My Tattooed Teenager

529203_10151779112104947_908926477_nShe’d been asking for years.  My firstborn, with the red hair and creamy skin, wanted a tattoo.  For years she’s been asking.

The child who, if she could, would paint her room a different color every other month.  The child who, if her parents could, would ask them to rearrange the furniture in her room every other week.  The child who, as a pre-teen, declared matter-of-factly, “I require constant change.”  The undeniable implication was, “Is that so wrong?  Is that so difficult?  Why is nobody accommodating me???”

A tattoo.  The most permanent of permanent body alterations.

When she was 14 and 15, it was easy to laugh – “Pffffft!  Over my dead body!”  “You?  The girl who gets tired of a haircut after three hours?”  And my go-to favorite, “If you still want one when you’re older, we’ll talk.”  Well, she was coming up on seventeen, and wanted to talk.

I knew better than to offer a henna tattoo – you know – the kind that isn’t permanent and the design can be different every time!  No, I knew better.  And each time she brought it up, tentatively and unusually respectfully, I pushed her off.  I couldn’t help but admire her persistence, though, with this request.  Normally that sort of thing annoys me – you know, the kid asking over and over for something I’d already said “no” to.

This topic, however?  There was something in the way she asked that told us this was different.

To be clear, she knew Dave (hubs to me/dad to her) and I had no moral objections to tattoos.  I think they can be beautiful if done skillfully and with meaning.  We just had the usual parental anxiety regarding: (1) the permanence,  and (2) the pain involved.  Especially the pain involved in the tattoo she wanted to get.  Birds.  Not a tiny little hummingbird.   She wanted the Paul Reed Smith birds.  Not one or two of the PRS birds.  All nine.  All nine of the birds depicted on her precious PRS guitar – the guitar she saved her money for nearly a year to buy when she was fourteen.


Well, now she was almost seventeen and she really wanted to get this tattoo.  She’d been lobbying hard, though carefully.  She enlisted her friends to convince us.  Friends with tattoos, friends without tattoos, friends whose parents would throw them out of the house if they got a tattoo. She even tried to appeal to my innate desire to score cool mom points by suggesting we get (are you ready for this?) MATCHING tattoos. Fighting the sudden wave of nausea, I weakly suggested we get matching bracelets, instead – I mean, wouldn’t that be nice?  No go.

So, while Dave and I had pretty much accepted the notion that she was going to get a tattoo at some point, I was still hesitant. “I’m not even asking for you to PAY for it for my birthday, I’m just asking for your PERMISSION for my birthday.”  She had been once again, saving her money for something she desperately wanted.  This was not a passing phase, and it’s not like she was getting an Angry Birds tattoo or the latest trendy tribal.  This was special to her, and really represented who she’s been since almost as long as she could remember.

Despite my qualms, however, there was one moment when any and all shreds of resistance disappeared. Interestingly, the moment had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with music.  It had to do with giving her back control of her body.

She’s had thyroid disease since elementary school, and has become a veteran of both regular blood tests and daily medicine-taking.  On top of it, in the last year, she has undergone myriad tests for some weird GI distress and alarming weight loss.  Some were, shall we say, more invasive than others.  But many, many, involved needles, and ultimately she ended up with a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, requiring only medicine and management at this time, thank God.  But more medicine.  And blood tests – more blood tests.  Throughout all of it, ALL of it, she was the most unbelievable trooper.  Taking her medicine, presenting her veins for pinpricks, failed, then repeated blood tests, tests requiring anesthesia, specialized MRIs, ALL of it she handled like an absolute champ.

So, after yet another doctor visit over the summer, we were having breakfast at Jimmy’s.   She was eating her pancakes and looking at me, when she tentatively asked, “Mom?  Have you thought any more about the tattoo?”

I was about to answer with, “WHY, Emma?  WHY?  After all the needles you have stuck in you every couple of months, after the dozens and dozens of tests over the past year, you WANT to have more needles???”

Something suddenly stopped me, and all my tension went away as I came to the following conclusion: after all the poking and prodding she’s uncomplainingly endured in the last year, if she was willing to be stuck with a needle so she could come away with something she actually wanted from the experience, I was not going to stop her.  This girl deserved the tattoo she wanted.  On the Wednesday after her seventeenth birthday, she got it.

