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It’s the end of middle school when my best friend, Janine, and I show up to a sleepover with freshly dyed hair. It is so fresh that we haven’t yet washed it because we didn’t read the box, or maybe we wanted to make sure it really stuck.
Janine is tall and lanky and more gorgeous than she realizes. She’s half-Chinese and her jet black hair barely shows glints of the red Manic Panic she chose to put in it. My long dirty blonde locks are fully blue. Our spunkiness is (in our own eyes, at least) the talk of the sleepover party.
At some point, we realize that we are going to start staining pillows and sleeping bags if we don’t wash the dye from our now burning scalps. I hop into my friend’s shower, and a few minutes later I hear screaming. Her mother has gotten wind of the fact that there is blue hair dye running down the drain of her brand new shower in her brand new bathroom.
A moment later she bursts in and jerks back the curtain. She screams at the top of her lungs, like I’ve only ever heard my own mother scream, when she sees the deep blue circling down the drain as I cover my body with my hands. She slams the bathroom door and moments later, I can still hear her raging inside her bedroom.
I jump out of the shower and pat myself dry. Quickly, I throw my clothes back on and race downstairs where the rest of the girls are cowering, wide-eyed. Janine’s hair is still covered in red dye. We exchange a look that says “let’s get the fuck out of here” and in an instant, run out the back door. We roam the neighborhood a while, then head to my house which is only a few blocks over. We tell my mom the party was a bust and Janine sleeps there instead. We both decide our friend’s mother is a horrible bitch and to never see her again.
The next day, I’m in my room when I hear a knock at my front door. I’ve hardly been upset about what happened. It’s just good preteen gossip. I’m sure Janine and I laughed about it, or said horrible things about the woman who reamed us out and ruined the party. But my hair looked awesome so what else was there to worry about? When I hear the knock, I run downstairs to get the door. My mother works from home, so I’m guessing it’s just one of her customers who doesn’t know that they are allowed to let themselves in.
I bound down the steps and when I get to the bottom, notice who’s standing on the porch. I freeze, wondering if I have time to hide. It’s my friend’s mother. I have no idea why she is here – I had plans never to see her again, and now she’s standing on my front porch. I imagine she’s looking for my mother. I’m afraid she might scream at me again. Slowly, I open the door and step onto the porch, head down.
She takes off her thick, black sunglasses and reveals her red-rimmed eyes. They are swollen and puffy in a way mine have only looked when I cried all night over a boy. I’m used to her looking so sophisticated, I realize. Her hair in a short pixie cut and her all black clothing. But right now, she looks broken. I look at her sad eyes and before I can say anything, she starts to speak.
“Sarah, I am so sorry about what happened last night. I am so, so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am. I’m so embarrassed for how I acted.” Tears start streaming down her face. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked that she is apologizing to me when clearly, I was the asshole who showed up at a sleepover without washing the dye out of my hair. But before I can say anything, she wraps me in a hug.
“No – it’s okay,” I manage to get out. “It’s really my fault.” But she won’t let me own it.
“All the dye came out. It washed right down the drain. I ruined the party. I’m so sorry. I had no right to yell at you.” She was so sincere, so devastated, and I’d just been going on with my self-absorbed preeteen life, barely hanging onto the night before.
I’m sure I called Janine to tell her what happened the second I went back to my room. I’m sure I played it off like she was insane for showing up at my house – like, who does that? But a part of me was jolted. This woman, this 40-something, responsible mother, was badly hurting. And partly, it was because of me. But it was also partly because she made a mistake. A mistake she couldn’t take back. And for a second, I saw her as a human instead of my friend’s mother.
Until that point in my life, I hadn’t seen mothers as real people. Certainly not my own. It would be years before I really learned this truth completely. Until my own anger or selfishness caught me off guard as I struggled to parent my own children. But seeing her intense vulnerability, splayed out on my front porch like that, caused a delicate shift. I felt connected to this person in a way I couldn’t really deny. I didn’t hate her, even if I might pretend to to my friends. I understood her.
Years later, I saw her at a birthday party for my best friend’s mother. And she brought up the blue hair dye incident. “Oh! I was so awful to you girls that night … I’m so sorry!” she said. All these years and she was still carrying guilt from screaming about what she thought was the death of her new bathroom. Instinctively, I put my hand on her shoulder. I had a six- and two-year-old at home, and I wanted to bawl my eyes out right there.
“Please,” I told her. “We were brats. Are you kidding me?” I felt her relief. I, as a grown woman with my own children, understood. Parents are still human beings. Parents need things for themselves. A new bathroom. A vacation. A fucking moment of silence. Parents have deep, horrible emotions that they can’t control, the same as teenagers, the same as four-year-olds. I didn’t judge her then and I certainly didn’t judge her now.
As a mother who sometimes screams, who is unsure of herself, I’m still practicing how to accept my own imperfections. My own failings. I had once believed that motherhood itself would morph me, if by magic, into a much better human. In some ways it has, but my faults have not evaporated either. I haven’t found myself overflowing with endless love and compassion always.
On my worst days, when I’ve let my children down, when I’ve yelled, or been impatient, a thought lingers in the back of my mind – I am not the mother I imagined being. I keep a pair of dark sunglasses in my purse, even in the winter.