Mother, Reversed

     Written by Judith Ellen 
     Illustrated by Emily Clarkson 

     Est. Reading Time: 6 min 

Call me Serenity!, you demanded. Age three, fastened securely in your car seat and unbound by the traditions which raised me that I knew, tepidly, I could not, for both our existences, pass down to you. You were singing, excuse me, belting out some song by Destiny’s Child where you made up toddler lyrics that sort of rhymed and merged them with the actual lyrics you could decipher. You managed to stay pitch perfect. Your music teacher would rave about your three year-old ability to remain on pitch and neither you, of course, nor I, had any idea what that meant, but it sounded mature and fully developed in a way that a mother wants the world to bless her child with greatness before they know how to read. Then I shall call you Serenity, I responded in deference. I instantly felt this pang of guilt after I said that to you because I wondered if I had named you wrong.

I pulled up to the entrance, the next car in line for morning drop-off, and I could not get you to leave the car. For thirty minutes you cried in the backseat because you had not finished your homework, and you were upset with yourself, fisting the crumpled sheet of math problems, which was becoming soaked with your tears. I used every trick from the invisible Parenting a Fourth Grader manual to try and calm you. You were overly tired from afternoon and evening performances the day before when you spent your entire day at the theatre. I was with you for part of the day, the child wrangler for the rest of it. One evening, I picked you up from rehearsal and the cast was all smiles. You were killing it, they exclaimed. Well, I said, she is Shiva the Destroyer. And that’s what they called you from that point on. I knew Shiva from my yogic studies, but I didn’t fully understand until I saw you on stage. You possessed the ability to both speak the world into existence and to call it crashing down, and I didn’t know what to do with you. Your power embarrassed me like I had done something terribly wrong while you were in utero. Like we would forever be caught in a cycle of push and pull and if I tried to suppress you,  you lifted me to the heavens so I could see all that I would never control. I couldn’t get you to leave the car and you missed another day of school.

You were listening to the song I Kissed a Girl on repeat, and excitedly, I called my best friend to gloat that I had done it. I had successfully raised an emerging teen girl who embraced her sexual identity unbegrudged by religious and societal norms. This was a fancy, educated way of saying that I was the mother that young, White feminists dreamt of becoming. But the real reason I called her was to ask, yet again, which books she recommended I read about talking to your daughter about menstruation and her body. I had read Our Bodies, Ourselves too late and had never memorized the anatomy of the vagina. Whenever the deluge of my blood could not be contained with a super-plus tampon and a back-up, nighttime maxi-pad, I hid my stained underwear and bedsheets from you. This was my shame and by god this would never be yours, and I had to find a way of teaching you that didn’t expose me for the sham artist I was.

For your seventeenth birthday, we went to high afternoon tea at that posh hotel in the seaport district. Our table was decorated with red rose petals and situated near the windows, providing an unobstructed view of the water. The view made it easier for me to disconnect from the uncomfortable parts of our conversation where you were talking freely about your relationship with your boyfriend. You loved being in love, and I did not understand the subversive language of emotion, which when translated, is what eroticism is. I had you young during a time when having babies young was a perfectly acceptable and fashionable thing to do. Sticking your hip out to hold a well-fed baby the same way those hips swayed in the club before the pregnancy occurred. The server came over to announce the fixed menu, and he was very handsome and proper. I’m pretty sure he thought that table had been reserved for a pair of lovers.

We’re at the kitchen table with our laptops. I’m blurting out examples of topics you can use for your med school application essay. You’re shaking your head at every turn of phrase, every random thought, which I think comes from an informed place. For inspiration, I’ve placed a few old copies of Norton’s Anthology of American Literature in front of you, where the dog-eared pages are reminders of my red-lined papers, which I thought were A-work but I had to hopelessly settle for B+s. I double-majored in English Lit and French. I thought that I would move back to Paris after I graduated, but what good would I have been with a BA cum laude and a toddler in tow? My French was not strong enough to raise you bilingually and my daddy needed me back at home. For extra cash, I wrote papers for struggling undergrads. I am an adequate writer, but you, you have the gift of space travel. You create portals for beings who desire to leave this empty world in search of life amid the uninhabitable.

“For there are no new ideas--” you are starting to say, but I interrupt you. I’m lost in my past and it’s getting in your way. You patiently repeat, “For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt…” I look up from my screen and I am impressed with your statement. It’s from Audre Lorde, you tell me, and you think you’re going to use her quote as a thesis statement. It’s lovely, it’s perfect, I tell you. I had no idea that you read Audre Lorde. You laugh and say that I don’t remember that year when we took turns reading her essays aloud.

The year of the uprisings.

The year when you went from wearing your hair straight, to box braids and then to locs.

You’re right, I say. I have a terrible memory. I only remember your hair.



Published March 10, 2021
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Author’s Bio
Judith Ellen is a multi-hyphenate writer based in New England. Her writing has appeared in Wretched Creations Magazine, Telling Our Stories Press, and Elephant Journal. She is the creator of UNpolisheD & IMProPEr, a quarterly virtual writing and yoga series.
︎ @karmicdragonshead
︎ @thekarmicdragon

Emily Clarkson


︎Philadelphia, PA
Plantin Magazine ©2020