Generation Gap

by Walli Ann Wisniewski

“Red truck… oooh, orange Charger. You know, Mom, they don’t seem to make many yellow cars…” my daughter said, certain of this fact. I pointed out that, though Volkswagen Beetles and some Mustangs do tend to be yellow, I did agree that she was generally right. This was a game we were playing, just the two of us as we road tripped together down to Corvallis, Oregon for a gymnastics camp. The idea was to find all the cars driving on the road in order of the colors of the rainbow. We added black, white, gray, and brown just to be inclusive. We would be visiting two university campuses as well. As I looked at my nearly sixteen-year-old daughter, driving my “new-to-me Honda CRV,” I couldn’t help but reflect on the ride it has been to get her here. 

You were twenty-two months old when I made you start climbing into your car seat in the back of the blue Pilot you picked out at the dealership. My mom felt that I should be lifting you into that seat. I was making you too independent, she said. I had just had the IVF procedure that would complete our family. I was taking no chances. My mother did manage to add, “Of course, if you lift her and lose the baby, you will blame me…” This I ignored as I watched you climb proudly into your seat. 

When my daughter was four, she began to read. We didn’t think about school much until the preschool teacher—whom we loved—said she was ready to move up. Sammie was going maybe three days each week. And it was more so to mingle with other kids. I never did the Mommy and Me groups. I found those women to be dumb and insufferable. And I was an older mom who didn’t fit in. Well, since we were being pushed out the door of preschool, we needed to find a kindergarten. The school district had set an arbitrary start date, and since she was still four, we went private. 

You were about five when your dad and I got called into an emergency meeting with the headmaster. Your grandma, who brought you to school on days I taught early, slapped you when you would not wear your sweater. The other children witnessed this and got scared because they had never seen anyone get hit. And they used the word abuse.

The headmaster, and the two classroom teachers looked quite serious. “Why did we choose this school if we condoned such behavior? Did we believe in corporal punishment?” We indicated that spanking was not part of our ritual, but my seventy-five-year-old mother felt that was the way to get her point across. We indicated we would have a talk with her and handle things at home. 

We brought this up to your grandmother, that she cannot hit you at all, ever. She indicated that you wouldn’t wear your sweater. “So, let her be cold—she will figure it out,” I said. Understand that, while I decided early on to pick my battles, to your grandmother everything was a battle. 

Perhaps it is because I was an IVF mom, who struggled for years to conceive, or maybe it was because I was an older mom, but there was a certain way I wanted to raise my children. I wanted them to learn to be assertive, to make choices at a young age, to understand the consequences of those choices. And I was hopeful that, by the time they were old enough, they would want to include me in their lives and in their conversations. I wanted to make sure they knew they could come to me with anything, and I wouldn’t be angry. 

You were somewhere around seven or eight when you started to develop that tween attitude. I knew that you were testing out your independence that you so desperately thought you should have. I mean you used to tell me how differently you would one day decorate your house from mine. Your children would be able to write on the walls anytime and bedtime would be abstract. 

Your grandmother felt that your stubborn streak should be stopped. And she went so far as to tell you that your mama was a good person, cause if you were her daughter, you’d have nothing in your room but a bed. She would take away everything until you learned how to behave. And I heard this, almost daily, for two years. I simply replied that your stubbornness would serve you well in your lifetime, that as a woman in society you had to learn how to be self-confident. 

On one of our walks, I did take my daughter aside and explain to her about being a mean girl. I told her that I wasn’t intending to raise a mean girl and that she did have to make a choice about who she wanted to be. I also asked her what her goals were. From a very young age, she wanted to coach and teach gymnastics. She also spoke of opening her own gym. That was the invitation I was looking for. I told her that I could take her to her classes, cook for her, do her laundry and be available to talk, but that she would need to do the rest. She knew early what it would take to get to college and get her degree to teach and coach gymnastics and that she would need to do that on her own. 

It was around this time we decided to make a move. There were many reasons for the big move out West, and, although we asked her to come with us, Mom was not making that move. She felt we should stay put and just overlook all the difficulties we were having. We just couldn’t do that, and we needed to make a change. So, explaining to friends it was a midlife crisis, we moved across the country. Unfortunately, the relationship with my mother suffered. I was blamed for taking the kids away from their grandmother. For nearly three years, my mother barely spoke to me, until it was time for her to join us. 

It was extremely hard on you and your brother to move away from your grandmother. You saw her nearly every day for the first eleven years of your life. She took care of you from the time you were four weeks old until we left. She felt that I was taking you and your brother away, that I was somehow punishing her. What I did not fully realize then was that I needed time away from her. I needed to be able to raise you the way I wanted to. That would not have happened if she lived near. Those years were tough on you. Junior high is not for the weak of heart nor spirit. For three years I struggled with the guilt of taking you away from her. 

I think Mom was relieved when she did finally move out to be with us, although she always complained that I never took her advice or asked much of her when raising my children. Mom also indicated that I wasn’t very maternal and that raising children was hard for me. Honestly, I didn’t really know where any of that came from. I had lived many lives before my children were born, and I was more than ready to see the world through their eyes. But Mom insisted that my generation never valued the advice of their elders. I often replied that she did not like it when her father “gave advice” on child rearing and instead she elected to do it her way. This was also the time that cigarettes and a glass of wine were prescribed to soothe an anxious pregnant woman. So whatever advice there was, I always took it lightly. Every generation wants to improve upon the one before. Mom read several books on the “lost generation.” That is how she sees herself. She has valuable insight to give, in her opinion, yet no one wants to hear it. 

School still proved to be a challenge for both of my children. In my mother’s time, she had a permanent seat in the superintendent’s office. She seemed to delight in having “to-dos,” as she called them, with administrators whom she openly labeled stupid, often to their faces. Her rampages managed to get me a quality education, but at a cost. My mom, labeled “difficult to work with,” was banned from subbing at several local schools. I often felt as if I had a target on my chest. I missed out on a lot of opportunities, like middle school cheerleading, as punishment for my mom’s complaints. So, when it came time to decide what to do about the situation I found my kids in, Mom was more than willing to take up the cause, relight the fire, and march full speed ahead to the superintendent. 

It was you who would tell us if you wanted us to confront your teachers. We gave you options. We could listen, offer suggestions to help, or do something about it. We interceded a few times, apparently just to be heard since nothing became of it. You learned to be crafty though, and your teachers knew that you weren’t happy. Mom wanted me to march into that school and voice our displeasure. However, we still had another child to consider. We did not want to make a tough situation worse for him. I don’t think Mom understood that. 

We have a route mapped out to get home tomorrow, including that amazing boba tea place in Vancouver, WA. As we prepare to head back from a very successful weekend of gymnastics, I cannot help but be proud of the young woman that my daughter is becoming. I never wanted her to fear me. I wanted her to respect me not only as Mom, but as another woman role-model in her life. I wanted to be able to apologize if I made a mistake. My mom never would apologize. Adults don’t make mistakes. And she would call me out if I ever did apologize. 

I never knew when my own mother would blow up or when she would be pushed too far. I would shake when she lost her temper and yelled, and she yelled a lot. I am much older now, and my mom still can say something to make me cower.  One day in the car, my mom and my husband’s mother were talking about parenting. They were confused as to why neither of their children raised their own grandchildren the same way they raised their children. I didn’t say much.

Walli Ann Wisniewski is an Instructor at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA. She lives with her husband, two wonderful kids, and two spoiled cats.

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