QUITTING PRETTY: MORE THOUGHTS ON ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS

At a 6-year-old birthday party I attended with my daughter, the magician called for a very pretty girl to assist him (see: All the Pretty Girls).  I stiffened.  Pretty is a word that often leaves me feeling conflicted.  I was happier as a girl before anyone ever called me pretty, before I knew that beauty held value and was often used to gain favor, attention and love.

One of my favorite pictures from childhood is of my sister and me when I was about 8 and she was 6.  We’re kneeling in the yard with face paint on our cheeks from an event I can’t recall.  There is nothing out of the ordinary about the picture except when I look at us I can tell we still had it—that steady confidence and stable sense of self-worth that had nothing to do with appearances.

But it didn’t take long for it to fade.  By middle school, I learned that fitting in was key to one’s survival and that being skinny and beautiful dramatically increased your odds of being liked.  My friends and I hovered over teen magazines featuring page after page of willowy, stylish, bony-kneed girls.  Disappointment in my shorter, sturdier build grew as I longed in vain for a taller, thinner embodiment—a longing that led to an eating disorder in my early teens.

When my brother observed me fussing over my appearance in high school, he commented, “Why worry?  There’s always going to be someone prettier, or thinner or whatever than you.”  I knew this to be true but it wasn’t reassuring because it meant I would always be striving to be more like all those girls who were prettier, thinner or whatever than me.

I’ve wasted a lot of time chasing pretty.  It took me years to drop out of the race—to realize I would never cross the finish line because it kept advancing as I lagged behind out of breath.  It took the deeper work of unconditional self-acceptance to stop comparing myself to an unrealistic ideal and stop measuring my worth by inches and pounds and smooth skin.

At first quitting pretty was scary—leaving the house without a touch of make-up, letting my roots grow out, refusing to diet or exercise obsessively, opting for comfortable shoes and clothes over fashionable.  But soon it just became a way of life.  I wouldn’t notice until someone reacted to my dressing up or wearing make-up.  “Wow.  You clean up well,” a friend or acquaintance would say staring at me as if they’d never seen me before.  As if it was the first time they noticed my pretty.

So I worry for my daughter—everything from will she be pretty enough to will she be strong enough not to care.  And despite all of my wrestling, I worry about being a part of the problem.  Our complicity with societal messages can be insidious.  It’s easy to adopt, internalize and pass along our culture’s ideals almost unknowingly.  When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother often commented on how my body looked in certain outfits.  Most often I heard, “Your butt looks big in those pants.”  They were trying to be helpful—to warn or protect me from others’ scrutiny.  But the resulting insecurity I felt about my body can still sneak up on me when I catch the reflection of my backside in a three way mirror.

So all these mixed up feelings whirled through me at the birthday party with my daughter when the magician asked for a very pretty girl to assist him.  I held my breath and then watched as every girl’s hand shot up.  Even those who had declined to help just minutes before eagerly waved their hands in the air.  Every single girl in the room believed she was beautiful without hesitation.

While there is danger in striving for a narrow, culturally defined version of beauty, I’m learning there is something wonderful about my daughter feeling pretty just as she is and was created to be.  And how important it is for her to believe in her unique loveliness even when outside voices begin to tell her otherwise.

Perhaps I didn’t need to quit pretty after all.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of broadening our definition to make room for all girls and women regardless of our features, skin color, shape and size.

I once heard a neonatal intensive care nurse speak about how not all babies come out looking cute, especially sickly ones.  While parents can often see what makes their child beautiful, she found those of seriously ill babies sometimes needed a little help.  She became skilled at identifying what made each infant in her care special and pointed it out.  “There is always something beautiful about every baby,” she said.  “Once you know that you can always see it.  It jumps right out at you.”

MORE THOUGHTS ON MOTHERLESS

Years ago, a mentor recommended reading Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman.  My mother was alive and well, so I didn’t see the relevance.  It sat untouched in the basket near my bed for years until one day after the birth of my daughter I decided to read it anyway.  To my surprise, it opened a window to understanding the generational impact of the untimely loss of a mother and helped me grasp the legacy of complicated mother-daughter relationships in my family.

When my grandmother was dying at home in hospice care, we phoned each other at least once a week.  We had never talked that frequently before and I learned more about her during that time than I had in the previous 26 years.  She was my last surviving grandparent and I wanted to know all I could before her generation slipped away.

