A few weeks ago, I saw a photo posted on Facebook of a mother's freshly inked tattoos. On each inner forearm were the names of her twins. The flesh was still swollen, the ink bright and pushing up against the surface of her skin while the image settled in. How sweet, I thought. What a beautiful expression of that fierce unstoppable parenting impulse, another way to literally incorporate your kids into your very being and further proclaim your identity as a parent and love for your children.
But the internal conversation shifted. Wait a minute. I have tattoos. I've had them for years. I've had kids for a while now, too. And yet I've never thought of getting a tattoo that pays tribute to my two boys -- by name, symbol or otherwise.
Should I feel bad about this? Leave it to me to uncover yet another category of parenting insecurity. Along with significant others -- which frankly can be a far riskier, bolder leap of faith -- the kid-themed tattoo is a significant body art genre. I'd guess that for a lot of adults, having kids became a tattoo gateway drug. Maybe some of them get a name or birthday inked, and stop there. For some others it's just the beginning of a long, beautiful and perhaps complicated friendship with their local body art parlor.
Mommy tattoos would seem such an obvious thing for both me and my identical twin sister, who is more tattoed than I am. But she's not into the kid tattoo thing either. So what's wrong with us? We're both moms who already have tattoos, but don't have any tattoos about our kids. Is this a bizarre form of selfishness? We both got over the fear of that needle a long time ago. So shouldn't our bodies, which gave life to our children, creatively mark that transition since we're already familiar with the pain of both childbirth and tattooing? After all, the latter type of modification is much prettier than stretch marks.
The emotional reasoning, as it so happens with a lot of matters related to children and parenting, has to do with my father. Save for his extremities and head and face, he's heavily inked. But it wasn't always this way. Not until he was in his late 40s did he ever consider tattoos. Being teenage girls who were a little closer to certain aspects of the zeitgeist than he was (although in general, my dad was and will always be way cooler than we are), the task fell to us to find him a tattoo artist when he expressed interest. What was then an unconventional Dad's First Tattoo outing in the early 1990s became a close relationship with Jill, the amazingly talented woman who would become the de facto family tattoo artist and friend.
In the months that followed, my sister got her first tattoo, and during my sophomore year I returned to college from spring break with a decently sized (much larger than I initially planned), monochrome Art Nouveau-style image on my back. This was after months of mulling over a design that I initially found when flipping through a book about a Belgian architect pulled off the shelf of the art history library stacks. Jill and I spent a few weeks discussing specifics. I was never one for spontaneous, wasted-at-Daytona-Beach kind of spring break rituals anyway. My tattoo obliquely references being an identical twin, which is the closest to a family-themed piece any of us has.
I stopped at two tattoos and my sister got a few more, but our dad kept going. And going. I'd heard about how tattoos can be addictive, and he certainly proved that theory. He and Jill forged a bond, thanks to her brilliant ability to translate his love of modern art and jazz music -- and his idiosyncratic sense of style -- into art of the flesh. Not everyone would know how to use a bald middle-aged Jewish writer as a canvas, but in a sense Jill came to know my father better than some of his longtime friends and family members ever could. His arms and legs paid homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Stuart Davis and Bebop. We even posed for a family tattoo photo to accompany an essay he wrote as an introduction to a Rolling Stone book about musicians and tattoos, which, in retrospect, sounds quaint. Rare now is the popular culture icon who doesn't flash some ink.
Yet despite a series of permanent visual salutes to strangers who have inspired my father over the years, none of the members of his nuclear family -- not me, my sister nor our mother -- have made the cut. No "Mom" in Sailor-Jerry-style font and bulging cartoonish hearts for him, clearly.
And that's fine with me. I have absolutely no desire to be a part of my dad's complex composition of tattoos that he and Jill have assembled over the years. This topic has never even entered into our conversation. We're very close, but I don't need to see my name, birthday, or astrological sign on his arm to confirm that his family matters most to him. Had his tattoo habit started when I was a baby, maybe I'd be a little resentful or feel passed over in favor of people he doesn't even personally know. Plus physical closeness, which a tattoo can be an extension of, is a dynamic of the parent-child relationship that's most intensely experienced when children are very young. But by the time I was a teenager, if someone were to jump to the conclusion that he loved abstract expressionism and Duke Ellington more than his own family based on his body art, I could deal.
The fact that I've never equated tattoos with parental love or acceptance explains why I haven't felt the need to mark my two children on my body in this fashion. (They've already done that in other ways, thank you very much.) Nor do I have any less respect or admiration for parents who do decide to honor their kids in ink.
Which isn't to say I won't change my mind. I'm old and wise (hopefully) enough to understand why it's best to delay any major tattoo decision-making. Maybe someday my kids will be drawing on their arms and I won't be able to stand the guilt when they ask if any of my tattoos are for them. Or I'll see a star chart of the days they were born, and decide to see if Jill can get creative with that. Perhaps I'll decide simple, elegant sets of initials on my upper right arm would be tasteful and complement what's already been on my left shoulder and back for over a decade. But considering my older son's initials spell "J.E.R.M.," that probably won't happen.