So. Much. Life.
It’s legit pretty rude, although I won’t be getting into too much of that today.
I made a promise via social media some time ago that I would address female body image and parenting daughters in my next blog installment, so that’s what I’ll be doing today. It’s rainy, chilly, and generally a complete wash as far as actual productivity is concerned, so I know that this is your next best option for the day. You’re welcome.
Anyway. Recently, my oldest child, Charlotte, has come into some very interesting- albeit totally normal- social stages at school. In my head, she’s a baby. She’s too young for absolutely everything, and how dare any of this dirty, filthy society besmudge the innocence of my seven-year-old. Insert the familiar groans of, “Kids today,” “When I was growing up, I’d be smacked upside the back of my head if…,” and “What is this world coming to?” Even though I knew, intellectually, that these things would come and I would feel exactly like this about it, it still takes me by surprise when I find myself staring, mouth agape, at my child in the passenger seat as she relates some of her day to me.
As I can’t literally crack her head open and pour all of the hard-earned lessons I’ve learned into her cranium in order to spare her the growing pains I had as a kid (and, yes, I know that wouldn’t really be serving her, in the end), I have begun making an art of flying by the seat of my parenting pants with as much earnestness and sincerity as possible. I still can’t believe someone let me have these kids. How am I qualified to do this? Like, is it as obvious as it feels that I’m clearly making most of this up as I go? Because I’m pretty sure any moment now, I’m going to be exposed as a fraud.
Someone please explain to me why making rapid hand gestures and yelling, “No! Nooooo, no, no. Just no. You stop that,” is not adequate means to slow down the maturation of my children.
At any rate, here we are, dealing primarily with two new concepts- relationships and body image. I do feel like Disney has done a great many girls a disservice with their cinematic explorations of relationships. Latter films have been better, but like most little girls, Charlie has cut her teeth on princesses, princes, and marriage leading to a happily ever after. Of course, the divorcee in me scoffs quite a bit at these images for obvious reasons, but even more than that, the mother in me wants to see my children find life partners in healthy, realistic relationships. All of this concentration on beauty and infatuation and crisis-based foundations for long-term romance is truly setting me (and my kids) up for an uphill battle with disillusionment. I want to bust into every game of dress-up and yell, “You’re not going to find the love of your life by staring at people at a ball! In your adulthood, the ball becomes a bar, and terrible things happen if you don’t watch your drink. Pretend you’re going to a library, dammit, where you can find some quirky intellectual who also likes the smell of books!”
I’m probably projecting.
Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting to overhear my daughter’s pretend text argument with her little “boyfriend” at school. Truly a script out of a mashup of every classic Disney movie, compounded in intensity by the fact that her father recently remarried with all the Pinterest pageantry that comes with a first marriage (where her new stepmother in concerned, of course). Replete with pet names, silent treatment, frustration over mom’s forbidding a real phone call, and loyalty concerns, I was truly aghast at what was going on inside the head of my second grader. Insert the immediate, self-imposed pressure to correct her understanding of relationships.
Part of the concern comes from worries I’ve had since getting divorced. How can I teach my children what healthy relationships look like after their father left? How can I help them believe in the permanence of marriage when the divorce rate is ridiculous, and it’s just as common to hear that a friend at school swaps weekends between parents, too? I myself explained the dissolution of my marriage by saying, “Sometimes, you set out to love someone a certain way, but that isn’t the way you end up best loving them. So Mommy and Daddy set out to love each other with a special kind of love meant for marriage, but, as it turns out, that’s not the way Mommy and Daddy are meant to love each other. Married love is very special and specific, which is why, when we figured out that wasn’t happening at home, we stopped being married. And that’s okay- sometimes, you have to love someone in a different way once you figure it out.” Did I just minimize the enormity of divorce? Because I definitely meant to add solemnity to the decision to marry…
I suppose herein lies the age-old concern of how to help children filter the images and examples they are faced with, sifting them down to what works and what doesn’t. Of course, this takes the entirety of the early part of their life, so I should probably chill out with my hair-trigger launch into panic mode. And yet, without going into too much of what I saw and mistook during that period of my life that led to a poor marital decision, I worry that if I don’t take the time to start discussing this with them now (allowing for years of reinforcement and good examples where I can) they’ll make similar, societally-backed mistakes. And I just love them too damn much for that bullshit.
Also, the case for nullity in the Catholic Church- which follows the legal dissolution of marriage for Catholics- is a difficult and lengthy process. Not to mention gut-wrenching. So let’s not set them up for that.
Also, also, I have NO intentions of reinforcing behaviors that will make my children shitty spouses.
