A mother is not a good one unless she willingly invades privacy. Backpacks, purses, closets, the void beneath the bed, the linty pockets of tight teenage jeans: nothing is off-limits. It is her responsibility to know. This is how we protect them.
“If you’re not hunting through underwear drawers, you’re not doing your job,” I say, stealing a surreptitious glance at my cards. Heavy red. Mostly diamonds. “You never know what they’re hiding from you.”
I look at each of my friends, one at a time, a confrontation: Go ahead. Argue. They chew the inside of their cheeks. Free-range parents, all three of them, now that helicoptering is no longer in fashion.
“Spades,” Jasmine says. She waits for the groans to subside, lifts a glass of Sangiovese to her lips, peers at me over the rim. “And? What have you found so far?”
“Not much,” I admit.
“MacKenzie’s a good girl. Maybe you should finally get her a phone.”
In my hands, I ready an ace. “There was that white thing that looked like a joint.”
“It’s better if you give them a little space, you know. Rachel talks to me about everything.”
“Rachel also calls you by your first name.”
Jasmine exchanges a glance with the others. “We haven’t had a girls’ night in ages,” she says finally, her words punctuated by a breezy laugh. “Let’s talk about something other than the kids, yeah?”
Topics waft through my brain in hazy wisps: movies, music, food, sex, all the things we used to discuss in college, long before our children were born. I slept until noon, one of us would have said. That new bar on Fifth Avenue really goes heavy on the tequila! We would have compared calculus notes and men. And later, in our mid-twenties, we would have analyzed our work weeks, straightened our hair, met for happy hour in pencil skirts. Mascara tubes caked and dry. Heels discarded by the door. But those selves disappeared too many years ago, and the echoes of them slip through us and between us. Apparitions.
A minute passes. Two. At last, because no one else has spoken, I mutter, “Euchre’s impossible, you guys.”
“No more impossible than raising a child,” Jasmine says brightly, shuffling the cards. She pushes them toward me. “Your deal.”
When MacKenzie first told me all the kids had phones—thousand-dollar phones, to be exact, silver and sleek and smart—I balked. She was in fifth grade then. Like my attorney ex-husband, she laid out her arguments:
You can get in touch with me at any time.
I won’t have to borrow Rachel’s when practice is over.
I will feel so much safer.
With the last one, I almost caved. Good mothers protect their babies.
It did sound as if it might be helpful, like a handy electronic leash. But by the time she started middle school, her friends’ phones had nearly grown into the fibers of themselves, palmar warts attached to them always, littered with apps that came and went quicker than any parent could keep track.
Sweet Jesus, the apps. So dangerous and invasive.
Three weeks into seventh grade, the principal suspended a group of students for app-related bullying. Kill yourself, they typed to a red-headed boy, and he tried. The summer before that, two bus drivers were fired for failing to notice how all the kids watched porn the whole way home. Girlfriends received dick pics, sent their boyfriends nude selfies, though MacKenzie swore she would never. And then there was The Great Snapchat Incident, after which half the girls in MacKenzie’s class stopped speaking to each other for two full months, or approximately a lifetime in preteen years.
Maybe I’ll reconsider once she’s able to drive. Maybe. But she will have the dire misfortune of being the only high schooler in the world subjected to strict parental controls: Limited daily usage. A password I’m privy to.
If she wants to get a phone, that’s the deal.
I don’t even notice her when I return from the grocery store. I am too loaded down with bags, and while I wrestle them onto the kitchen counter, an apple rolls off the ledge and hits the floor, hard enough that it will blemish later.
“Shit,” I mutter, bending to retrieve it. I spent forever picking something perfect.
It’s not until I straighten up that I see my daughter, sitting at the head of the table amidst last night’s playing cards and lipstick-stained wine glasses, her unflinching eyes trained on my face. I recognize that glare: it’s the same expression my mother wore when she found my diary and discovered I’d been sneaking out of the house. MacKenzie has caught me red-handed—doing what?—and while she stares, silently, I pore over the possibilities in my mind.
“You left this.” MacKenzie holds up my phone with one hand, clenches the other into a fist. “I never knew about your account. Is that why I’ve never been allowed to have a phone? So I wouldn’t find it?”
“Your social media account. The one that’s all about me.”
I flush, although I’m certain I’ve done nothing wrong. The gridded images on that screen are some of my most precious memories, beautiful moments I shared tenderly with the world. Why would she have any reason to be upset? It’s practically her own personal shrine. “I wasn’t trying to keep anything a secret, honey. All parents post pictures of their kids.”
“This is my life, Mom. My whole life.” And then, with different emphasis this time: “This is my life.”
My fingers curl around the apple. I rub at the thin skin like a worry stone. “I’m just proud of you, that’s all.”
MacKenzie stands and stalks toward me, thrusts the phone too close to my face. Scrolls, scrolls, scrolls, with one trembling thumb, backward through her childhood. “Me in eighth grade, the day I got braces. You know I hate that picture. Me with chocolate all over my mouth. Me with a fever and a snotty nose. Me on the toilet. Me asleep on the couch. Me when I was in kindergarten—my underwear is showing.”
“You were spinning.” My voice is weak. “You loved that dress. It’s a gorgeous photo.”
“Well, sure. It’s got hundreds of Likes, doesn’t it? These do, too, the ones of me in the bathtub. Those are my breasts, by the way.”
“Sweetheart. You were a baby.”
“And my bare ass.” She swipes. “My bare ass again. Plus all your captions about everything, even private stuff, like temper tantrums and potty training. How long I had to wear a diaper at night. The love notes I wrote to that kid when I was in elementary school. All the gory details about when I got my period.” Her eyes go watery with betrayal. “But hey, triple-digit hearts, Mom! Congratulations.”
“Watch your mouth.”
MacKenzie murmurs an apology, presses the device into my palm. “You know,” she adds, a poisonous bite in her voice, “Jasmine told Rachel you completely lost yourself as soon as you became a mother.”
In one hand, the phone, cold and smooth, its edges rounded so as not to slice through skin. In the other, the bruised fruit.
Melissa Bowers is a former high school teacher who currently writes from California, though she will always be a Midwesterner at heart. She is the first-prize winner of The Writer magazine’s personal essay contest, and her work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and others. Find her on Twitter @MelissaBowers_, or read more at http://www.melissabowers.com.