On Mothering Grown Women Before They’re Grown

My girls have a good dad, no doubt about it. He teaches them how to throw the Aerobie and ask good questions. He sits cross-legged on the rug to build LEGO police-station-chemistry-lab-recording-studio-princess-schools according to request. He turns up the Dropkick Murphys loud when Sophie’s in the car and gives Natalie special computer programming assignments (pretty much everything about our girls’ personalities can be summed up in this sentence). He knows what makes them tick, and he encourages streaks of independence that I’d never even noticed. He fosters their creativity, respects their privacy, and displays their construction pencil holders in his office. All girls should be so lucky.

My girls have a good mom too. The Law of Self-Deprecation says I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s the truth, and I know it. I tie three sets of aprons and show the girls how to measure and whisk and roll cookie dough in cinnamon sugar. I instigate Jamiroquai dance parties in the living room, tickle-chase escaping fugitives, and read Roald Dahl aloud before bed. I teach Natalie about story arcs and Sophie about “c-a-t,” and I tell them they’re beautiful every single day. Dan and I aren’t perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but our girls know we love them and like them and want them around. We’re doing a few somethings right.

But there is one aspect of parenting girls in particular that moves me to contemplate tequila as a valid breakfast option. For all the positive things Dan and I are teaching our girls about themselves through our attention and encouragement, I am also teaching the girls about themselves by how I treat myself, and I can tell you, the message coming across from me to me is rarely of the positive variety.

While it’s easy for me to focus on the features that make my girls inside-and-out beautiful—Natalie’s midnight blue eyes, Sophie’s whole-body smile, the glimmers of kindness and joy that light each of their demeanors like a personal aurora borealis—my filters tune to the negative when I look at myself. I only notice the stray eyebrow hairs, the unflattering curves, the tired slump of my shoulders, the frustration that flares up like lava bursts. I don’t see anything worth celebrating or encouraging in myself, and this would feel pious and admirably ascetic if not for the fact that my girls are absorbing my brand of womanhood like sponges.

Their eyes go round as they watch me sweep on my mascara, and I remember that same combination of curiosity and awe from my own girlhood while I watched my mother dab on moisturizer and replace it in the mystical realm of grown-up toiletries under the sink. The secrets to my future self lived under that sink. Tucked among the perfume bottles and tampons, womanhood whispered to me about beauty and strength and sensuality and fragility, and it had my mother’s voice.

Now it has mine.

In the contours of my figure, my daughters glimpse the trajectory of their own bodies. In my speech, they catch inflections and sayings that will one day trip off their own mama-tongues. Each of my habits is a clue to their own approaching adulthood, each of my mannerisms a point on the map, and like it or not, I’m their first lesson about how to be a woman. Good God in heaven.

I never anticipated mothering grown women before my oldest finished second grade, but here we are on this express route to the future, and when I seethe with impatience over my own limitations, I’m teaching my adult daughters that they don’t deserve grace, and when I mutter into the mirror about my physical imperfections, I’m telling these one-day women that they are not beautiful just as they are, and when I ignore my own needs to the point of burnout, I’m showing them that self-care is not a priority. My soliloquies are their screenplays, and the implications knock the breath right out of me.

I feel like this shouldn’t be such a big deal. The solution is as simple as treating myself the way I want my girls to be treated—with gentleness, compassion, joy, and the occasional spoonful of Nutella. Everybody wins, right? Except that I’m me, so nothing is ever that simple, and the reality is that I’m far more comfortable with self-deprecation than I am with self-care. I’m good at listing my faults, grimacing at my reflection, and jabbing unkind sentiments into the soft belly of my mind. They produce a kind of half-vindictive, half-vanquished satisfaction. Tenderness though… it has always felt like a guilty pleasure, emphasis on the guilt.

Somewhere along the years, I picked up the notion that any scrap of kindness—even within the privacy of my own thoughts—must be earned through perfection. Patience and rest must each be purchased with intense stretches of achievement, and if I want that spoonful of Nutella, I’d better be sporting rock-hard abs. It’s my own personal works-based religion. I follow it like a spiritual devotee too. I’m so familiar with the liturgy of criticism that its sting almost feels like comfort by now, and the idea of psychological freedom is not enough of a motivator for me to revamp my self-image.

However, the idea of my daughters’ psychological freedom is. I’m almost angry that this is the answer, that I have to be comfortable in my own skin in order to raise daughters comfortable in theirs. I’d much rather refer them to a stack of self-help books or start a therapy fund, anything other than having to lead by example. I don’t want to have to spelunk the messy dark of my own emotional history to find the reasons why I can’t smile when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to march into shame’s territory and fight to win myself back.

And it’s not like my girls will be doomed to a future of bitterness and self-loathing if I don’t figure this out. They’re already thoughtful and resilient individuals, and part of their growing up experience was always going to be figuring out who they are apart from their parents. I would be either very arrogant or very naïve to assume that they are my carbon copies, destined to play out my own life choices.

Using their individuality as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work on myself is a cop-out though. Even the most curmudgeonly gatekeepers in my mind know deep down that learning to love myself is worth the struggle. It’s worth working through profound discomfort in order to make my daughters’ first perspective on womanhood one of kindness and joy and wholeheartedness. It’s worth charging back into that formidable battle against shame in order to give them the gift of a mom who’s happy to exist as herself.

