As I waited for my 2-year-old daughter to finish her turn on the toilet, I idly studied my reflection in the restaurant's full-length bathroom mirror. In jeans and platform slides, I looked almost young. A recent bout of stomach flu had left me fashionably thin, and I wore lipstick for a change. Combing my hair with my fingers, I felt suddenly optimistic and carefree. We zipped up and washed hands, then crossed the caf? to our table. As I squeezed into my chair, I bumped the man behind me. He looked up from his lunch and smiled admiringly.
'You know what?' said my daughter. 'My mommy made a poo.'
This was a new phase of parenthood. One day my daughter was a harmless cherub, the next she wasn't. The moment she handed the electrician a pair of my underpants from the basket of dirty laundry, I realized precautions would have to be taken to safeguard what remained of my dignity.
As I charged the astonished electrician and snatched the panties from his hand, my thoughts turned to my friends' stories of maternal humiliation. They had never seemed real to me before now. Pink plastic tampon applicators fished from the bathroom garbage by Virginia's children and worn as fake fingernails in front of her dinner guests. Kimberly opening her front door to find her diaphragm being thrown to neighbor kids like a mini Frisbee. For me, it began with underpants.
The electrician and I avoided eye contact and acted as if no lingerie had changed hands. Explicit etiquette guidelines for this sort of situation are hard to come by, so we improvised. I offered him coffee. He politely declined. He installed a few dimmer switches. I slunk off to my room. The moment passed. Months passed. I put the experience out of my mind.
The story got more bearable over time. With each retelling, I laughed more and cringed less. I weathered other mothering humiliations. The caf? incident. A colorful failure to buy my daughter's cooperation with jelly beans at the pediatrician's office. Her fixation on the adjective teeny-weeny. And her stalwart refusal to speak aloud the noun it modified. 'Look, Mommy!' she once hooted as we approached a man walking a miniature schnauzer. 'That man has a TEENY WEENY!' I held my head a little higher with every embarrassment, imagining that I was no longer so easily defeated. Then she pulled my pants down in front of the Federal Express delivery man.
Much in the manner of a nuclear accident or an airliner crash, this catastrophe occurred because many systems failed sequentially: I had a newborn baby. All my pants had been vomited on or worse. The resulting laundry pile was insurmountable. I was wearing my husband's loose-fitting sweats. My normally independent daughter was tired and clingy. The baby fussed to be picked up.
By the time the doorbell rang, the dominoes of disaster were already in motion. I scooped up the baby, opened the door, and attempted to sign for the package one-handed.
The FedEx guy smiled at my daughter. 'Hi there.'
At once terrified and delighted, she gripped my leg and cowered behind me. Had I tied the drawstring of my sweatpants? I couldn't be sure. I casually leaned against the door, applying extra pressure at my hip for security.
The FedEx man was not so easily dissuaded. He knelt down to toddler level. 'How do you like the big sister business so far?'
At this, my daughter held on tight and slid down my leg to sit on my foot. I was entirely without pants.
It's hard to say who was more aghast. The FedEx guy developed a sudden, fervent interest in our landscaping while I remarked favorably, and repeatedly, upon the weather. The nice thing about humiliation in the company of strangers is that the experience is transitory. However often I would replay this mortifying scene in my head, it was over as soon as I signed the clipboard, agreed to have a good day, and closed the door. Time passed. The Pavlovian urge to take cover at the sight of a Federal Express truck did not.
As a young associate on Wall Street, I once returned from the restroom to my post on a predominantly male trading desk with my dress tucked into my pantyhose. At my own wedding, I stage-whispered to my husband that I was not wearing underwear and was overheard by his 78-year-old grandmother. I thought I was a person who knew what it was like to be embarrassed. Then I became a mother.
From the parenting magazine Brain, Child (Fall 2003). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 714, Lexington, VA 24450; www.brainchildmag.com