Friday Takeaway: Naomi Shulman

  • Naomi Shulman —PHOTO BY SARAH CROSBY

Published: 8/4/2017 9:14:05 AM

Not that I owe you any explanations, but here’s why I said yes when my 16-year-old asked to get a lip piercing.

First, let the record show that I am not a big fan of facial piercings in general. I’m always distracted by how painful they must have been to receive. The idea of willingly allowing my children to undergo pain is all kinds of wrong. When I consented to Lila’s first vaccination, we were still in the hospital birthing room, and I think I cried more loudly than she did. So: pain. Aren’t we supposed to protect them from pain?

I get why she wants it. Lip piercings have an edgy, badass charm. It’s just that I like her lips the way they are — not that different from the way they were in that hospital birthing room. But Lila asked at just the right time. Which is to say, a day or so after I’d read an impassioned — and slightly bananas — essay in The Guardian by a British woman who was freaking out over her 21-year-old son’s tattoo. She described herself as “griefstricken,” feeling as though her son had taken “a meat cleaver to [her] apron strings,” and “as though a knife is twisting in [her] guts.”

Whew, I thought. That’s a serious lack of boundaries happening over there in that family. His body, his choice. And then, yes, I confess: I took a moment to quietly congratulate myself for letting my kids express themselves. Good job, Naomi! I thought to myself. Not that there was much to it. It was easy when they were little and self-expression meant wearing rain boots with pajamas and a tutu. Even when they got a little older and wanted to dye their hair or shave the side of their heads, it felt like low-stakes stuff. “Sure!” I’d say breezily. “It’s just hair.” See how cool I was?

But hair grows back. A lip piercing is forever — or at least, the scar tissue is. This is my baby — how could I say yes to something that would alter her face? “How is it different from pierced ears?” Lila asked, reasonably enough. “You said yes to that. In fact, you took me to the jewelry store yourself.” She’d been eight, and her eyes had welled up with tears (pain!), and her ears would have the holes (scars!) in them forever. So much for my arguments. So much for Cool Mom. 

Peel away all the arguments, and I’m left with this: I understand where the British mom was coming from, a tiny bit. Was I griefstricken? Did I feel a knife twisting in my guts? No. Did I want to hold on to my baby, just as I did in the hospital? You bet. But the kid is right. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to say yes to one kind of piercing and no to another. There are legitimate threats out there that require parental intervention; a small facial piercing is probably not among them, especially for a relatively privileged, middle-class white kid who can move through the world with ease. To say no might be more about exerting my parental control — which is diminishing fast anyway, soon to disappear. She’s a good kid, a responsible kid — who wants a lip piercing. “What about job interviews?” I asked lamely, giving it one more try. “I can always take the piercing out,” she answered reasonably. “But you’ll still have a little scar,” I said.

To which she responded, “Mom. I have lots of little scars.”

Of course she does. Life leaves scars. Kids grow up and live their lives, and they will get scarred — in all manner of ways. It wasn’t easy to see her get her first shot, no matter how necessary it was, and it won’t be easy to see her undergo her first heartbreak, but that’s a necessity of another kind. It’s never going to be easy to see her inflict scars on herself, whether willingly or by accident. But she’s going to do it. With or without my permission, eventually.

Anyway: I said yes. But that was a few weeks ago, and she hasn’t brought it up since. Once faced with the option to go through with it, she’s not moving fast. I’m quietly hoping she forgets all about it. Please don’t remind her: I like her face the way it is. But she and I both know I’ll love her face no matter what she does to it. Maybe all she wanted to know is whether she had the freedom, and now that she knows she has it, she’ll take her time exercising it. 


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