In the meantime, while mulling over how to address the foundations of healthy relationships with Charlie, I have found my daughters with increasing frequency in my bathroom, standing on my scale and pawing at my scant makeup reserves. Commentary on weight, eye shadow color, and looking “beautiful” immediately puts me at, “The media is cruel! You don’t need any of that because beauty is relative!” which comes out, more or less, as incoherent, guttural sounds and, “I like your face!” Which is then followed by quizzical looks from the girls, a slow release of objects from their hands back into the drawers, and a very obvious tiptoeing out of the room in hopes that they aren’t in trouble for messing with my things.
Could the world not push me to breaking down gender roles with my kids at a young age? That would be great.
I won’t get into just what I think those are right now, but suffice to say that the absolute last thing I want to see my girls decide is that they have to be fit-looking, made-up, socialites who marry young and spend the rest of their lives drinking wine with their other housewife friends wondering why they need Fifty Shades of Gray to distract them from a sinking lack of fulfillment. Truly, we joke about these things, but let’s be honest. We are making life hard for our girls with expectations of beauty, either entrepreneurship or complete self-sacrifice -possibly both simultaneously- and unrealistic expectations of men and relationships. Add the psychological damage brought on by social media’s pressure to wow viewers with highlight reels and live in constant comparison to everyone else, and it’s no small wonder that we have people broadcasting their own suicides and a declining birth rate.
Needless to say, I’ve been very much in my own head, trying to figure out how to start these kids- especially my daughters- down the least painful road to self-awareness, humility, and an understanding of worth. It’s quite apropos that these are the very things that were most difficult for me to learn in my early adulthood, which probably explains why I feel such a weight about them. But as I scroll through my newsfeed and observe my peers, I feel a little vindicated, too. Guys, we have got to get some control over this psychological drama of which society has endless reruns.
To start, I asked Charlie what she liked about this boyfriend of hers. “He’s the class president. He helps me with my math when I get stuck. He always makes good grades and has good behavior. And he was nice to the new kid.” Okay. I can live with that answer. Kid has some siblings, plays sports. Cool- I’m glad she mentioned these things before what I expected to hear (namely that he’s cute and popular). Then, I asked her how she enriched his life. “It’s great that he’s so helpful. But in a relationship, you have to give as much as you need to take. It’s a two-way street. That means you have to have things to offer, too, instead of just being treated like a princess.”
Her mind was blown.
“Uh, I should work on that.” Yeah, babe. You really probably should. And thus I hope I’ve sewn the seeds of the very first and most difficult lesson I learned about relationships. “Charlie, a good relationship isn’t one where he just makes you feel good all the time and gives you stuff and attention. He shouldn’t fill a hole you feel like you have. You should be a whole person, and he should be a whole person. And then you mutually decide that the other enriches your life be encouraging good and positive experiences while you help each other be good people. It’s not just about feeling gooey. It’s about trusting that that person is going to help you when times are rough continue to be a good person and knowing that you’ll do the same for them.”
I remember the day it occurred to me that marriage wasn’t about coming to the table, hoping that the other person had that thing you needed and didn’t have. It’s about coming to the table with all that you have, all that you have built, and saying, “I want to share this with you. Here’s a good person and good things that I want to offer you.” What an eye-opener it was to me when I realized that, more than anything else, I had allowed myself to become something that was very nice to have, that made his life easier, but was not actually recognized as a real person with immeasurable depth. Further shock when I realized that who he was, at his core, for better or worse, was a person with whom I fundamentally disagreed. And because I disagreed, I had difficulty respecting him. And, thus, was born resentment in both of us.
Why aren’t we raising our daughters to address relationships without the romance? I don’t mean that we should encourage our girls to forego flowers, expressions of admiration, or expectations of chivalry. Relationships should reassure you that you are special to that other person- moreso than other possible mates. What I mean is- why are we raising either princesses or embittered feminists? Why must we have them see men as either princes or potential misogynists? Because that’s what I keep seeing. These crazy mixed reviews of, “Look at how my man treats me like a princess!” “I don’t need a man because I’m just as good as a man,” “If he can’t accept my imperfections, he’s an idiot,” and, “I sacrifice myself for my family as a good wife, but also I have this side business because I can contribute, too!”
When Charlie was giving her boyfriend the silent treatment at school, I asked her why. “Because I got into a fight with someone else, and he said I was wrong. He’s supposed to be on my side! I’m his girlfriend!” How often do we reinforce this idea of possession? In a world where we post pictures that put our “best selves” out there- in a way, I would argue, that is intended to make others want to be with us- we are courting this idea that we should be fought for, obtained, and retained by exclusive entities. Or else. We’re cheapening ourselves, actually, in that we’re creating the illusion that we are finite and can/should be contained.
