The first time I was mistaken for my husband's mother, it was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. I was 43, Mike was 42, and we were stranded at the Atlanta airport trying to make a connection to Savannah on a stormy night. Flights had been cancelled, passengers bumped, and hotel rooms all booked up when a U.S. Air pilot offered to help us secure a room for the night at an airport hotel. We gladly accepted.
"I need a room for a mother and her son," she told her contact.
"That's husband and wife," I corrected as I smiled at Mike. Of course, there was a reasonable explanation for the mix-up—having just flown in from Turkey, the pilot was bleary-eyed. It was midnight in Atlanta, and 7 a.m. in Istanbul. No big deal. No offense taken.
Several months later, it happened again, with someone whose circadian rhythms did not seem so off kilter. At the time, we were attending a friend's luncheon when an acquaintance, after pointing to Mike and my boys (Zach, then 14, and Alex, then 13) said, "These must be your three sons." Though I felt worse for her than I did for myself, I was no longer laughing. I was older than Mike by 10 months and 21 days, hardly enough to account for the quarter century or so that she—and many others since—seemed to suspect was between us.
Throughout my 40s (I'm now 46; he's 45), being mistaken for Mike's mother has happened with growing frequency—at the Towson Town Center, a friend's backyard, the emergency room of St. Joseph Medical Center, and on numerous college campuses. (Most recently someone helpfully offered to show Mike to his dorm at Rhode Island School of Design—we were there to drop off Zachary for a summer program.)
As I continue to age, Mike seems to move in retrograde motion, and despite this happy marriage of 22 years, I am left feeling like we have, quite literally, grown apart. It goes without saying that when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released, I thought it was the story of our life together.
Most men in midlife have nasal folds, a few gray hairs, a thickening middle, and a wardrobe of outdated khakis. Through the years, my husband, with his long, lustrous brown hair, smooth skin, and serious sense of style has been mistaken for Keanu Reeves, Noah Wyle, Ron Reagan Jr.—even the fictional gay Austrian fashion designer Brüno. When people learn that he is an orthopedic surgeon, it only adds to the mystique. (And just to be clear: If I hear one more Doogie Howser, M.D., crack, I'm going to hurl.)
Not everything can be chalked up to genetics (though I hear there's some eternally youthful Uncle Maury who is partly to blame). Mike knows he looks young—and he cultivates it. He started aging in reverse earnestly in 2003 during the first season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which he watched with complete rapture. There was a subtle shift in the way he dressed until one day, after a quick inventory of his closet, I realized I was married to a full-blown metrosexual with two pairs of Pliners, Diesel jeans, Lululemon yoga pants, and Me & Ro jewelry (not to mention the phone numbers of our stylish gay South Beach friends John and Joel on speed dial). It was clear: Mike had no intention of growing old gracefully.
Mike and I fell in love our freshman year at The University of Pennsylvania. I was a cute redhead, so petite I was able to wear a white pillowcase as a dress for my Halloween Cupid costume. On my way home from a party, I tripped over a campus statue of Benjamin Franklin and inadvertently flashed my diaphanous heart underwear in Mike's direction. He and I looked at each other and laughed, as Cupid took aim with his arrow. Twenty-eight years and three children later (including 12-year-old daughter, Sophia), the arrow still sticks. On our wedding anniversary this year, Mike wrote, "I couldn't love you more." The feeling is mutual—though now some of my public displays of affection can be calculated. While out on the town, I hold his hand and whisper sweet nothings in his ear just to make it perfectly clear to all that we don't just love each other, we are in love. My friends reassure me. "It's not about how you look, it's about how he looks."
"Still," I say, "from now on, I'm telling everyone, I have no sons, only daughters."
Even with my new plan in place, I make an appointment with Dean Krapf of Towson's Lluminaire Salon, who is known to be the best in the business. I ask him for foolproof tips on how to look younger while wielding Mike's photo. ("He does have a baby face," admits Krapf.) Krapf's recommendations seem surprisingly simple. "Create vibrancy by darkening the brow, deepening the color of your hair, and adding a second coat of mascara on the top lash," Krapf says. In addition, he says, "You need a good trim. When you bring the hair up, you create a lift, and call attention to your eyes, where there's more life than on the rest of the face." Within 24 hours, I am in his chair getting shorn and investing in a new tube of Maybelline Great Lash mascara.
That night, in a celebratory mood after my makeover, Mike and I are in Cape May, NJ, sitting in a bar and ready to order martinis when the bartender asks for ID. Feeling newly confident, I say, "You're talking to me, right?"
