling and dry rot and fungus on the walls on the inside.
“Well,” Ruth May said. “You know what it’s worth?”
I shook my head.
“1.3 million Euros.”
I know house prices in Ireland, especially Dublin, are high. But that… that is ridiculous. Cait and Ian bought in before the housing boom. Their three-bedroom council house could buy more than 10 of my little condo. Well, I guess Ruth May really can’t move back. She’s as trapped here as I am.
I’ve been trying to convince her that raising a child over here isn’t that bad. “Look at Zeke,” I say. She looks at me and turns away. The truth is, in my family, Zeke isn’t that well regarded — except for my dad, who since my mother died has turned out to be the most tolerant and quietly loving grandfather imaginable. By Irish standards she’s totally obnoxious, though as Dad reminds my sisters, by American standards she’s absolutely normal. (I say she’s better than normal, but she is my daughter!). But the fact is, it’s hard. Hard to hold to the standards of my era, my country, my own upbringing. The only way I can face it is to let go of those expectations and just love her, even if, in Ireland, she might be misjudged. I tell Ruth May that. She looks at me suspiciously.
“Try not to let other parents judge you,” I said. “The baby won’t know the difference until it’s older, and by then maybe it’ll have learned something from you about not giving in to social pressure. And at some point it’s going to assert its own, individual self. Remember that plaque you gave Zeke when she was a baby? The one that says ‘children are not clay to be molded, but plants to be unfolded,’ or something like that? Well, it’s true. Your child will take his or her own path. But if you just hold firm to what matters to you, fight the big battles and let the little ones go, then it’ll be OK.”
I hope I’m not setting myself up for failure. Zeke is only 14, and could go astray yet. But I somehow don’t think so. She’s as strong-willed as I am about the things that matter to her. And she has a strong compass and a sense of what’s the right path for her. She has no problem withstanding social pressure either, despite — or perhaps because of — her constant association with older kids, some of whom have made questionable choices. But she rubs off on them, not the other way around.
As I sit with my sister it occurs to me that maybe I have been a good-enough mother — even though I’ve had, and will continue to have, many doubts about it. And I hope that Ruth May can get to a point when she can look at her child and say the same thing, and that in the meantime, she can just take a deep breath, stop doubting herself, and love.