By Jill Rothenberg
I held the delicate piece of lace tulle between my fingers, the light pink froth of it peeking out between the hot pink of the skirt layered on top. I pulled it off the rack and held it out at arm’s length, considering what kind of top would be perfect: plain white bodysuit or the cream-colored sweater with gold bling at the neck? Would the perfectly coordinated pastel pink fur coat be too much?
I took them from the rack and considered them all, holding each over the skirt in my right hand.
“Jesus Christ, I’ve been looking all over the store for you. Put that stuff down and come on.”
I jumped and turned around, the clothes falling to the floor.
There was my boyfriend, who had caught me red-handed in the little girl’s section of Target.
You would have thought he caught me with porn.
I had recently turned fifty, and this section of Target was even less familiar to me than the home repair and even the automotive aisles, where I, despite my high heels and preference for the makeup section, knew where to find the WD-40 and appropriate motor oil for my car engine. I had been well schooled by the men in my life, each one who made his living with his hands—carpenters, contractors, mechanics, a trauma nurse—and made sure that I understood even at a basic level stuff that at first I had no interest in: how to fix a squeaky window, why to always carry a rag in your glove compartment to wipe the oil dipstick (“It’s not a twizzle stick in a cocktail,” an ex used to say.)
But in the last few years of my forties, coinciding with irregular periods, wild mood swings, and the rollercoaster of emotions that made me second guess everything, what I didn’t know, and what I wanted to learn—years too late—was why I had so resolutely decided not to have children.
Because lately, whenever I went to Target, I couldn’t seem to get past the little girl’s—or baby—section without stopping, a visitor to a planet where I didn’t know the language, and never would.
Forty years earlier, I had been a little girl myself, dragged around from shop to shop with my mother, a southern belle who had come to New York in the early 1960s after college, where she worked as a secretary at a travel agency and eventually met my father, also from the South, who was a medical resident.
But I refused to carry the fashion torch, preferring to wear my soccer uniform 24/7, or maybe the same Levis as the boys in my class. But that didn’t mean my mother didn’t give it her all.
“Isn’t it precious? It’s just so adorable I can’t stand it,” she would exclaim, almost swooning. You would have thought she was holding a baby or petting a puppy, not caressing what I saw only as a piece of navy blue material on which cloth flowers had been sewed on to the hem and strung together as a sash that tied in the back. These dresses were made by a someone whose name is permanently burned into my memory: children’s clothier Florence Eiseman. Her clothes were my mother’s obsession. I had rows of them in my closet.
When we went shopping and we found one of these dresses, or something equally “adorable” or “spectacular,” you would have thought from the sound of pure joy in her voice, that she had struck gold.
With my waist-length hair recently cut off like the ice skater Dorothy Hamill—which my mom and I can laugh about now as the total fail that it was— and wearing my trusty soccer uniform, I looked like a little boy. My friends and I just wanted to wear shorts in the summer to be like Daisy Duke with our Bonne Belle lip smackers around our necks, or naturally, our soccer uniforms. In the winter it was navy body suits with snaps and embroidered jeans. No one who I knew wore Florence Eiseman dresses or was more unsuited to them than me.
But my mother was on a mission.
“Aww, Jill. That’s so pretty on you,” she would say as we looked into the mirror together. “And you can’t listen to what everyone else thinks.”
“But mom, no one wears dresses. Only me. And I just want to go home.”
The reflection of my thin, perfect mother, probably in high heels and her Calvins, wearing the trends even before they were fashionable, and me in my yellow shorts and striped boys shirt with short hair, made me want to cry and escape to my bedroom alone. I was never going to be like her.
“Your parents are like dolls. They don’t seem real,” friends often said, which I took as meaning they dressed well. And they did, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized it was a disguise, a way to cover up what was going on inside our house, of pretending they weren’t who they were when no one was looking.
Because all the dresses in the world could never make me forget the sound of my mother whimpering, the sight of her thin, flowered frame and long dark hair with her arms twisted unnaturally behind her, held by my father standing over her in his khaki pants and striped button-down shirt, his face unrecognizable in a snarl that made think of the dogs they warned me to be careful of; the barking Rottweilers and Dobermans I sometimes saw, so unlike our own Airedale.