"No," she says, pointing to Mike, "I was talking to him."
There was a time when Mike might have lovingly made a joke or called me "Mama," but he knows better now. He brushes it off, shows his ID, and placates me with a kiss.
The next week, I decide to explore more invasive options with plastic surgeon Adam Basner who is known in the community for his way with a blade. As a fan of FX's Nip/Tuck, I assume that Dr. Basner will suggest something draconian—maybe a full-face transplant like Nicolas Cage endured in Face/Off. (Kate Beckinsale's face will do fine, thank you very much, good doctor.) While sitting in the waiting room, I page through a Glamour magazine. By chance, I flip to a feature entitled, "I'm Older, You're Younger, Who Cares?" Examples of May-September romances such as Demi Moore, 46, and Ashton Kutcher, 31; Mira Sorvino, 42, and Christopher Backus, 28; Madonna, 51, and Jesus Luz, 22; Mariah Carey, 39, and Nick Cannon, 28, are splashed across the pages. The photo feature irritates me. These female celebrities can toss off age as just a number because, thanks to a serious beauty routine that probably includes every available elixir and a plastic surgeon on constant call, they have never been confused for their mate's mother.
While sitting in the waiting room, it occurs to me that there is a name for women who marry older men (trophy wives) and a name for women who date or marry younger men (cougars), but where is the word in the English language for women who are repeatedly mistaken for their husband's mother? Here's one: vulnerable (not to mention insecure, aggravated, and dejected).
"Tell me what bothers you," Dr. Basner says sympathetically as he hands me a mirror. I point to my serious set of crow's-feet, the furrows across my forehead, the deep crevice between my brows. Unexpectedly, I am on the verge of tears. While I am ostensibly here because I am writing this story, that's not the whole story.
Even without Mike or this essay, I am in search of a younger self, the self that I am on the inside but don't see when I look in the mirror.
"What is the most common age for people to get plastic surgery?" I ask him.
"The time to do it is when you look in the mirror and see something that bothers you," he says. "For some people, that's never, others will look in the mirror and say, 'The person I see in the mirror is not who I feel inside.'"
"That's me," I tell him. Dr. Basner examines my face.
"Botox would make the single biggest difference in you," he says. "I can give you a free sample."
"Right now?" I ask.
"Right now," he responds.
Next thing I know, I am lying down on a gray exam table getting injected with Dysport—a newly FDA-approved injectable that is faster acting and less costly than Botox. After Dr. Basner sticks a series of tiny, practically painless needles into my problem areas, he tells me that I should see results in four days. With gauze, he dabs small specks of blood caused by the injection, and sends me on my way.
In the ensuing days, I study my own reflection obsessively. On day one, I have a bit of a black eye where the skin is thinnest as well as a small bruise at the top of my forehead. By day two, my skin draws tightly across the top of my face and moving my forehead becomes more difficult, but there is no discernable difference. By day three, the lines in my forehead begin to become less pronounced, and by day four, as the crow's-feet fade, I believe in miracles. To others, the differences might seem imperceptible. To me, I look like a better version of myself. By day five, the epiphany comes. Instead of being ashamed of my vanity, I decide to embrace it. After all, isn't wanting to look my best an urge so primal that it's downright Darwinian? (Survival of the fittest face?)
Now that I've done all I can externally, I make a pact with myself to internalize what I have always told my daughter Sophia: "Time to tend to the inside. The outside is only temporary." These aren't just platitudes. I believe them to be true, and it's time to start practicing what I preach. It's time to stop worrying about fighting free radicals and the aging effects of pillow pressure on the face. Time to stop dimming the lights and to look at these lines (there are still plenty to work with) like the bands of an old tree—as things that carry gravitas.
Though Mike has always told me I'm beautiful, he has also told me I need to accept what I can't change (while secretly coaching the kids not to tell me when, in my absence, he is mistaken for their older brother). "I don't think you know how much it hurts me when it happens," I told him recently. But after my visit to Dr. Basner, even Mike is forced to admit that the Dysport has made a difference. "It really does look better," he says. "The lines have softened."
To say that I have found self-acceptance with a middle-aged me would be a laughable lie. But lately, I have made a little headway. That young woman with the lithe body that once fit inside a pillow case has left the building, but a new wiser woman stands in her place—one who, thanks to her hair stylist, a plastic surgeon, and a little self reflection about her own reflection, is imbued with new spring in her step, more light, more life. I'm older. You look younger. Who cares?