Mother Approved


Our Daily Correspondent

Only the best for my boy: the actress Helen Twelvetrees and her son, Jack Woody, in Sydney circa 1936.

I used to have a superpower. I never told anyone, of course—that’s the rule with powers—and in the grand tradition, it was a mixed blessing. It was this: mothers loved me.

It’s true. Mothers of all kinds wanted me to date their sons. Hell, they wanted me to marry them. Not shockingly, the actual sons in question were less jazzed about the prospect. It seemed like the very qualities that rendered me totally unsuitable to boys my own age—my good manners, my bookishness, my lack of any adult sexiness, even my runty size—were the same things that drew their mothers like catnip. 

It wasn’t that these boys were actually considering asking me out; in most cases, I’m sure I didn’t even cross their radars. So it didn’t give me any particular pleasure to imagine various moms I’d enchanted bringing up my name hopefully, and the ensuing indignation. And on those rare occasions when a boy might, in fact, like me, I can’t imagine a rave from his mother did much to render me more desirable. 

I took an almost scientific interest in watching the power at work. I didn’t have to do anything. The piping voice, the soft s, the reassuringly old-ladyish name: all conspired to weave a net of enchantment. I’d see a mother’s eyes narrow on me with approval the moment we were introduced. Sometimes I didn’t even need to be there—more than one mother “liked the sound of me,” I was told. It was like I’d wished on a genie’s lamp for the gift of irresistibility but had forgotten to specify to whom. 

My own mom reveled in the praise. “____’s mother was raving about you!” she’d say, after a back-to-school night or a class meeting. Or, “Jackie says she wishes Josh would date a girl like you.” It thrilled her; I’m sure she thought I’d be thrilled, too.

And it was sort of flattering, I guess. At one point I actually totted up my list of mom-suitors and realized I had eight. But when things come easily, they’re hard to value. Especially when they’re useless. And besides, I sensed that there was something insulting about this praise. I knew that to these mothers I seemed unthreatening, safe. Biddable, even. Sometimes I even felt a bit incensed; I might not be a sexpot, no, but surely I was still a pain in the ass?

The power waned somewhat when I got older, and taller, and actually started dating. Moms might like me fine, but no more than anyone else, and I had to put in normal human interaction; it wasn’t the same magical, warm approval I’d come to take as my due. Maturity, it seemed, was my kryptonite. 

There are moments when I remember those halcyon days with wistful fondness. There was the mom who made me go to dinner with her son to help his manners, and the other who invited me on a family excursion to the opera, even though the son and I had barely spoken. There was the one neighbor who made her son come over and set a mousetrap in my dorm room. Or the one who called my parents—on behalf of her son, she said—to get my number. I was a belle, sort of. I had known the rush of a kind of popularity: an emotion better recollected in tranquility.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.