As a child, my mother graciously spoon-fed me princess stories to compliment my daily portions of cooked broccoli and single-serving low-fat Snackwells cookies. I was well-nourished to acquire golden Rapunzel locks and a figure fit for ball gowns; to practice a delicate, unheard walk in preparation for my future fragile glass slippers; to be eternally home by midnight for fear of transforming into a pumpkin and – heavens forbid – missing my beauty sleep; to whistle while I dutifully worked, patiently awaiting my fairytale romance with Prince Charming.
As an adolescent, my mother’s patience for Prince Charming’s fanciful horseback arrival began to wear thin, and she started suggesting frogs and beasts to fill his role. “Did you see the handsome young man with stylish glasses standing behind the sweet potatoes? Total hottie checking you out,” she’d tease with an underlying serious tone, pointing to a four foot, four-eyed, fourteen-year-old, carrot-topped male specimen who was actively avoiding eye contact as he now sorted through a pile of tubers. “Mother, he’s not even cute!” I’d hiss through clenched teeth as I turned beet red. No matter how much my mother prodded and pleaded, I refused to give her the satisfaction of my expression of interest in her suggested toads. Her attempt to live vicariously through my teenage love life felt like a fundamental violation of my tightly-locked privacy.
My mother’s impatience for stories of corny courtship also manifested in gentle nudges to maintain my princess charm. For example, the summer before I entered high school, my mother subtly suggested that my chocolate chip cookie dough habit was beginning to get the best of my “chubby tummy”. This comment, stated nonchalantly in passing, was perhaps the hardest phrase that my self-doubting adolescent mind ever attempted to digest. I chewed on her syllables with distaste and disdain for their potential future evolution into a new word that no teenage girl ever wants to become: “fat”. With this fateful forewarning in mind, I immediately followed my mother’s lead in running for fitness.
However, I instantly regretted this decision to run on first jog around our neighborhood. Half a mile from our driveway, our Midwestern residential blocks somehow had grown unforeseen mountains that stretched to infinity. “I – can’t – doitanymore… Goonwithoutme!” I choked out between uncatchable breaths. In spite of my mother’s bewildered encouragement of my pathetic athletic ability, we parted ways. My mother continued her 4-mile speed run and I pounded the pavement all the way home to bake chocolate chip cookies, which tasted like sweet victory after my A-plus effort.
Despite my initial aversion toward the sport, running runs in the family, and thus my new fitness craze quickly gained momentum. Running soon morphed into my strength, my identity, and my source of discipline to anchor my academic success. My adolescent image became secured by my victories in high school cross country and track. Chocolate chip cookies became a distant memory, and – much to my pleasant surprise – my own hint of a jelly belly transformed into empty concavity. Before long, I was a sleek, slender, and aerodynamic machine, engineered for endurance.
Regardless of my newfound athletic and academic achievements, I did not satisfy my mother’s sweet tooth for securing her future grandbabies. The more that she would badger me to consider her suggested suitors, the more securely I would conceal from her any feelings of romantic inclination. The further that she would attempt to evaluate my energy balance to reverse my new “holocaust victim” figure, as she called it, the more safely I would dead-bolt away the extent to which I had become a Nazi about my running schedule and eating habits. Instead, I would fill these conversational voids with outward critiques of my imperfect mother, from her giant bug-shell backpack, to her mom van, down to the color or her all-white socks. This knit-picking became most vicious during our runs together. I had long surpassed my mother’s speed to become a pace-setter for in her road races. I would eagerly rabbit her, prancing two steps ahead of her pounding stride and shouting, “Mother, what’s with the Darth Vader breath? Stop breathing and run faster!” And she would reluctantly quicken her step, knowing that she had created this pace-pushing monster.
Fortunately for us both, the pace monsters, cookie monsters, and dark Force-hungry villains within us were eventually banished back to their respective kingdoms and galaxies. I have learned over the years of healing my relationship with my mother and with my own personal habits that life is an unscripted adventure rather than a fairy tale. Misaligned understandings of reality may villainize princesses or queens like my mother and me, but righteous and wicked cannot be reduced to two-dimensional figure drawings. My mother is neither an evil queen nor a fairy godmother. I am neither an ugly duckling nor a swan. Cookie dough is neither my poisoned apple nor my precious glass slipper. Thus, it is unsurprising that my mother and I never experienced a story-book resolution to our world wars of clashing expectations of one another.
Rather, organic maturation of our mutual mindsets and natural evolution of our interactions have allowed us to see eye-to-eye and run side-by-side. My mother has gradually loosened her Ursula-like tentacles that once strangled me for details of old-fashioned romance and propelled me to consider proposals of awkward ogres. And I eventually stepped down from my high throne to share a story or two from my vault of romantic sentiments that had previously been stowed away in a tall tower, forbidden to my mother. Like freshly baked cookies whose warm chocolate chips melt in your mouth amidst their perfectly complementary gooey, buttery surrounding baked batter, my mother and I have learned to complement each other’s’ unique flavors of life. And just like the perfectly crafted dough that may have formed those baked-with-love goodies, our relationship has required refrigerated incubation for our mutually-enhancing zests to mesh.
My mother and I do not search for “happily ever after” etched in pavement as we run together when I am home for the holidays. Rather, we acknowledge that the possibility of renewed combat always looms on the horizons. With this knowledge in mind, we run with our gaze toward the skyline of the calm reality of our neighborhood. We breathe in unison, two royal warriors of two distinct compositions of spices, seasonings, life goals, and personality traits. We run in synchrony, at the constant ready for either fairytale golden ages or the inevitable running battles of female family ties toward our own version of happily, sadly, angrily, fearfully, disgustedly and overall emotionally ever after.
Note: this piece was originally composed as an assignment for public advocacy of issues in sports identity for Dr. Barbara Gottlieb’s WGH 210: Women’s Issues in Mental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.