By Robin Galguerat
It’s a gorgeous mid-winter day in Northern California. Recent rains have turned the hills into apple-green velvet and washed the roads clean of broken glass and gravel. I find myself yearning to ride my motorcycle; instead, I’m lumbering up the hill in my Volvo station wagon, a.k.a. the Mommymobile, my boy in the backseat happily singing “Baby Beluga” from the safety of his securely fastened booster seat.
People generally seem to have trouble with the words “mom” and “motorcycle” in the same sentence. Why in the world would I want to jeopardize my life just to ride a stupid motorcycle? How could I be so selfish, so unconcerned about my own safety, or its consequences for my nearly-five-year-old son? Move over, Sir Edmund Hillary.
I began riding about seven years ago, long before I had a child, and even then, folks had problems with a woman riding a bike. “You mean a scooter?” or “What kind of motorcycle is that? Wow. That’s a big bike for you.” Yeah, well, I don’t have to carry it, I just have to ride it. Why is it that no one makes the same sexist, snide remarks to the suburban housewives driving those behemoth SUVs that make my Volvo look wimpy? Certainly that’s more engine than they really need.
When I bought the bike, my grandmother, an amazing women, had just died a horrible Alzheimer’s death at the age of ninety-four. I suppose I needed to celebrate her life somehow, and for reasons unclear to just about everyone but myself, I decided that a used Japanese motorbike would be just the thing. My parents thought I’d finally gone round the bend. My husband was stunned but thrilled, given that he’d crashed his own Suzuki ten years earlier, nearly died, and had been clamoring for another motorcycle.
At about the time I decided I wanted a bike, my husband had a fender-bender in his already trashed car. When the insurance check came, I teasingly said, “Well, we could do the grown-up thing and get the car fixed . . . or we could buy a bike.” Next thing I knew, we were in San Francisco handing over $1,200 in cash to a paranoid cocaine addict in exchange for a Kawasaki GPz 550.
In the first six weeks of owning a motorcycle, I dropped it–all four hundred pounds of it–on both ankles, had x-rays, limped a lot, and felt like a real bikerwoman. It was grand. I learned all of the pertinent lingo so I could hold my own in the bull sessions that are de rigeur among the biker crowd. I became intoxicated with the heady perfume of gas and grease, and was soon able to talk cam shafts and swing arms with the best of them.
I loved the attention I got every time I rolled up to a stop sign, my long braid sticking out of an obnoxiously bright helmet. Other women stared and either silently applauded or shot me that “humph” of disapproval, as though I were a traitor to my entire gender. Men, on the other hand, just stared. I once yelled at a guy in a Honda Civic, over the din of my after-market exhaust pipe, “What? You’ve never seen a woman on a bike? Get over it!” Me, the same woman who was painfully shy, the family peacemaker. After thirty-two years, I was choosing to do something on my own terms. Finally. It was, well . . . empowering.
Then I got pregnant. I rode a little, but I was so dizzy it didn’t seem wise. And the looks from my neighbors, though I am loathe to admit it, kept me from rollin’ on down the highway. How could I possibly risk harming my unborn child? Wasn’t it against the law? Nine months later, I had a son, swollen breasts, and hips that refused to fit under my leather jacket. I seriously thought about selling my Kawi, buying a jogger stroller, and leaving that nutty part of my life in the dim, pre-child past. My motorbike high jinks would make for a funny story to tell the grandkids someday.
Once my son grew a bit and didn’t need to be nursed every two seconds, I saw an opportunity to reclaim parts of myself that I’d thought were gone for good. I had been through a major redefinition; I felt as though I’d been mourning those moments of intense exhilaration and fear when I’d twisted the throttle wide open and felt that hunk of metal beneath me accelerate like nobody’s business. But, oh brother! You think I got disapproving looks before? No one could understand my desire to accept risk, to look at it head-on and say, “All right. I know this could kill me, but I need to do it anyway.” My mother screwed up her courage and said, in the most polite, Donna Reed kind of way, “Just remember . . . If you kill yourself on that thing, your dad and I are going to have to raise the baby and, honey, we’re too old!”
A few days later, I was cruising up a sweeping boulevard to one of my favorite stretches of road that snakes along a creek and through a redwood canyon. As I leaned into the turn, I realized rather suddenly that the chick in the Acura in the lane next to me, while chatting and making hand gestures to her friend, could easily have changed lanes, smashed the hell out of me, and left my son motherless. I rode to the top of the hill, pulled over, called my husband on my cell phone, and made him come fetch me.
I felt utterly defeated, as though I’d given in to what this culture expects of me. Motorcycles are for tattooed, beer-swilling Hells Angels and man-boys with too much disposable income–not for stay-at-home thirtysomething mothers of toddlers. I had finally come to my senses. “Thank goodness! Now, let me show you our new line of frumpy, hausfrau-wear,” said one gloating inner voice.
So, it’s prime riding season here in northern California, and my old Kawi is gathering dust in the garage. The other day, I overheard my husband talking with our son. He said, “Oh, that’s a photo of Mommy when she was a biker chick.” Made me want to cry and scream and break stuff. Yes, I am a mother. Yes, I ride a motorcycle. And I really want to know why men don’t have to struggle with these overwhelming feelings of guilt regarding the acceptance and taking of risks. Sure, there are always those ads for used bikes in the paper that say, “Getting Married, Wife Says No,” or “New Dad Must Sell Ducati, Buy Minivan,” but that’s just one more way to make women bear the blame. If Suzie Q can’t settle with your desire to ride, don’t marry her!
I’ll put up with puttering along in the Mommymobile for the time being, sure, but you wait. Someday, I’m going to get back on that beautiful charcoal gray motorbike and ride. Anyway, you know what they say about girls and horses? Try 50-plus horses thundering at 5,000 rpms. Utter bliss.
Brain, Child (Fall 2002)
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