A family court judge once told me a harrowing story about a situation he had seen in his courtroom. A warring father and mother had hauled their teenage daughter and her tattoo artist into court, hoping to resolve a grim dispute. Their daughter had tattooed "I hate Dad" on herself, and the father was furious. He blamed the mother, who claimed she had not put the child up to it. When the tattoo artist was asked by the judge why he would put these words on any young person's body in indelible ink, he shrugged, saying, "I dunno. It's my job." I found myself wondering how the climate in a family -- even after a divorce -- could become so poisoned that a young woman would denounce a parent by defacing her own body?
A few months after hearing that story, my daughter and I were walking to a yoga class, mats slung over our shoulders, when she slid into the conversation that she wanted to tell me something and could I please, please be quiet and hear her out?. That preamble is rarely a good beginning to a conversation with my kids, and it often leads to a disclosure they know I'm going to struggle with. I tensed; she had my attention. My daughter was on the cusp of turning 18 and had been counting down every day until her birthday. I knew where this was going: we were heading directly toward the tattoo conversation.
We'd visited the subject a few times. She wanted a tattoo and I was opposed. She first floated the idea when she was about thirteen, around the time her cousins began adorning themselves, and I had said no, no way. I didn't care that a recent poll indicated that more than 30 percent of young adults have inked themselves and experts have opined that tattoos are used to mark times of transition or key life events. I may be out of sync with an entire generation, but I deeply distrust the permanence of marking one's skin, and I did not want tattoos on my daughter's body. She persisted, however. Her father and I stalled for time by saying that maybe she could get one when she was eighteen, but not a minute before. And now, here we were.
She asked me if I remembered the story about her brother's friend, whose parents had split up and who'd had a tattoo of two house keys inked onto his arm -- one for his mother's house and one for his father's? I did. It had seemed like a poignant gesture, an emblem of the life of a kid of divorce.
My daughter's father and I have been separated for seven years, but we still live together. When we split up, we wanted to continue to co-parent our children under one roof and decided to buy a house together with two apartments, one for him and one for me. The arrangement has served us well -- he and I remain good friends, and our kids are grown now and doing just fine.
So, she explained, her idea was to have only one key tattooed onto her arm "to symbolize what you and dad have done for us by staying in the same house and keeping the family together." I had to give her credit for marketing the idea perfectly. She explained that she would choose a discreet location on her body. "Only I need to see it, Mum. I'll know it's there." My resolve dissolved and in the end, her father, who's an artist, did the drawing of the key and I helped her find a tattoo artist. On T-Day, all three of us attended her appointment.
Thinking back to the Judge's story, I found myself wondering what drove that teenager to tattoo "I hate Dad" on her body. How much anger had been spilled between her parents, forcing the child to deal with very grown up issues beyond her control?
Divorce profoundly affects children, imposing itself on their lives, but they are hardly enfranchised. They get towed along behind their parents, who can forget to put their children's needs ahead of their own pain. That spiteful tattoo was an indelible illustration of the impact of one generation's marital actions on the lives of the next generation. Now that my daughter has made her own statement, I hope that she carries it as a visible "call-out" for what can be possible.
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