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Why My Daughter’s Tattoo Actually Left a Mark on Me

What I learned about motherhood from a painful past.

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illustration of teenage daughter with neck tattoo
Amber Day
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I grew up in the shadow of my war hero father and experienced trauma from his unpredictable and often dangerous behavior. Even though I loved him, I feared him and sensed something terrible had happened to him at war. I didn’t learn any details until he was 90. I wrote about reconciling our complicated relationship in my new memoir, Little Avalanches.

As I began to work through the scars of my childhood with him, I remembered an accident that happened when I was eight. That day, I balanced on a red rubber swing, palms wrapped around rusted chains, and soared through a cerulean blue sky. My foot slipped, and I slammed into the sand pit, elbow first, and my arm bent backward instead of forward, twisting nerves between sharp bones.

My mother, who I lived with then, rushed me to the hospital. I spent the next three months in a fluorescent-lit room. I had two surgeries and lost half of my triceps muscle. My mother wore a soft round dent in the chair cushion at my bedside, her soft touch a comfort against the pain. (I alternated living with each parent after their divorce.)

When I was released, my arm was disfigured, and I could barely lift a pencil. Instead of hugs and kisses and assurances that I wouldn’t look hideous for the rest of my life, my father made me carry a full teapot up and down the hallway, his idea of physical therapy. My mother’s gentle care was hundreds of miles away in the corner of California, where she had moved to get away from him years earlier.

The most painful part of the experience happened when my father insisted my nerves be tested for atrophy. A doctor slid 25 needles into the tender flesh of my forearms, sending a jolt of electricity into each tiny rod. My father ignored my plea for help and didn’t want to hear about my suffering. He shamed me for complaining.

When I became a mother, I vowed to give my children a life without such pain. I wanted them to be free — of fear, of trauma, of the need to live up to my expectations. I told myself I would raise them with kindness, keep them safe and protect them from judgment. But my father’s lessons about keeping quiet and avoiding conflict were hard to unlearn.

As my daughters grew, I tolerated strange hairstyles and funny clothes. But I said, “If you get a tattoo, get it on a body part you can live without.” My directive was clear. Mom does not approve of inking. But I was not really clear. I did not tell my children that I could not bear the pain of imagining a needle sliding in and out of their skin because I experienced it, hundreds of times.

All through high school and into college, my daughters had the buttery-soft skin of childhood. Then, my 19-year-old came home from college sophomore year. During the drive from the airport, I pushed a curl behind her ear, and a weird little stick figure poked its heart-shaped head out from behind a fan of hair on her neck. I drew a sharp inhale. Silence consumed the car.

My daughter’s face fell, and I saw my younger self in the passenger’s seat, shrinking before my father’s fury. No. No. No. Anything but that.

A mother’s words, and a father’s, too, stick with a child. We can’t take them back. Not ever. Sometimes they are right. I remember standing in the bathroom of my childhood home, worrying over my bony legs. My mother walked in and told me they were beautiful. I have loved those long, spindly sticks ever since. I wanted my daughter to love herself, too. Exactly the way she wanted to be.

Rain dotted the windshield. I gripped the steering wheel, and I told her I was sorry for my reaction. She looked out the window, her breath small. I thought about the year-long conversation I had with my father when he turned 89. He told me about the brutality he had endured on the battlefields of World War II and I shared my own haunting memories. We talked about why he made me hide from phantom Nazis, taught me to shoot a gun, and told the dentist to drill my teeth without Novocaine.

And we talked about why we hadn’t talked about any of it — until I wrote all of it in Little Avalanches — a book he read and supported.

The conversation with my father made me realize that we hid too much of ourselves from the world and from each other. Yet, I was still hiding from my children. On that ride home with my daughter, tires thrummed against the asphalt, and I took a deep inhale.

“I fell off a swing when I was eight,” I said to my daughter. For the first time, I told her about my accident and where my beliefs were formed. I explained the details of my hospital stay, the near amputation, the unbearable pain. And I told her I was proud of her for ignoring what others thought, even me, and for being herself.

Hearing this, she relaxed back into the seat and cried. Our conversation became less about tattoos and more about revealing ourselves to each other. For her, the ink was about self-expression.

A guarded conversation between mother and grown daughter full of angst and hurt turned into one that bloomed with honesty and compassion. We laughed, we cried, and she told me the stick figure was the album cover art of her favorite musician, Ritt Momney. My daughter had been a pianist since she was three, and I valued her devotion to music.

Did I want her to get another tattoo? No. I still wanted her to be ink-free, but even more, I appreciated her life experience. And she appreciated mine. I now know that we are profoundly shaped by the secrets we keep and forever changed by the stories we share. What would happen, I wonder, if we all began to share our authentic selves with those we love most?

Did you have a difficult relationship with either of your parents? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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