Statistically, at least, I haven’t reached the midpoint of my lifeaccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, I can expect to live 43 more yearsbut at 37, I’m nevertheless beginning to feel middle-aged. Tired. Run-down. Old, even.
This state might derive from having been a human incubator three times in the last seven years, or from having been jarred awake several times each night for the same length of time. But I think the real reason I’ve started to feel old is that I’ve cut my hair and bought a minivan.
Wearing a ponytail and driving a station wagon were bad enough. There’s nothing sexy about either. You know when your hair is tied back in a ponytail that, even if you’re wearing pearls and a little black dress, you still look like you’re about to drag the garbage cans out to the curb. And you know when you drive a station wagon that you’re never going to sing along with ”Mustang Sally“ at the top of your lungs while a warm wind lifts your liberated hair and blows it around your head like a maenad.
If you’re a woman in a ponytail and a Taurus wagon, you’re never going to hand your keys to the valet at F. Scott’s and slink inside to join a fascinating man for a three-hour lunch. And you’re absolutely never going to leave your station wagon in F. Scott’s parking lot while you go someplace much darker and more private, someplace where that fascinating man can slowly, slowly remove your high-heeled shoes and flick his tongue between your toes.
When you wear a ponytail and drive a station wagon, you dine at McDonald’s Playland and you drive home afterward singing ”Old MacDonald“ at the top of your lungs to keep your toddler awake until you can get him home, take his tennis shoes off, and dump him in his crib. Then, instead of kicking off your own tennis shoes, you go outside and pick up the hard little tag-ends of french fries littering the floorboards of the family stay-wag.
The one advantage of a ponytail is that it isn’t permanent. In the unlikely event that you’re invited to go somewhere with someone who actually drives, say, a Mustang, you can take that rubber band right out of your hair, stuff it in your pocket, and start singing. Voila, you’re a maenad; no one needs to know that you left your station wagon back home in the driveway of your ranch house. But if you ever cut all that hair off, if you ever get one of those practical blow-and-go styles you see in every park in suburbia, the jig is up. Even in a cherry-red Mustang convertible, you can never leave suburbia.
I knew instinctively, even in my youngest young adulthood, that I wanted nothing to do with what short hair and station wagons represent. The only time I ever cut my hair was during my senior year of high school; in a fit of pique against a boyfriend who disliked short hair on women, I got it cut in a style that closely resembled what was called ”the pixie“ when I was in kindergarten.
”Wow,“ my friend Wendy said when she saw me. ”You look like you’re about to pile the kids into the station wagon and head out to the country club.“ I started growing my hair out again that very day.
Once I became a mother, though, things had to change. A mother who wears her hair down is going to spend a lot of time unwinding strands of her own DNA from between the baby’s damp fingers. A mother who insists on hanging on to her Toyota Celica is going to spend a lot of time in her chiropractor’s office, working the kinks out a spine contorted by regular attempts to wrestle an 18-pound infant into the center-back, rear-facing seat of a two-door car.
It’s possible to do these things, of course, but it’s not expedient to do so, and very few middle-class mothers opt for what isn’t expedient. Which is why, after my third child was born and even a ponytail had become too much trouble, I went to Dottie, who’s been trimming my hair for more than a decade, and said, ”Cut it off.“
”Uh-oh,“ she said.
”I mean it,“ I said. ”It’s time. If you ask my mother, it’s past time.“
”You don’t want this,“ she promised. ”You’re just tired, and mad because you can’t get your jeans on yet. Wait another month. If you still want it short then, I’ll cut it.“
It’s always wise to listen to Dottie in matters of personal style and female psychology, so I agreed. But back at home I was still unhappy. So unhappyand so deranged, it turns out that I got out my sewing shears and stood before the bathroom sink and attempted to do for myself what a professional hair stylist had talked me out of making her do. Later, after Dottie had finished repairing the mess I’d made of my hair, it was even shorter than I originally had in mind. Suddenly, I looked like all those minivan-driving mothers I know.
In fact, the minivan itself arrived in the driveway before the bangs in my new haircut were long enough to brush my brows. When you’re a family of five, a vehicle that seats seven just makes sense, at least if you want to join a carpool and avoid the nuisance of waking the babies to make every trip to school (or soccer practice, or swim lessons) yourself.
But my husband doesn’t like to buy anything, and we resisted the minivan impulse for fully six months after the birth of our third sonmy husband because of money, and I because of romance. While I still drove a station wagon I could tell myself that there was at least a chance a man in a convertible would flirt with me if we found ourselves stopped side-by-side at a red light. Men in convertibles couldn’t flirt with women in minivans even if they wanted toconvertibles are too close to the ground.
But then the station wagon in our driveway grew old and tired, too; the cost of its convalescence, according to our mechanic, was right at the blue-book value of the car itself, and we knew it was time to clear out the bank account and join the other harried parents in the local elementary-school hook-up line, spilling children pell-mell out the sliding doors of a minivan. So we did, and I’m still in mourning.
I love being a mother. It’s not that I want to be a woman who has no children; I just want to look like a woman who has no children. Every morning I buckle my own three kids into their seats, pick up two of the neighbor children, drive two blocks to their school and pull into a long hook-up line of other Windstars and Quests and Siennas and Grand Voyagers. I slam the sliding door. ”Have a great day,“ I call as they race into the building. ”Learn a lot! Be sweet to the girls!“
Then I walk past the mirror image of my newly-shorn self in the dark, tinted windows. ”Jesus Christ,“ I think. Giving a little grunt and a little huff, I hoist myself into the driver’s seat. My eyes are bleary, my hair is flat, my hands are cracked and red on the cold steering wheel. Piloting the ponderous minivan back toward home, I face the facts: I’m frumpy and I’m old.
And starting today, I’m growing my hair back out.