I knew I wouldn’t mind the way it looked, but I was surprised at how absolutely beautiful I thought it looked.  It is so her.  I’m so glad we let her do it.  A week or so later, another thought occurred to me.  Had I made her wait until she was eighteen and did not legally need my consent (something we considered,) she would not have needed me to go with her.  She could go without me.  But since she was seventeen, she had no choice.  I had to come along.  Because of that, I was there for something that made her so happy.  Also, because I was there, I was able to slip my hand into hers for her to squeeze when she needed to.

She’s seventeen.  How many more times in her life will she need my hand to squeeze?  Those moments grow fewer and far between as she grows up, and I’m grateful for every single one of them I get.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville PatchKveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice.  Aliza’s piece, Leaving Gender At The Door, earned her a BlogHer 2013 Voices of the Year award.  Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Guitar photo courtesy of Aliza Worthington
Tattoo photo by Leslie F. Miller, with permission
  • Anne Born

    The birds tattoo is really cool, and even though I am not a tattoo guy myself, I know a nice one when I see it. Nice tattoo, nice mom/daughter story too.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thanks, Anne. 🙂 It looks great on her.

  • I love the end. That makes it.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you, Leslie. 🙂

      • In fact, she should’ve gotten the tattoos inlaid with mother of pearl. They can do that now, right? Each one is a little GPS microchip.

  • I applaud your decision. I already have a tattoo, so I know of what I speak. But this also reminded me of the moms who delay their daughters’ getting their ears pierced “until they can care for the piercings themselves”. So bogus. Well in adulthood I’ve had various people help me put in or take out earrings; what makes moms think that at the magic age of 10, or 12 or whatever, suddenly we become earring-independent?

    As for other piercings, when my daughter was 15, she got her eyebrow pierced, my other daugher got her nose pierced, and everyone — meaning their friends and our friends — wanted to know: How could we let them do such a thing? Surprise: Even Grandma commented on how pretty they looked.

    On my eldest’s 18th birthday, she said she wanted a tattoo. I said, OK, I’ll go with you. Then that was the last I heard about it. People get so uptight over this stuff.

    • Aliza Worthington

      I love your entire comment, but I am still laughing over the phrase “earring independent.” 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by, reading, and sharing your experience.

    • There are other reasons mothers wait. My daughter had her ears pierced when she was young. She played basketball, softball, and soccer. The girls aren’t allowed to play with pierced earrings, and since she was in sports all year, it was difficult to find a time when she’d have a break between sports. We got her ears pierced, and in two weeks, she had to take out the earrings for games. We tried hiding them with bandages that matched her skin, but the referees always inspected the girls’ uniforms before games and would always catch us.

      Taking the earrings in and out every week before they were ready hurt her and infected her ears. So we let them close and waited until she decided to be a rock star instead.

      Tattoos are different, though. I have no doubt that Emma will be happy with that for the rest of her life. But in general there’s probably a reason kids should be 18 before they make a decision like that. I can’t tell you the number of times I changed my mind about everything when I was a teenager.

      So—uptight? Not at all. Shouldn’t be the go-to assumption.

    • Marti Teitelbaum

      actually, I don’t think it’s bogus. Having been through it with 3 daughters, I know the piercing takes a bit of care. Our rule of thumb has been age 8. With each of my girls, they knew they could get their ears pierced when they were 8 because I believed in their ability to put the stuff on every day and turn the earrings. Each of them was excited and followed through beautifully. It was not just an ear piercing, it was a rite of passage — they were officially not a little kid anymore.
      I don’t have problems with people who do it other ways, but this worked well for us and had real meaning to all parties involved.

    • Dana

      I did not get my daughter’s ears pierced when she was a baby because I thought that was a mean thing to do to a baby. I can’t remember my mom getting mine done, but I know darned well I was aware of it at the time. We think that because babies can’t remember something later, that it doesn’t matter what we do to them right then. I didn’t want to play into that myth.

      At this point we only haven’t gotten them pierced (and she’s almost nine) because I know how she is about needles and pain. I have been thinking about getting additional piercings in my own ears, though, so I thought maybe when I get the money together (and we go to a real piercer), we could each get our ears done on the same visit, and she could watch me get mine first. We’ll see what happens.

  • Shari A.

