The vanishing point
I'm thinking about buying a mini-van.
It feels like death.
"Embrace the mini-van," says my friend Jane, who has known me only since I had children. "It will make your life easier."
"I'm thinking about getting a mini-van," I tell Shelley, who has been my friend since I was 23. She laughs, gleefully at first, but it quickly dissolves into a gasping noise, followed by silence. "What our children reduce us to," she finally says, and tells me about her summer vacation, when she found a large and distorted hickey on her 16 year old daughter's neck and responded by shrieking at her in the crowded hotel elevator.
What our children reduce us to indeed. They may bring out the best in us but they also make us shrink into caricatures of the people we vowed never to become. All while our lives become so bloated that to accommodate everything we need a seven-passenger vehicle for a four-person family.
What is it with the mini-van? Why do I hate it so?
First of all, it's obscene -- we now have a record number of American children living in abject poverty, let alone the millions of people world-wide who exist in even worse conditions. The Darfur tragedy is expected to intensify in the next few months, bombs kill young soldiers and innocent families in Iraq every day and I'm being seduced by the extravagance of a car as big as a Manhattan apartment, with ten cup holders, electrical outlets in the back for tailgate cookouts and radio controls on the steering wheel.
But while the mini-van as emblem of American excess is what I wish I was upset about, that's not really the truth. Typical American that I am, my real problem with the mini-van is all about me.
I used to be a groupie. I've had sex with many more partners than my husband has. I moved to Hawaii when I was 28 just because I wanted to. I love to read Jane Austen and watch anything created by Joss Whedon, the maker of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm studying for my Ph.D. and I teach English literature, Women's Studies and writing classes. I spend too much money on shoes, skin care products and make-up. I am somebody -- messy, contradictory, hopeful, despairing: a real person.
The mini-van makes me a Mom. That's it. Not Abby, not a woman, just Mom. To drive a mini-van is to disappear. No one imagines a woman in a mini-van having a secret life. George Clooney would not sweep her off to Italy. She does not have an interesting job. A woman in a mini-van sits in parking lots -- the carpool line, the grocery store, the soccer field -- and talks on her cell phone. Then she goes home and finishes her child's homework.
The irony is, I want a mini-van because I want more time to myself. My oldest has just started kindergarten and I want to carpool, but I need a car big enough to carry more children than my much-loved Subaru station wagon allows. The mini-van, ultimate symbol of mom-hood, would let me cart around a bunch of kids one day but give me an extra hour free the next. And I want as many free hours as I can get. Because I do have an interesting job, an inner life, ambitions that are entirely separate from my children.
It's constant, this struggle to acknowledge myself as a woman in the face of the mother's cultural invisibility. I know I exist and I suppose that should be enough, but the truth is, it's not. Reflection in another's eyes matters. The moment I purchase the mini-van a part of me will be as good as dead to the way some people will see me. This is especially complicated by the fact that the most important thing in my life is that I am a mother. I love my children more than myself. Plus, I do drive carpool. I am those things that people see, even if I am more than that.
Ultimately I want a mini-van for pragmatic reasons that out-trump my desire to keep myself in my own self-image. Does that mean the Mom wins?
Even if George Clooney did whisk me off to Italy I'd miss my kids after a few days -- well, better make that a few weeks -- and want to come home. Of course, that might suit him just fine. And it could be a lot of temporary fun for both of us. I've got things to offer a sophisticated man of the world -- as well as the people in my own community who might dismiss me without a glance if they ever see me driving a mini-van. I know they do this because I used to be one of them.
You have to look for the woman inside the mom driving the mini-van. She's there, I promise. You just need to see her. And so do I.
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