My mother has an incredible talent with language and speaks, besides English, excellent Dutch, good French and German, passable Danish, and a tiny bit of Spanish, Russian and Hebrew. But she is most fluent in swearing.
Because of this, I suspect my foul mouth is coded in my DNA. Creative compound swears can be a lot of fun, but I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love a casually dropped F bomb. And I’m pretty sure my favorite word is shit.
When I was in 3rd grade, I was once briefly kept after school because, after an in-class birthday celebration, I was dawdling to the bus while sweeping up chocolate cupcake crumbs. My teacher said, “Hurry, Elizabeth — you’re going to miss your bus.”
Hang on, I said. I have to clean up all this crap.
“Oh, Elizabeth,” Mrs. Battley said. “Can’t you think of a better word than that?”
I have to clean all this shit up, I said.
When the vice principal called my mom and told her, Mom said, “Fuck.”
I was mortified! And many times since then, I was embarrassed by mom’s mouth, and my inability to avoid sounding like her.
Less than 20 years after this, I had two little kids of my own. My son is a man of few words, but my daughter seems to have inherited her Oma’s flair for language. I made a real effort to be a certain kind of mom. Structure and play, adventure and quiet time, all in balance, plus healthy organic food as much as possible. And I tried to play nice with the other moms while they played nice with the kids, so no cussing from me. It was hard! It required constant vigilance, and near-total abstention from alcohol. It was a real struggle to be me in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in the South, but I thought I did all right.
One weekend, when they were 2 and 3 years old, they stayed with their other grandmother, who does not share my conviction that kids shouldn’t be stuffed with garbage. She bought their silence with Froot Loops, and sent them home with the leftovers. We powered through them quickly, since I didn’t want the kids to get used to sugary cereal.
A few days later, the endless supply of Froot Loops was gone and we went back to Gorilla Munch, or whatever crunchy granola we were into. My son shrugged off the loss. But my daughter looked at her bowl, looked at me, looked at her bowl, and looked back at me.
“What the fuck, Mommy?” she asked.
Just like looking in a mirror.
The foul mouth is here to stay, and it has been passed along to the next generation. Like it or not.