    Beautifully written. I always try to watch for the moments when my kids are really asking for me. They never say “I need you” anymore. Instead they are asking in different, more subtle ways, and it can be so easy to miss. I worry about staying close with them without becoming too permissive, or compromising my principles. You’ve given a lovely roadmap, and I promise I may be calling you in the next few years. Middle school is looming, and I am terrified.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thanks, Shari – That is a huge compliment, and I promise you – we’ll get through middle school together. Youngest is not there, yet. 😉

  • After a few years of asking me to pierce her ears, I gave in to my daughter this year. She’s 10. I was worried she would be negligent about taking care of them, but on the contrary, she is very diligent about it and she has shown me a mature side of her I hadn’t seen before. Sometimes you have to let go for them to fly. I commend you on your decision and it sounds like the right one for you both.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Yes, Holly – sometimes – hopefully a few times when it matters – they rise up to surprise us, don’t they? Mine did, in this case…

  • Mary Beth

    I HATE tatoos, but I was love this story — very beautiful. It seems like a really complete parenting journey, though I’m sorry your daughter’s illness had to be part of the journey.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you, Mary Beth – I’m sorry about that part, of course, too. :-/ I’m still so grateful it isn’t life-threatening, and seems to be under control. I know it could be SO much worse.

  • This is beautiful. I feel all your hesitation about saying yes (all the same reasons I would probably give if my daughter asked for a tattoo in her teens), but I admire so much your decision to let her take back control of her body.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you, Tracie! It really became about that more than anything else for me. 🙂

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    This is lovely!
    My older daughter got one when she was about 20 — I had no say, of course, but the only hard time I gave her was that she make sure it was a hygienic place (she did). She got something small and meaningful to her and while I don’t entirely get its meaning, I think it’s just fine. She’s talking about getting another one and that’s fine also.
    But I don’t know if I would have been as sensitive as you were to your daughter’s needs. I think you were absolutely right.
    Now the question is — when will my 13-year-old start in on me about a tattoo?

  • I love this post, thank you.

  • Dana

    Just as an aside, and I’m wondering if Crohn’s is one of those diseases for which everybody likes to give advice, and if it is I apologize but I’m gonna share anyway in case you haven’t heard–

    As I’ve navigated my own health issues, not nearly as severe as your daughter’s but limiting enough (I’m finding I can’t eat wheat because it hates me, which is a total drag, among other issues), I’ve run across stories of people who have put their Crohn’s into remission with diet.

    Three dietary patterns I’ve run across that seem to help are Paleo, Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), and Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS).

    Paleo would take the least amount of work out of the three. All of them are whole-foods based, though, and you can find at least the basic instructions for at least two of them online.

    Obviously, if you try any of them, talk with your daughter’s doctor in case one of these does work and her med dosage needs changing. If you don’t, no big deal, but I know how these things can progress and I thought, “You know, if there’s a chance this can help, I’m a chump if I don’t say anything.”

  • When I was a teenager, I started mentioning these things to my mom, and every time it was the same answer: “You know I never say No to anything, but just this time, please, don’t do that. For me.” Because Jewish mothers are very good at the passive aggressive thing.

    She said it when I mentioned a tattoo, and when I mentioned earrings, and when I mentioned a motorcycle. In the end, teenagers push themselves as far as they can, and it’s up to the parent to know when to step in and when to trust their kids to find their own limits. For me, none of my choices had anything to do with my mom. I decided not to get a tattoo because I was scared. And I decided to get a motorcycle license, but then decided to drop it after I failed the driving test (because I was delivering documents around the city, and saw motorcycle accidents every day), and I decided to get two earrings. My mom objected to all of these things, but she was smart enough to know she couldn’t stop me.

    And your daughter’s tattoos are beautiful, by the way.

  • I have four tattoos, and I’m getting another, so you probably can’t take anything I’m saying seriously. 🙂

    My 18 year old daughter wanted a tattoo for a long time. She begged and pleaded, and my mom said that I should, of course, say NO.

    We went together and she got an infinity sign that covers the top third of her back – and it’s made up of the names of all eight family members. It’s really beautiful, very meaningful – and it’s what she wanted.

    Applause to you for being an open minded mom – and thinking of what is the best thing for your daughter. So many mothers would worry more about what the neighbors would say.

  • Candace Karu

    Your post really resonated with me. As the mother of a daughter with life-long chronic health problems (and a tattooed mom at that). I took my daughter to get her first (yes, first) tattoo when she was 17. You articulated our own experience beautifully. Love to you and your gorgeous girl, whose ink is beautiful beyond description!

