There is a photo in one of my photo albums that my mother must have taken a version of hundreds of times, over decades: a cluster of middle-aged women, glowing tan from the sun and wearing drapey, jewel-toned fabrics, holding plastic cups of wine or gin and tonic, turning toward the camera and smiling. These are the Moms, the matriarchs of the families that surrounded us throughout my childhood, the genial fixtures of picnics, hikes, cocktail parties, sledding, and swimming.
Because I’m an American woman, as I get older, it becomes harder to see myself as interesting, funny, or magnetic—as anything other than surplus. But because of these women, I can imagine being middle-aged. I love parenting my daughter, but as she gets older, I am also very excited to be a Mom—for her friends, her classmates, and my friends’ kids. Really, any kid who will have me.
I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and my mother and father had the kind of robust social circle that you develop when you raise three children in a village in the woods. In the winter, things were a little quieter (the odd game night aside), but in the summer, we saw our friends every day. That was because of Loon Pond, a little beach club on a small lake that loomed large in our lives. At the pond, we spent long days in and out of the water, taking trips to the raft and (once we were older) canoeing across the lake in search of adventure. The Moms, many of whom were teachers and had the summers “off,” sat on shore in beach chairs, armed with carafes of water, copies of the New York Times, and bottles of Coppertone SPF 4. (It was the 1980s.)
At the pond, lines between the families blurred. It was a standard joke that if a kid yelled “Mom!,” seven women would turn their heads, but it was also true that we learned to see each of these mothers as resources. They were comforters, there to assess the situation when we fell on the dock and scraped our knees, providers of extra water and snacks and Band-Aids, drivers who would run us home if our own mom needed to leave early. From being around them so much, I learned that other families operated differently from ours—had other rules about dinnertime, required more chores (or fewer), or got mad at each other in public. I knew them so well that I felt safe going to their houses overnight and safe asking them if I could leave when I got homesick and needed to cut a sleepover short. (That happened a lot.)
Because the Moms were other people’s moms, and they weren’t the boss of me, it was easier for me to notice all the small things they did that decorated our lives. They brought buds in small vases, along with fabric tablecloths, to the pond for everyday lunches. They pulled endless homemade oat bars and store-bought bags of M&M cookies and farm-stand blueberries in blue cardboard containers out of picnic baskets. They owned a lot of nice pottery, including what seemed like endless chip-’n’-dip platters, which they pressed into service at the cocktail parties and croquet matches that dotted the summer calendar. They grew beautiful flowers and kept adorable cats. These things made them glamorous to me, even though they weren’t the kinds of mothers who wore makeup or dressed up. They were interesting because they knew how to live.
While we grabbed snacks in between diving contests, they talked: about their jobs, about their vacation plans, about people in our town. (Every once in a while, I, being a little pitcher with big ears, caught a flash of a reference to something dark.) The older children—the ones at college, already moved away, already married—were fair game for chat. Shockingly, given the content of my adult conversations with other women, I never remember them complaining about their husbands’ failures to contribute to chores and child care—though they must have! They talked about their book group books. Most of them were really angry about Ronald Reagan, meh about the first Bush, and madly in love with Bill Clinton.
As we became teenagers, we sat at the picnic table after lunch longer and longer before going back in the water, and the conversations began to include us for real. I realized the Moms could be funny, with extremely dry senses of humor. They didn’t presume we wouldn’t get the joke because they had known us since we were in diapers. Somewhere around our late high school or early college years, they seemed to collectively decide to let it rip. A few of them could be “Cool Moms” in the Amy-Poehler-in-Mean-Girls sense—my sister, who went through a brief cigarette phase in college, remembers one who winked at her at a summer cookout and told her to just go ahead and smoke: “They all know you do it, anyway”—but mostly, their coolness wasn’t wrapped up in permissiveness. They were interested in our lives, and unlike our own parents, they weren’t too invested in the outcome. They had opinions on our choices—of colleges, boyfriends, majors—but those opinions were rarely annoying.
Of course eventually I realized that all along, my own mom had been a Mom to my friends—a character in their childhoods, the way theirs were in mine. Who was she to them? A Mom with a ready laugh and a high tolerance for kid antics. She respected our opinions and once listened to us complain about a particular fifth-grade teacher for an hour, trying to help us find a solution. Not a yeller. Good in an emergency. They liked to be around her, and she liked to be around them.
Now, when I go back to New Hampshire to visit, there are fewer and fewer of the original Moms still in town. Some have died; some have moved to warmer climates. (New Hampshire winter is no joke for the aging.) I miss them. And when we do see each other, it’s clear that they miss us back. One in particular likes to clasp my 41-year-old shoulder and say, “We love to see you young people!” As I get older and more nostalgic, I can see that, to them, we kids represent a high season of their lives.
My daughter doesn’t have many friends yet, since she’s only 2. But I’m getting ready. Last year, twice a week, I drove a neighbor’s child to the home day care she attended with my daughter. I spent the 15 minutes of each morning car ride practicing being J.’s Mom. A persona is evolving: funny, matter-of-fact, with an interesting kind of pouch snack to offer. I like to be around my daughter’s friends, and I hope they like to be around me.