One day, my grandmother told me her first memory as a child was being held up to her mother’s coffin.  She was four years old.  Her father eventually remarried a sickly woman that my grandmother and her older siblings disliked.  When her sister and brother moved out, she was left to care for her ailing step-mother.

My grandmother dreamed of moving West to work on a dude ranch but never found the courage or opportunity to escape.  Instead she met my handsome, popular but often mercurial grandfather at a barn dance and became a wife and mother.

My mom often said my grandmother was the perfect mother in many ways—she took her children to lessons she had only dreamed of having, was an excellent Swedish cook, kept the house tidy and their clothes clean, and rarely if ever raised her voice.  But something was missing.  My mother never felt a strong emotional connection from her.  And since history in the absence of awareness often repeats itself, this was the story of my mother’s and my relationship except our house was a mess and my mom yelled.  A LOT.

So it goes without saying I have a few little issues around mothering. When I found out I was having a daughter, I was overjoyed and petrified.  I had three years of experience as a mom to my son but something about the mother-daughter relationship made me extra jittery.

My hope and prayer then and that I still carry today is that I can have the emotional connection with my son and daughter that my grandmother and mother and I never had.  It’s a bit overwhelming to aspire to a level of connection I’ve only observed from afar—in movies and books and mother-daughter acquaintances—because most of my close friends and all of my family have complicated relationships with their mothers, too.

And already it’s been so much harder than I thought.  When my daughter, Ana, expresses big emotions, I want to run, quell, or explain them away.  And at times, that’s exactly what I’ve done.  But I’m slowly developing a deeper acceptance and stamina for difficult feelings.  Because my uneasiness with my daughter’s emotions is really about my uneasiness with my own.  Growing up, I learned we don’t share TOUGH feelings or truthsWe shut them down.  FAST.

So I’m unlearning as much as I’m learning when I force myself to be still and sit with Ana or Alex when they’re upset without running or quelling or explaining–even when the feelings are so strong and raw they claw at my core.  It can be unnerving and at times makes me wish I had a drug of choice to turn to–a drink, a pill, a bag of chips, mindless surfing, shopping, or perfecting–anything to take the edge off.  But I remind myself that this is the life I want: to be fully present even in the painful parts.  Because this is the only way I know how to build real connection—with God, myself and others.

 

 

HELP

“I feel like I’m cheating at being a mom,” a friend once confessed.

After her second child was born, she hired a part-time nanny to help with her active 22-month-old.  A local family member also assisted her weekly.  Some moms she knew had been making snide comments about her choice which led her to feel guilty.

“You’re not cheating,” I assured her.  “They’re jealous.”

“You think?” she asked.

I knew.  Because I was jealous, too.  I didn’t have family nearby and couldn’t afford to pay for help.  But I’m a big believer in anything that reduces stress and allows you to be a calmer more present parent.  So if you can hire, swap for or freely receive help, by all means do.  And don’t feel guilty or second guess whether this makes you less of a mom.  If you can’t afford or find the help you need, do what you can to be kind to yourself and impose breaks in whatever form you can manage—a nap while the baby is down, an hour of peace and quiet while your partner takes the kids to the park, a guilty pleasure after the kids are in bed.

And if you have a friend or family member who has more help or resources than you . . . be envious.  You’re human.  But don’t say anything to make them feel guilty or inadequate.  Being a parent is hard enough without the weight of feeling judged.

Judging divides us.  It breaks our connection with others—something we desperately need if we are going to survive parenthood and being human.

When my son was transitioning to solid foods, I was with a group of new moms who were chattering about all the superfoods they were feeding their babies.  Then one commented how a particular jarred baby food was disgusting.  Another offered her agreement.  “I wouldn’t feed that stuff to my DOG!”

It just so happened I was feeding that stuff to my SON who couldn’t seem to get enough of it.  But I lacked the courage to admit this right then and there, though I noticed I wasn’t the only mom who looked silently worried.

I liked and respected those moms and still do.  I’m quite certain they didn’t mean to insult me as they assumed they were in the company of like-minded moms who would never, ever feed their precious children something they considered gross.  Except . . . I WAS.

Most of the parents you know including yourself are doing the best they can.  Remind yourself of this when you feel the urge to be critical.  Give that gift to yourself and others.  EVERY DAY.