first person

My Beautiful Mom

Growing up, my mother taught me the power of looking good. It wasn’t always pretty.

Photo: Courtesy of the author
Photo: Courtesy of the author
Photo: Courtesy of the author

I was 16 and straddling my crush on the couch in my basement when he said the words I’d been waiting my whole life to hear: “You look so much like your mom right now,” he whispered before sliding his hand up my skirt. The timing couldn’t have been less opportune. I’d only gotten my wisdom teeth out three days prior, and each time his tongue darted in and out of my mouth, all I could think about was which stage of disintegration my dissolvable stitches were in. Did the stitches have, like, a taste? Could all this saliva give me dry sockets? Am I moving my jaw enough? But the high-school senior’s words obliterated any and all of my insecurities.

Having had the great misfortune of growing up at the same time Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” landed on the Billboard “Hot 100” — my fourth-grade classmates would sing it as “Sami’s Mom” — I’d long known my mother had “got it going on.” My parents divorced when I was 8 and the attention my mother, Melissa, received from those around me in the years that followed was something I both resented and revered. Whether it was the freshman boys, who dedicated their rendition of the Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa” at the talent show to her, or the cute English teacher who called me “hot-mom girl” behind my back.

That night in the basement was the first time someone had actually compared my looks to hers. A secret dream that I’d always harbored come true. And though my mother would vehemently deny it — I know she wanted it for me as well.

Beauty is my mother’s form of currency in the world. Her thinness, shiny chestnut hair, and high-wattage smile all coalescing into her personal superpower. But despite the admiration and adoration it’s provided her, beauty hasn’t granted my mother absolution. When she found herself a divorced mother of two at just 32 years old, the vision she’d had of her life shattered. Having had me at 25, she’d only briefly worked at a preschool before foregoing a career. Being a stay-at-home mom was all she’d ever wanted for herself, and it was also the only role she felt comfortable in. So she harnessed her good looks in the hopes of attracting another upper-middle-class husband figure to provide her the steady, suburban home life she so craved — along with genuine love and companionship — by hiring a personal trainer, revenge-dressing in early aughts hot-girl wares like snakeskin pants and halter tops, and signing up for a millionaire matchmaker. And, in a way, she tried to do the same for me.

It’s natural for parents to want to pass their gifts on to their children. But when what you possess is beauty, it’s a much murkier gift to want to bestow upon your child. Because while attractiveness is something we prize in our culture — arguably, above all else — those who have it are made to be modest about it. And those who don’t are meant to be quiet in their desire to obtain it. Looking back, I was by no means unattractive — I had Keratin-straight hair without having to undergo the treatment, along with my father’s olive skin — but I did have a light unibrow and no thigh gap. And in typical late-’90s-early-aughts’ “Almond Mom” fashion (or just Jewish-moms-throughout-all-of-time fashion), my mother strived to rectify these flaws.

We — along with my younger sister — tried all the hot diets. In elementary school, we replaced traditional desserts with “low fat” options like Snackwell’s Vanilla Creme Sandwich Cookies and Devil’s Food Cakes. (Which, honestly, I crave as I type this.) Though none of us had any food intolerances, for a while we became a gluten-free household. (To this day, my mother claims she “feels better” when she eats this way. I do not.) And after seeing Beyoncé’s bodily transformation in Dreamgirls, we attempted to survive on her lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and water cleanse. (Neither of us lasted more than 24 hours.) There were cosmetic tweaks, too. The weekly electrolysis appointments starting in fifth grade to rid me of my unibrow. The monthly laser we started scheduling once we learned that electrolysis was too painful on my upper lip and that we needed an alternative treatment. The countless facials I got to eliminate my blackheads, whiteheads, and minimize my pores. (Though those, I’ll concede, I enjoyed.)

It’s not that my mother was only critical. For one, she did tell me I was beautiful, repeatedly. And she gave me constant and showy praise for my brain — it’s just that I didn’t always take it as a compliment. From the time I taught myself to read at 3 years old, I knew I wanted to write. I’d read from Harry Potter books to my parents, shoving notecards filled with my own stories into the pages and then “surprising” them with the reveal that what they’d just heard wasn’t J.K. Rowling, it was a Samantha Leach original. To encourage me, my mother signed me up for after-school writing courses, lobbied my principal to let me take the creative writing elective as a junior, and never once indulged my fear that I wouldn’t make it in media. These are all examples of how much she loved and wanted to support me — and yet, as a teen, it never quite sat right with me. It couldn’t.

