My girlfriend sent me a message on Facebook: "I can’t believe you let Katie get a tattoo!" My friend has small kids all under the age of 10, so I understood her shock. My reply was simple: I didn’t let her. I didn’t even approve…but I did support her. Rules change when your kids turn 18.
My daughter has wanted a tattoo for her 18th birthday for years. She used to talk about what she would get, where she would put it, and I always ignored her. I don’t like tattoos. From my midlife perspective, I don’t see the need for ink. And if anything, I’ve heard too many stories of job applicants losing jobs or teachers with tramp stamps peeking out of their clothing at back-to-school nights, and the overall image that tattoos send to me isn’t a positive one.
As my daughter’s 18th birthday month approached and the tattoo talk gained steam, we sat down to discuss it. Much like when she wanted her belly button pierced, we had a conversation around the whys, the hows, and the risks. Unlike a piercing, though, I focused my argument on the fact that a tattoo is permanent. When you are 18, it might be cool. When you are in your 30’s and your kids ask about it, it might not be so cool. When you are in your 60’s and the skin is sagging and the tattoo is distorted, you may wish it weren’t there. I pointed out that Kelly Ripa has a tattoo of a rose on her ankle and every time is comes up, she says how much she regrets it. Katie asked who Kelly Ripa is.
It seems every one of my daughter’s contemporaries has one if not multiple tattoos…every actress, every singer, and most of her friends have been inked. It is de rigueur for this generation. I don’t really get it, but it reminded me of when I begged my parents for a double piercing in one ear. My dad couldn’t understand why one hole in each ear wasn’t sufficient. Truth is, I didn’t really understand either, but I just knew I had to do it. I begged and begged and begged until finally one Saturday, my dad took me to the mall and I got the third hole put in my head. I’m pretty sure the hole was closed up by the following year since I never really liked it. Every once in awhile when I see the tiny scar on my ear, I remember the conviction of my youth…must have ear pierced, must have ear pierced, must have ear pierced. Oh, maybe not.
Katie went ahead with her plan to find the best possible tattoo artist at the best possible tattooing shop. She made her appointment on her actual birthday and began to design her tattoo. I chose not to deal with it secretly hoping she’d change her mind. But, alas, her birthday came and after cake, she left with her friends to start the process. I met her at the shop about a half an hour too late. When I walked in and saw the design covering what looked like her entire torso, I wanted to faint, throw up, and strangle her…all at the same time. Why would she ruin her beautiful body?
“What do you think, Mom?”
“Um..it’s about 500 times larger than I thought you said it would be?”
“Oh, yeah, we decided you could see more detail if it was larger.”
I knew there was no undoing, so I kept my mouth shut. I felt so sad, but I immediately introduced myself to her artist, had him explain everything he was doing, inspected the ink and gun, and then sat next to Katie to rub her back since having a needle jabbed into her skin over 1,000 times a minute was more painful than she planned. My subtext for the next hour were things like: why?, why?, why?, stupid, stupid, stupid.
It dawned on me while I sat there with her watching her tattoo develop, that this tattoo is more than a rite of passage for her, it is a rite of passage for me as well. With an adult child now, I will have to learn how to support her in her decisions, even if those decisions are not the ones I would make for her. I have boundaries and will strongly voice disagreement if I feel a decision she is making will profoundly affect her health, safety, or emotional well-being. But a tattoo? Seems to pale in comparison to decisions that adult children make with regard to their sexuality, an unplanned pregnancy, a marriage, or a career choice. In that tattoo parlor, I realized that my new parenting path with my 18-year old daughter is about accepting her choices since I have never been nor will I ever be a parent that has the “my way or the highway” parenting style.
As she paid, I flipped through a book of tattoo trivia at the shop. I read that Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake tattooed on her wrist. Well, he turned out all right. Maybe my grandchildren won’t be adversely affected by the enormous tattoo on their mother’s side after all.