“You slut, you’re having an affair with that guy next door. You’re opening your legs for the neighborhood,” my father yelled in my mother’s face as he stood over her, holding her arms back. The he twisted hard, so hard that my mother cried out. So hard that one of her arms hung at a funny angle. “Did you hear that honey?” He looked over at me. “Your mother’s a slut, a whore.” Our neighbor, his wife, and their daughters were our best friends.
My mother was crying and trying to twist out of his grip. “No, no,” she pleaded. “Please no Jerry, not in front of the children.” I felt like my feet were stuck and I couldn’t move. But I always had a burst of adrenaline, right when I felt like I wanted to cry from not being able to stop him.
“Get away from Mommy. Stop it. I hate you.” I would twist under my mother and try to push against him, a live wire sound buzzing in my ears, the smell of cologne and sweat strong in the air.
“Leave her alone; you’re ugly and I hate you.” And as quickly as I said it, my heart pounding out of my chest, he would try to grab me. But I was too fast for him. I would crouch underneath the dining room table, run up the slippery hardwood stairs, barely making it to my room and lock the door. “You’d better open up you son of a bitch, ” he yelled. He would pound so hard I thought he would come through the door, so I would put my desk chair in front of it, crying and hoping my mother was OK; knowing that my brother was in his room, afraid to come out.
After a while, it was quiet. It was like nothing had happened. I would get out my vocabulary workbook; for each word I would pick a number of times I would write the definition; 10. 13. Maybe 22. It didn’t matter. The act of writing it, holding the pencil and watching it on the page comforted me. I did the same thing with my math problems. Once I got the answer, I had to write it down. And write it some more.
I think of myself sitting at my white desk with the mint-green trim, and the unnatural sounds that came out of my parents that made me feel so alone and so afraid. I knew that my mother and I would be going shopping soon, as a way to treat the wound and pretend it never happened.
But in that moment, our roles were reversed. I was worried about her, my perfectly dressed mother who showed such a confident and sparkling shine to the world. People were drawn to her—my teachers, other moms, our neighbors, the cleaning lady. All I knew was that I had to protect her from my father. But at ten or twelve, I didn’t know how to do that, except to pretend it didn’t happen.
“Mom, will you make me lunch?” I asked her, standing at the edge of her bed where she was laying down, our dog asleep at her feet. Her mascara was smeared on her face and the pillow, her eyes red from crying.
“I don’t care about your lunch,” she said, lying on her side facing me. I don’t care about you. Leave me alone.”
“Can I lay down with you and Thunderball?” I loved laying on my parents’ king bed. It made me feel safe.
“Jill, get out. Go to your room and read. Maybe Daddy will take you somewhere.”
Usually by the evening or the next day, the storm had passed and it all seemed like a dream. “Your mother is a beautiful woman,” my father would say to me in the kitchen as he came up behind her and pulled her against him as she did the dishes. “There isn’t anyone like her.” And like that, I knew the cycle would begin again, and we would be out the next day, in search of yet more dresses that I didn’t need.
Years later, at the boarding school I attended, one of the favorite after-hours activities in our dorm was talking about the names of our future children. But as soon as my friends began to throw out their favorite names: Paige, Zachary, Evie, Jake, Madeleine, I would find an excuse to go back to my room. Even at seventeen I knew I didn’t want to be a mother. It was too risky, too scary. And my own mother had done such a bad job. Later, when I got out of college, I worked at a shelter for battered women, where I learned that my mother and I had lived through cycles of violence. She had done the best she could. Still, when I thought about having kids, all I could think about was cowering under the table while I cried and watched my father beat my mother, the police arriving at our door when a neighbor called worried about the noise. “There’s no problem here, officer,” my father said. So they left.
Shopping was the only way my mother knew how to take care of me, the dresses a replacement for the assurance that all would be ok, a wearable hug.
So it’s no surprise that I find myself stopping in the little girl’s section looking at what sorts of outfits my mother would have put together for me—which in fact she does at Nordstrom or H&M or TJ Maxx when we visit each other at opposite ends of the country. It’s not so much regret anymore that I feel in not having children as much as it is gratitude that I have a mother who I have traveled with down a long road of healing and knows me well enough to finally treat me as the daughter I am—even if that means occasionally picking out dresses that I’ll never wear.
A version of this story first ran in Purple Clover, https://www.
Jill Rothenberg is a Colorado-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, CNN, and Narratively, among others.