Tiger Mother’s Mirror Image

An accidental mom and the county that helped raise her two boys

I forgot to take my birth control pills for several days nearly 30 years ago. With trembling nail-bitten thumb, I punched each pill from its plastic cushion and swallowed it in the correct order—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—hoping to fool my body that the calendar had compacted through no fault of my own. Surely I was still protected.

But no.

I picture sperm and egg, a meteorite about to whip past the moon. Then a galactic wave of estrogen and progesterone changes the trajectory of the meteorite, slamming it into the moon, and a new star is born—otherwise known as Dylan.

How to bring up a boy? I was flummoxed. I’d had a strange, isolated, female-dominated upbringing. My father died when I was 9. I attended a convent boarding school, and then an all-girl high school. Never was I allowed a boyfriend.

Thus I was 18 before I understood the purpose of Y-front underpants, or erections for that matter. I’ve always been a quick study, though.

Motherhood was a different story. I’d never held a baby until newborn Dylan, hot and damp, was placed on my chest.

Feeding was a disaster; my balky breasts did not understand that they were supposed to be milk-delivery systems. After a week, my starving son gurgled with joy to see a big-nippled bottle of formula. Extreme myopia complicated by a vain streak meant I owned only contact lenses and no glasses, which made middle-of-the-night feedings a challenge. In the blurry gray, as my son wailed, I first had to find the kitchen, then the refrigerator, then bottle, and finally, feel my way back to bedroom and baby.

Of course, I loved my little Dylan, his warm, heavy head with fuzzy white-blond hair bumping against my chest as I carried him, dozing, from place to place in a pouch. But, not familiar with baby talk, I addressed him much as I would an adult. The reason for your bad mood is lost on me. … Would you prefer mashed squash or banana for dinner? … I’m sorry you were forced to be a bunny rabbit at the preschool Halloween party, but you can’t always be the leopard. That’s just life.

I exaggerate, but only a little.

Fast-forward five years. We emigrated from South Africa and, after living briefly in Cleveland, arrived in Orange County. In the warm sunshine, I dance a giddy dance, breathe in the scent of jasmine, hum a Beach Boys melody—and we haven’t yet left the airport parking lot.

Plump-cheeked Kyle, now 3, has joined the family, also unexpectedly, but that’s another story, and he is much loved, too.

A month later my husband asks for a divorce to marry a woman he’d met on an earlier trip to the West Coast. Suddenly, I am a single mother of sons.

I rent a two-bedroom apartment at Park West, Irvine, enroll the boys in school and daycare, and find work at a local advertising agency. We read together and go to Angels games and Knott’s Berry Farm. I usually remember to be the Tooth Fairy.

But oh, the mistakes I make! Once I drop Dylan off at 5 for soccer practice at University Park Elementary School. No one else is there yet, but I am sure the coach will arrive soon. I return to the office for a meeting. Two hours later, I find my 9-year-old son huddled against a fence in the dark, alone, shivering. I’ve mixed up practice days.

I’m not good at making lunches, either. One day I give them frozen bagels, telling them the bread will thaw by recess. They’re also doing their own laundry by ages 11 and 8. Years later, Dylan tells me he didn’t realize he was supposed to add soap.

Too busy to help with my boys’ dioramas, I can only admire the work of great complexity and nuance submitted by their classmates. Then there’s all the homework I never check, the Valentine’s Day cards I forget to buy for their entire class.

Adults now, my sons say they were happy during the seven years of my single motherhood. Call it luck or what you will, I was the mother they wanted. For example, one apartment we rented in Irvine overlooked a park where they loved to play pickup softball until dusk with no one yelling at them to come home. I insisted they be in their bunk beds by 8, but didn’t check on them as long as they were quiet. I’m told that every night they put on whispery plays with their stuffed toys, including a sheep that Kyle won for the best arm fart at an after-school program.

Signs of careless motherhood are still obvious today: Dylan, an adjunct professor in New York who enjoys robust conversation at dinnertime, continues to use his knife and fork as much for emphasis as for eating. Kyle, studying at Harvard, for a long time felt professional haircuts were unnecessary, and resembled a yeti. But they’re kind, funny, hard-working, loving men who’ve turned out well, and it can’t all be their splendid DNA.

However, whenever I begin to congratulate myself on my benign-neglect parenting philosophy—the opposite of a Tiger Mother—I remind myself that I didn’t rear my sons alone. Orange County co-parented my children. Because we lived in a safe place, I could let them play pickup games in parks and not worry too much. They biked to schools and libraries rich in books and knowledge. The magnificent weather meant I didn’t have to spend a fortune on heating and clothing.

We explored tide pools, swam in the ocean, wandered trails among scented wildflowers and purple artichokes, and hiked Silverado Canyon when the stream flooded, all for free. Even disasters—fires, mudslides, and earthquakes—taught them respect for the Earth’s many moods.

So thanks for the help, Orange County, my unexpected spouse. From now on I’ll think of my local taxes as overdue child support.

Lynette Brasfield ghostwrites memoirs and family histories, and is the author of the semiautobiographical novel “Nature Lessons.” This is her first essay for Orange Coast.

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

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