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The Age of Embarrassment

The demotion was swift, humiliating, and permanent. Overnight, I went from being my son's personal valet to a shameful secret that he was determined to keep from his friends. Not too long ago, I spent my afternoons lying on a mildewy locker-room floor, tightening Jack's hockey-skate laces with my teeth. Those were the days when I was allowed to hoist his geography project out of the car in the morning and walk proudly next to him with it throughout his school.

I knew all his friends then, and happily greeted their mothers, who groaned under the weight of their own children's industrial-size projects.

Then, in middle school, it all changed. As we pulled up to the dropoff area at school one day, Jack dove under his seat.

"No, Mom, not here!" he hissed.

"What is it?" I cried out, certain that I had run over a kindergartner.

"Just keep driving," he whispered.

I was confused but tried to follow his directions until I caught sight of one of his friends.

"Oh, there's Nathaniel," I said, waving gaily.

"MOM! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

The car wasn't even in park before Jack popped the door open, pulled on his backpack, and disappeared into the throngs entering the school.

And it's been pretty much the same way ever since. Jack has tried numerous methods to hide the fact that his mother drives him to school, from leaping out of the car a quarter mile down the road to calling out "Keep the change!" over his shoulder while he walks off with his friends.

The perplexing thing is that his school doesn't offer bus service, so everybody is driven in by their parents. Was it possible that Jack was actually...ashamed of me? I don't pretend to be the hippest mom in the neighborhood, but when I don't have time to dress before school, I always cover my pajamas with a large coat -- and then I try not to get out of the car unless absolutely necessary.

The mystery was partially solved when my friend Donna called one day.

"Is it true..." she began, "I mean, did you really walk into the school dance the other night?"

"I was picking Jack up!" I said. "The dance was over, and I sat out front waiting for a good ten minutes. I had to go in."

"Oh," said Donna, crisply. "I see."

"What? Is it some crime to look for your kid? It was nine o'clock at night!"

My friend silently listened to my defensive ranting. Then she said, "It's okay, Ann. Jack's your eldest -- you didn't know any better."

Ann Leary is the author of the memoir An Innocent, A Broad.

The hard rules of parenting

Donna proceeded to spell out the parenting edict I had yet to learn: Mothers must be neither seen nor heard. Mothers shall deny any relationship with their child, other than that of a passing acquaintance. Mothers shall assist their children in perpetrating the illusion that they live alone, buy their own food and clothing, and provide their own means of transportation, regardless of the fact that they won't be old enough to drive for several years.

"That's ridiculous," I said.

"Don't you remember being a kid?" Donna asked. "Weren't you embarrassed by your own mother?"

"Well, of course," I replied. "But that was different." My mother was so old, and just so...uncool. She wasn't anything like me.

Later that day, I opened a family photo album that I hadn't looked at in years. There I was, having my first haircut, and my mother was the haircutter. She was 23. And there I was riding a bike, as my mother, skinny and chic in Jackie O. sunglasses, ran alongside. She had been pretty and young and vivacious, I could see now. But I remember vividly how my face turned scarlet whenever she called my name in public, from the time I was 12 until...

As I flipped the pages, I recalled what it was like to be Jack's age. In middle school, your mother's utility as a load-carrying accessory is far surpassed by the risk she poses -- the risk that she might expose your secret identity. The one that, in my case, involved playing with Breyer horses and Barbies at home, even though I wore a bra -- and an increasingly flirtatious, unpredictable attitude -- to school. The next morning, when Jack and I approached the dropoff area at school, I pulled my hat down low over my eyes. I sped past the pack of kids waiting to go inside and discreetly parked behind a Dumpster. Knowing that it wasn't safe to talk, I caught Jack's eye in the rearview mirror before he grunted his thanks and bolted from the car.

"Mom," came a voice from the backseat. It was my younger daughter, Devin. "Why do you have to park so far from the entrance? I need help carrying my diorama."

I figure I've got a few years before I have to go undercover for her, too.

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