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.
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.