  • I have always said the only time the kids can get a tattoo is when they are 18 and can pay for it themselves. We have no moral objections (my wife has two of her own) but we just want to make sure that they make a mature decision on something that will affect them the rest of their lives.

    If my daughter is as mature about it as yours then I would probably have no choice but to allow it.

  • Amy

    As a multi-tattoed and pierced parent (my daughter even knows about THAT piercing. Yes, that one) this is a question I thought I would face. When my children asks questions, I try to be honest and and open, no different when it comes to tattoos. The pain, the permanence, other people’s reactions, meanings, etc and etc. are things I try to make her conscious of.

    She’s 14 now, and I know she’s thought about it. When she gets older, I hope I put as much thought and love into my answer as you did yours.

    Well done.

  • Tallmom

    Did anyone ever test your daughter for celiac? Undiagnosed celiac can cause
    thyroid issues (usually ‘hypo’), GI distress, and is often diagnosed as Crohns.
    Oddly, there is research that suggests that red-haired light-skinned women
    have this disease in higher proportion than others. We know this territory and
    my red-haired, light-skinned, hypothyroid daughter is now completely off medication
    due to gluten-free diet. Never saw a prettier tattoo, by the way….

  • maryg

    Thanks for putting parenting decisions in a whole new light. I have a 15 year old son who seems to know what he wants however I do try to steer him away from decisions that are final. Right now he is wanting to ‘gauge’ his ear.
    Your daughter seems to be on the right track probably because of the loving support you have given her.

  • On January 16th, 2009, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, after months of fatigue, weakness, being anemic, and blaming it all on adjusting to dining hall food my first semester of college.

    On January 17th, exactly one week before my 19th birthday, I performed my first ever “act of defiance” and got my cartilage pierced.

    The piercing wasn’t about defiance, recklessness, or impromptu decisions; it was about reclaiming the body I had inexplicably lost control of. In that moment, that piercing seemed like the only part of my body I had any control of.

    Kudos to you for being the mother your daughter needed, no matter how difficult it was at first. Here’s to hoping your daughter continues to have good health!

  • Corina

    I love this story and the tattoo is gorgeous. It completely puts the decision making process on things like this in a new light.

  • Renee

    Sometimes, it’s really difficult when your children want to make decisions that you would definitely not agree with. However, we bring them into the world with the hope that they will be able to make strong, solid decisions with the reasoning tools that we hope we have given to them. Like the birds that are now on Emma’s back, we have to let our children fly. I think the best thing you could have done was to make sure that you knew that the tattoo wouldn’t create any problems with her current health issues and then research reputable tattoo parlors that are safe. You know your children better than any one else and even though your daughter believes in constant change, such as hair do’s, room color, room furniture arrangement, I think you knew you had to respect her wishes when her desire for a tattoo stayed constant for so long. When she is forty years old, almost everyone her age will be sporting a tattoo also, just like all of us who had our ears pierced. Tastefully done, she brings her message on as body art.

  • Elissa

    And here I thought I was so cool by letting my teenage daughter get a double piercing! I clearly have a ways to go!! Great ending…just perfect.

  • Priscilla

    What a beautiful story of what sounds like an amazing mother/daughter relationship. And the tattoo is simply beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

  • My 2nd daughter is now 20 and got her first tattoo when she was 17 with my permission. She got it at the same time as her bff who was also 17. She had to save the money to pay for it. My one condition was that she wasn’t allowed to get it on her wrist. I felt very strongly that down the road she might regret having a tattoo there depending on where she ended up working. She got a large tattoo on the side of her calf. Since then she’s gotten 2 tattoos on her feet. I’m still fine with our decision because it wasn’t reached lightly and I knew it wasn’t just a whim. And let me say, I’m an extremely conservative mom. My kids…all 4 of them are amazing and like any important decisions, we’ll talk them through.