Both my mom and dad were always evaluating other people’s bodies to anyone within hearing distance. “Leslie really blew up since last summer,” one would remark about a temple acquaintance. “When did Julia Roberts get so old looking?” they’d ask after watching her latest rom-com. Beauty, or lack thereof, was what they noticed in others. To deem someone beautiful seemed to be the ultimate compliment to my parents; unattractive the ultimate condemnation.

So my mother prizing my intellect felt like validation of the thing I so feared: that I wasn’t actually beautiful like her. That she was making up for my lack of desirability — as my appearance was the only things she scrutinized, never my brain — by rebranding me as “the smart one.” My mother wasn’t the only woman in my family who didn’t work. Both my grandmothers and my aunt had followed her trophy-wife trajectory. And with all the focus on me becoming a career woman, I felt myself becoming “othered,” not worthy of being part of their ilk. Eventually, by the time I turned 14, I started openly resenting her “efforts.” Snapping at her whenever she claimed she was “being honest the way only a mom can be” by suggesting a different cut of jeans might be more flattering or that I not have any bread before dinner. Considering each and every comment to be an attack on my body, and more acutely, my lesser beauty.

Growing up, I loved watching my mother tend to her beauty. Sitting on her bed as she’d get ready for dates, chatting with her about whoever she was set to meet that night while she rubbed her Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer on her cheeks or lined her eyes with her navy Bobbi Brown pencil. She’d always worry about what she’d talk about over dinner or drinks, or having to confess that she didn’t work. Insecurities that she channeled into her appearance: spraying her hair with Kerastase sprays to eliminate any frizz, dabbing her collarbone with Creed perfume on her way out the door.

But as I got older, these conversations grew exhausting. I’d been on the merry-go-round with her far too many times, and I’d become frustrated with what I perceived to be her desire to find a husband above all else. Especially since I’d be the one to help her through her breakups — bringing over her favorite bagels; helping craft the closure text messages.

More often than not, these moments would lead to some of our greatest fights. After all the rehashing, consoling, and comforting, I’d find myself unable to bite my tongue. Embarking on yet another diatribe about what I thought my mother should be doing with her life, and all the ways I felt she needed to change. “You’re much more capable than you give yourself credit for — you should at least try getting a job,” I’d start off by saying. “What about getting your real-estate degree? Or doing, like, staging for houses? You could start teaching again,” and end with something like, “You need to stop searching for your white knight and become your own white knight.” Meanwhile, I’d be met by my mother begging and pleading with me to stop, so pained and disinterested by my rant that she’d do everything short of covering her ears until it was over.

Then over the pandemic, I started attending Al-Anon meetings as research for my debut book, The Elissas, which follows the life of three women who met in the Troubled Teen Industry and passed away shortly after graduation. It only took two meetings to realize that I had a lot to gain from the program aside from background.

In that second meeting, one of the speakers introduced me to the phrase “You can give the people in your life mulch and water, but you can’t make them tend their garden”: a simple, rather pat expression that offered me one of the most profound “light bulb” moments of my life. I’d been trying to give my mother the tools that I’d used to succeed in the world to tend to her own and very different garden. Because while beauty had always been what gave her agency, my work ethic and drive had done the same for me. The career she’d inspired me to pursue, and the success I’d had with it, had become my feeling of purpose, which I’d wanted to transmute onto her, much like she’d done for all those years of diets and esthetician appointments.

It was then that I realized she’d never wanted me to feel bad about myself, or like I was less beautiful than she was. She’d just wanted me to have every ounce of the currency she had in this world.

Which isn’t to say the old wounds we’ve inflicted in one another have entirely scabbed. There are times I catch myself becoming patronizing about how she spends her days or casually bringing up part-time work other friend’s of mine’s mothers have taken on. Just as she sometimes can’t help herself from suggesting that I blow my hair out more regularly or try a different top than whichever one I inevitably pair with my pants. But I’ve found myself easing up in other ways, too.

My sister and I used to always joke that whenever someone saw a photo of my mother for the first time, they’d exclaim, “She’s so hot!” To which we’d respond, “Yeah, yeah, I know,” before politely changing the topic. But the other day, while scrolling through my camera roll to show a new friend photos of my mother’s puppy, they stopped me at an image with my mother in it. “She’s so hot,” they said. “She really is,” I replied.

My Beautiful Mom