Ma’am Without Consent

I’ve been ma’am’ed without my consent.

I’ve always looked young for my age. Carded for cigarettes through my mid-20s. Carded to get into bars and for alcohol into my 30s; and for real, not that flattering kind of carded you sometimes get from bartenders hoping to get lucky. I was 38 and people genuinely (I swear) thought I was 24 or 25.

But once I had my first child at 40, the gap between my real age and my “age people guess” started to narrow.  Add two more children, a whole of stress, and menopause, and the gap grew narrower still.

Like everyone, I’d been called “ma’am” by someone working the drive-in window. That doesn’t count; in today’s world, fast food, retail and convenience store workers use “ma’am” and “sir” as a kind of high-level customer service, particularly in the South.

What really hurt was being called ma’am by the nurses in my doctor’s office. And by my doctor, who could be my biological son. And by my kids’ teachers (ditto). And by the lady at the DMV. And the pharmacist. And even the new car salesman, who ran his internal sales logic and decided I’d be most flattered by ma’am because obviously I’m too old to buy “miss.”

Basically, every stranger I now interact with compartmentalizes me into a ma’am—and ma’am is code for old. Mature. Deserving of AARP membership, even.

I get that it’s supposed to be respectful, but it feels anything but. I feels as I’m being sidelined. We are a youth-driven culture, and young people don’t get called “ma’am.” You can’t be hot and be a ma’am. You can’t be hot and even be a madam, as traditionally those are the hookers so old they make arrangements for other hookers.

So every ma’am is a reminder that I’m aging. That men no longer look at me “that way.” That I actually do qualify for AARP membership. That I’m old enough that there’s an entire generation of professionals who could be my biological children.

(And yes, I get the benefits of maturity, I know it’s better than the alternative, and I’m conflicted about my desire for the male gaze, thankyouverymuch.)

Being called ma’am is something that happens to us whether we like it or not, whether we consent to it or not. To protest seems childish, even uncivil. But damn, it stings.

Count Me Out.

Know what? I hate volunteering in my kids’ classrooms.

Look, I know that I’m supposed to feel guilty about the fact that my full-time job keeps me super busy during school hours. And that I can never sign up to chaperone the kids at the pumpkin patch, children’s museum, or historical coal mine visit (I swear, this is real). That I never come in and have lunch in the school cafeteria, or volunteer to read in the classroom. And it’s true. My career keeps me pretty busy. But.

But.

The reality is that if I really, truly wanted to, I could find time to do at least some of those things. Maybe not all the chaperone gigs, because client meetings wait for no bus, but I could swing at least one a year. I have enough flexibility that I could swing by for lunch, or come set up for a holiday party. But.

But.

I don’t want to. I’ve done my time in school. Some of it I enjoyed, some I didn’t, but I’m done. It’s my kids’ time for school, now.

Partly, this is because I really dislike large groups of children. I freely admit it — I’m not someone who finds large groups of kids energizing. (I mean, I don’t find large groups of adults energizing, either.) I’m pretty sensitive to noise, and if there’s one thing large groups of kids know how to do well, it’s make noise. I used to have to schedule an hour nap after my kids’ preschool Mommy Day, just from all of the overstimulation that comes with viewing an entire year’s worth of projects and Montessori works.

Even more, though, it’s because school is my kids’ gig. I like meeting their teachers at conferences, and try to work together as a team when required, but I don’t need to be friends with my kids’ teachers.

School is where my kids go to start learning how to navigate the world. So much happens there that is always going to be a mystery to me, and that’s as is should be. Me being there isn’t going to make it any less mysterious. I love learning about my kids’ days through their eyes, hearing about their friends and experiences, talking about what happened, and giving advice and counsel when needed. I’m lucky that my kids (so far) haven’t required any more intervention.

Meanwhile, I’m the mom you can count on to donate whatever supplies you need, or send in whatever (store-bought) treats your little teacher heart desires. Just don’t ask me get on a bus with your class full of little darlings, including my own.

The “New” Facts of Life

I didn’t learn the “facts of life” until I was 12 years old. Riding in the car with my parents one day, I suddenly thought to ask, “Wait, how do babies get in the woman’s stomach?” That was an eye-opening discussion. Even more eye-opening was the medical encyclopedia my mom handed me, which had a lot more detail than I think she planned (especially the abnormal psychology section).

Mechanics aside, the message remained the same — sex is mostly about procreation, and something you do with the person you are married to. I still remember the summer after I graduated high school. I was going to my boyfriend’s house for the weekend. My mom said, “I hope you’re saving yourself for marriage.” I just looked at her; ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies worked well for us for a long time.

But that was a different time. Nearly two generations ago, because I’m old, and my spawn could be my grandchildren. My husband and I thought long and hard about what we tell them about the Facts of Life. Here are the five facts we’ve come up with that I am pretty sure are unpopular with most other parents:

  1. Sex Will Dominate Your Thoughts; Don’t Let It Dominate Your Actions — I remember puberty hitting like a ton of bricks. I hear it’s worse for boys. Suddenly, I had all of these … feelings. Emotions, sure, but I’m talking physical feelings and drives and needs. I want my kids to understand and acknowledge those feelings, so they can master them. Don’t be the kids in my school who were “swept away by passion” and ended up getting pregnant.
  2. You Don’t Have to Be in Love to Have Sex –– I don’t want my kids to wait until they’re married to experience sex for a whole host of reasons, not least the fact that I think they should be older when they get married and make the decision based on who they want to spend their life with, not because they need to get laid. And I’ve lived enough life that it would be hypocritical for me to try to tell them that you have to be in love to have sex. I know better. Sex is fun and great and healthy and feels good. But, sex has consequences. You should at least like and respect the person you sleep with, because of rule number three…
  3. Don’t Sleep With Anyone You Aren’t Willing To Be Connected To Forever — Sounds counterintuitive to number two, but here’s where safety comes into play. Sex is a risky act. Condoms break, birth control fails. If you are going to be intimate with someone, be sure it’s someone you can be connected to forever if you must. (And yeah, that opens up a pretty intense conversation with the spawn.)
  4. Never Trust Anyone but Yourself with Birth Control and Disease Prevention — You don’t want a baby? You, yourself, must use a condom/take the pill/insert a diaphragm/whatever. You don’t want to die a horrible death? Practice safe sex every time, all of the time. I think this is probably a hard one for teenagers, who naturally believe they are immune to danger. I am quite certain they will take stupid risks, just like every teenager ever. I can only hope they get lucky and the risks are few. Meanwhile, my husband and I will be “those parents” who buy condoms along with the toothpaste and shampoo, and stock the bathroom shelves.
  5. As in All Things, Respect is Key — Respect for yourself. Respect for your partner. Respect for your body. For my boys, it’s about telling them that they need to listen the girls they are with. Is she enthusiastic? Is she initiating? Remember Rule #1, and don’t let your hormones make you a jerk. And also, just because you’re a boy, doesn’t mean you have to perform or be pressured into doing anything you aren’t comfortable with. For my daughter, it’s basically the same message, with an added dollop of “not everyone was raised right so here’s what to beware of.”

Of course, we are just now hitting the teenage years and puberty. Maybe we’ll feel differently about this open attitude towards sex when our spawn start dating (or hanging out, or hooking up, or whatever the heck it is they do now). But I don’t think so. Because to me, this is how things have always been and should have been; society has finally just caught up to a place where my kids don’t feel as if they don’t have to tell me any lies.