(Yes? Yes.)

I’m writing this from the entrance of the emotional messy cave—no answers at all, just a few half-baked ideas and a significant amount of trepidation. I’m perplexed as to why it should be this hard to start seeing myself a little more as a unique and valuable human worthy of love and a little less as Jabba the Hutt, but the Real Beauty Sketches video going around (have you seen it yet?) proves that I am not alone in holding a distorted and negative view of myself. We women are masterful at finding fault in ourselves. Glossy cover models and online mommy wars prey on our insecurities while religious pundits promote our inferiority. We react by judging each other in a misguided attempt to boost our own statuses, and it’s no wonder that so few of us can fathom the idea that we might be worthy of celebration or admiration or love.

What I can fathom, however, is that my precious little girls are worthy. They don’t have to do a single blessed thing to earn their lovability; they are themselves, and that’s enough. I cherish the ways their minds work, their bodies are taking shape, and their hearts expanding, and I dearly hope that they can grow up seeing themselves through the same lens of happy awe that I do. It bears repeating that they are themselves, and that’s enough—enough to warrant compassion and respect and appreciation and understanding and spoonfuls of Nutella and a personal cheerleading squad and full-out, unconditional, never-changing, no-holds-barred love—

and if my girls are worthy just because they are who they are, then it’s time I accept as truth that I am too.

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  1. oh love. here you are, breathtaking as always.

    did you see this? must.watch.

  2. LOL I missed that you linked that….I guess since I’d already seen it, the hyperlink in your text didn’t show up for me. <3

  3. So glad Rain shared this! It’s fantastic, even as an almost 22 year old with no girls of my own I hope to someday have them. But I also realize I’m in a position of being a role model to a LOT of girls through my leadership position and nannying jobs. Being a voice in their lives of love, compassion and admiration for them AND myself is so important! Cause they may not be hearing it else where.

  4. As a mamma to a teenaged girl, who is beautifully growing into her own, this was wonderful to read and reminds me of the best and most vulnerable years of my life…

  5. You write such fantastic things. I wish I could have read this when I was first started this parenting gig. I think I would have done some things differently.

  6. Bethany –

    You always make me long, I mean: REALLY long for your face and some java and time.

    And, can we talk marriage contracts soon? Because I want my sons to marry products of you and Dan – with all your glory and imperfections.

  7. Oh, I love this. Really love it. I watched a TED talk about vulnerability with Sarah. I, of course, cried right through it and then for a week every time she walked by me I repeated a line from it. Oh, here let me see if I can find it…

    Here it is:


    I will go and see what that link is now. Goodness. It is such a responsibility, isn’t it?

    Oh, and I must say that YOU are definitely worth it, just because you are you. Really.

  8. Such a thought-provoking post–as always from you 🙂

    I have really been thinking about the struggle against self-criticism and perfectionism lately–I can see the damage it’s doing in my own life, but it is sobering to think of one’s future kids being front-row spectators. And with that comes the thought ‘must change harmful habits NOW!!’ and even more self-punishment.
    I recently found an interesting article about ‘Compassionate Mind Training’ that seemed much more helpful than cognitive-behavioral type things I have seen in the past, which for me tend to breed frustration and criticism. The idea of CMT is to be able to view one’s own frustration, shame, self-criticism etc with the same empathy we would extend to another person in pain, and see that it is a coping mechanism (however harmful) developed in response to our own hurt. Just the little I read about it seemed to extend much more hope than the common advice to just defeat the negative thoughts by LOGIC, or replace them with a self-affirming thought. When I fail to do that, it is too often just another thing to criticize myself about!

    Anyways–my very best wishes to you, Bethany! It is so inspiring to me to hear from you, who are Succeeding At Life in all the ways I want to, despite the struggles you have been and are going through. Thank you so much for your writing, as always!

  9. Ahhh! erika and bethany, those would be arranged marriages i could totally get behind. seriously. 🙂

  10. [Replying so, so late. Thanks for being patient!]

    Rain – Yes indeed, and fascinating! (I also saw some critical responses floating around which were interesting as well… Like, What about women who actually do look like the less attractive drawings? I definitely think the message of the film is worth pondering though.

    Shelby – I have nothing but love and respect for nannies! You fill such an important role in the lives of the children you care for, and it sounds like they are incredibly lucky to have you.

    Barefoot – Thank you so much! I can’t imagine the time when my own girls will be teenagers, but it’s coming up fast, and I always love hearing from those ahead on the mothering path.

    Liz – So much of parenting is trial-and-error, and a lot of this is working through my own trials and errors… and errors… and still more errors. 🙂 Love you, friend.

    Life – Dan read your comment and piped up from across the house in a fairly worried voice, “Bethany, your blog has started generating marriage proposals…” I quickly set him straight and informed him that this is a marriage contract we DO want to pursue. 😀

    Meg – You know, I had just re-listened to that TED talk when I read your comment! I have her book Daring Greatly at the top of my reading wish list; it’s revolutionary stuff, isn’t it? <3

    Bethany – That sounds like such a great mental technique, trying to look at our own mental workings objectively. I'm so very bad at this (hello perfectionism and self-punishment, like you talked about!), but it's definitely something to aspire to and try to instill in my girls. Thanks so much for your comment!

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