  • Susan

    Aliza I loved this! I don’t generally like tattoos either and I would have also been reluctant, but I love the way you handled it and the respect you gave to your daughters personality and passion. That’s what we parents are supposed to do — give our children wings. (And you did that both figuratively and literally) 🙂

    I hope I’m not being too intrusive here, but just in case my experience can help . . I did have a thought reading this. . . . we have similar ailments in our family –albeit not so severe. It took me 15 years to get a diagnosis, and both our kids are affected as well with autoimmune thyroid disease and gut issues, as well as some other symptoms. In our case it was gluten sensitivity (standard tests for Celiac often come back false negative as they only test for the end stages of damage). These problems alleviated for us after changing our diet (we all ended up grain/dairy/soy free after some food testing), but most doctors are not aware of the connection as the research is very new. It might be worth to look into food sensitivities if you haven’t already. I’m happy to tell you our story and/or give you some of my favorite resources if you’re interested

  • The tattoo looks nice. I got my first tattoo when i was 19 and my mom was really against it. Fast forward to today and she doesn’t even care, in fact she wants one now.

  • Speaking of needles, she should really add acupuncture to her regimen for her Crohn’s. It can really help.

  • Joan Haskins

    I think I would feel exactly as you did… “Why Julia, why?”
    But I too, respect my daughter as a person, as an intelligent, sensitive, artistic person.
    Separate from me, but forever connected….
    Loved this.

  • Thank you for this.

  • Sue

    Your lines at the end, “How many more times in her life will she need my hand to squeeze? Those moments grow fewer and far between as she grows up, and I’m grateful for every single one of them I get,” brought tears to my eyes. Cliche as it is, our time with them is so fleeting, we need to treasure that. I commend you for supporting her in something so important to her.

  • I was the tattooed teenager all those years ago! I loved this article so so much and am going to forward it to my own mom…and thank her for not “judging” me or making life so black or so white that there was no room to be me. 🙂

  • Tracey

    I know I am tardy to this party, but thank you for this story. My oldest son has been wanting a tattoo for a long time, too and we always told him to wait until he was 18. Well, he turns 18 in 10 days and he still wants it. I also have no moral objections to them at all so I have no real reason to tell him no. I guess I have been worrying about people judging my parenting but he should take priority over those ninnies. Thanks again!

    • Aliza Worthington

      Oh, that’s so sweet! I’m happy her story helps you feel better about your kiddo! Judgy people? Ignore ’em. Tell ’em I back you up on that. 🙂

  • My mom is allowing me to get one this February, I recently turned 16. After many years of waiting Im finally getting one. I have been told I am going to hell, been shamed by my christian grandparents * i am also a christian* and had many adults tell me i am too young, I’m getting something stupid… my tattoo means something to me. It will be on my wrist and say Dreamer, though the D will be part of a dream catcher with a few feathers. Here is my meaning; I dream big, I have always dreamed, and no one should tell you how to live your dream. And the feathers symbolize the bird, which symbolizes freedom and freedom means doing something you enjoy without anyone telling you otherwise! I have am an artist, I dream to one day inspire people with my art and to become a theatre actress or tv show actress seeing as how I have been told I am good and I love it. Now I have not experienced bad pain, like breaking a arm or something, and I know many people will look down upon me for my choice but that will not sway me from getting a tattoo..

    • Aliza Worthington

      Hi, December – good for you! Thank you so much for commenting – I love the meaning behind your tattoo, and I also love that your mom is allowing it. Don’t worry about people who look down on you for it – times and attitudes are changing faster than you realize about things like tattoos and self-expression. Keep dreaming big! xoxo – Aliza

  • Marie

    I just happened upon this article because I was looking up tattoo related things. i’m 17, and I am getting my first tattoo next week. I’ve wanted one for so long, and my parents finally agree that I have “earned” it. I have struggled with Anorexia and purging for almost as long as I can remember. (7th grade…so 11 years old?) I have been in treatment, residential and otherwise, multiple times. I missed 3 month of my Junior year in treatment 6 hours away from home because I was so close to death. I missed my prom. I missed the entire summer after my junior year in residential treatment 8 hours away. And closer to the beginning of my senior year, I was very close to being sent back for losing 12 lbs in less than 2 weeks…but I found my will to live. I found my confidence. I finally see value in myself and I love my body because it’s the only one i will ever have. I fill out my size 2 prom dress and 6 months ago that would have absolutely destroyed me…but I feel beautiful in it. Some days are still hard, but there are more good days than bad days. Thank God for that. My tattoo is going to say “It has been a beautiful fight. Still is.” as a reminder for me to never give up. As a reminder to keep fighting. I am so excited to have that permanently on my body, so that I can read it every morning and every night. Life is hard sometimes, but we can’t give up. <3

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