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The Most Tedious Compliment
By Pamela Holm

"What did she call you?" the shoe salesman asks, looking from me to my beautiful eighteen-year old daughter, Cara, who is trying on prom shoes.

"Mom," I say. "It's a little arrangement we have, I pay all the bills and she calls me Mom." He looks at my daughter, then back at me and I can tell he thinks I'm joking. For the duration of the sales transaction he shakes his head and mumbles, "I can't believe it," and "you're kidding right?" He gets giddy and forgets to give us the shoes after we've paid for them.

We're used to this, it's been happening for years. Throughout Cara's life we've been getting the look. The look that says they're trying to figure out our relationship, mother/daughter, sisters, friends? They watch carefully for clues, a hand on shoulder, a tone of voice, a parental admonishment. Once they figure out that she is indeed my progeny, you can see the math calculations unfold behind their eyes as they struggle to assign us ages, then figure backward to ascertain how old I was when she was born.

Apparently I look younger than my 41 years. Most of this is genetic, some of it is because I am one of those rare people who actually enjoy exercising, and the rest can be blamed on my pathetic fashion sense that really never developed much beyond that of a fifteen year-old mall rat.

Because youth is held in such high regard in this culture people automatically assume that I'll be flattered by their cries of you look so young and I can't believe you have a child that age. I was flattered the first twenty or thirty times this happened but as my daughter has grown older, the drill has become increasingly more tedious. Tedious because just the other side of their compliment it seems clear that they've decided that I gave birth at fifteen in the restroom of a Texaco station.

"Is she really your kid?" people ask.

"Yes," I say.

They look at her, then back at me. "How old is she?"

I tell them, at which point the inquisitor will invariably arch their eyebrows, lean forward a little and whisper, "Does she live with you?" They say it in a consolatory tone as if to say they wouldn't judge me if she doesn't. But the thing is they have already judged me.

"Yes," I say.

"Has she always lived with you?" they persist.

"Yes," I say again, "she has always lived with me, I've raised her. She's my child."

But I sense their disappointment. This isn't the answer they're looking for. They want something more interesting, something juicer. They want the answer that matches the assumptions they've already made. "Well actually my Aunt Beulah raised the child, but just 'til I got off heroin." I can take a compliment as well as the next middle-aged woman, but I've grown to resent the implication that young motherhood is a loser's domain.

When my daughter was born I was 23, which didn't used to be considered young motherhood. At the time I assumed my friends would be popping out babies right along side me, but apparently I missed the memo explaining that my generation had decided to put off childbearing until well into our 30s. It wasn't until my daughter reached kindergarten that I realized just how skewed my timing was. Looking around the room at faces closer in age to my parents than myself it became clear that I'd fallen between the cracks into an aging hinterland, lost somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and the Clash. Face-to-face with people whose anthem was "Give Peace a Chance" while harboring the sinking feeling that mine was either the Brady Bunch theme or "Muskrat Love." During parent meetings, conversations inevitably turned to the fabulous '60s when people smoked pot and marched for peace. My memories of the '60s are somewhat different. In my '60s I played with Trolls and Little Kiddles and the only place I marched was to my bedroom and only then when someone was behind me shouting "March young lady."

In 1984 when I had my daughter, pregnancy was still considered something that happened to you like polio or jug ears, not a choice any thinking woman would consciously make. In recent years motherhood has gained a new respectability. Magazine covers are dedicated to movie star moms and babies have elevated in status from burdens to fashion accessories. Our San Francisco sidewalks are thick with women in tracksuits pushing strollers and men wearing infants as breast shields. In my day staying home to raise your child was an act of scorn-worthy rebellion, now it's a badge of honor.

As Cara has gotten older things have only gotten stranger for us. On a college tour last fall I found myself absentmindedly braiding her hair while the perky tour guide explained the campus dining system, I looked up and three sets of mother daughter duos were piercing us with Midwestern scowls. It took me a minute to place their looks, and when I did I was a little shocked. Now that Cara is eighteen, apparently people have gone from assuming that we are sisters or welfare scum to assuming we are lesbians.

The only people who don't seem confused about our relationship are the two of us. I doubt my daughter has ever seen me as anything beyond her annoyingly geeky mother. As a parent I am as paranoid, over-protective and proud as the next. I've been thrown up on, and had doors slammed in my face. I've endured eye rolls and lip sneers. I've paid for doctors and voice lessons and packed thousands of lunches. I have only a vague recollection of what it's like to not have an overdue tuition bill looming overhead. I even taught my daughter how to drive, an act only slightly less traumatic than childbirth itself, and after all this, apparently I don't even get the credit. The idea that motherhood is a thankless endeavor isn't news but one expects their efforts to be largely ignored by their children, not by the rest of the world.

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