Wait, what? I don’t like that.
Because don’t tell me what to do.
I said, “Baby, were you wrong?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s my boyfriend.”
“Charlie, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And no one should lie to you to make you feel better about the fact that you’re wrong by pretending you weren’t just to avoid hurting your feelings. A good friend, a good boyfriend, tells you when you’re out of line, then helps you recover. How would you like it if he stopped talking to you? Does that fix anything?”
“Then you should probably apologize.”
Read: Be nice humans, daughters. All the while, Maddie (who is five) is listening. And I’m glad she’s listening, because I think they both need to hear these things equally. As much as I get on to them to remember particular graces (good table manners, modest body language, appropriate speech), I’m not raising dainty, little dolls. I’m raising people. And these people should both remember how to treat others with a basic and practical sense of respect, as well as understand that relationships are not Lifetime dramas or beauty pageants. No one will be required to put up with sassy-ass bullshit.
And while their brother looks on, watching the formation of his sisters and the care taken by his mother with them, I hope he’s internalizing this for when it comes time for him to choose a mate. All of my kids are watching me right now, I know, manage a household on my own. Mommy works, pays the bills, manages the upkeep of the house, etc., because Mommy is a responsible person. They should each learn how to do those things. But this should not undermine the enormous blessing of finding themselves in a healthy relationship later when these hardships can be shared with someone else in mutual appreciation.
My daughters are also closely watching how I regard myself physically. They’re listening. And the first time I heard Charlie say she needed to lose weight, a part of me died. I had always regarded, with pride, how open I had been with my kids about my physical upkeep. Since infancy, they have watched me work out and heard me talk about nutritional needs. All three of them have great burpee forms, pretty decent yoga balance, and a good handle on the importance of macronutrients and where they come from. We talk about being healthy and strong, and we hike to learn how to navigate our environment respectfully and functionally.
That makes me a great, new-age mom, right?
Except that they have also, apparently, watched me look with disdain at the scale. The girls have overheard my complaints about the difficulty of losing weight after having had several children and hitting that 30’s body thing. They’re noticing when I put on makeup, watching over my shoulder as I study “fitspiration” and scroll through my newsfeed. Full of bodies.
So. Many. Bodies.
And now they’re further preoccupied with their bodies and the way that they look.
And the way that they don’t look.
I’m starting to hear snippets of, “I have to work out so I can look like ______,” “This outfit makes me look ______,” and, “My (insert a body part) is squishy, so I need to do something about that.” When I go to correct them, it’s hard to ask them to listen to what I’m saying when what they’re seeing says something totally different. And now that they’re literate, what they’re reading (often over my shoulder) isn’t much better. All of these things are reinforcing so much surface attention, and I hate it. In their little heads, all they’re hearing is that they have to do this, give up that, forego this to look like that. As if buying in is going to get them the image that they need to increase their self worth.
I have always struggled with body dysmorphia. Part of that is programmed into societal expectations of women as pretty things. Part of that comes from having a body that makes very little sense in comparison. My torso is very long. My legs are short and…powerful. My arms are thick. My shoulder’s are broad. I have frequently referred to myself as a Shetland Pony- I can plod on at no particular speed for a good long time, like a good work horse, being that I’m much more functional than I am show-worthy. Most days, I legitimately feel this way.
After having my children, I was pretty preoccupied with trying to look like I had not had them. I found them at Walmart. Because that’s practical. But how much marketing do we see about losing baby weight, having bikini ready bodies, participating in “fixes” for those stubborn areas? I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have much appreciation for the next stage of female body-dom (i.e. that shift from a 20’s metabolism to a more mature 30-something look in my face and hips), and it’s very attractive to think I can get some of that leanness back that I had when I was balls-out all the time. If I wanted it bad enough, I’d hazard to say I could even make some of that happen.
But that’s just it- I don’t want to make anything happen. I want to just…be okay with myself. And I want my daughters to see that I am so that the expectation they have is that they should be okay with themselves. Healthy bodies come in all shapes in sizes, so thank God for this body positive movement that’s going on. I’ll never go so far as to say embracing obesity or the abuse of their body is okay, because we should endeavor to treat our bodies well and be kind to our joints and ligaments by operating withing the framework intended for them. But healthy for them is going to look different than healthy for someone else.
My body is softer and rounder than it’s been (excluding being pregnant, of course), but it’s also much stronger than it has been. It has carried children, placed in OCRs, survived the multi-day endurance event that is Catamount while vomiting, and withstood the last several years of fibro agony. I looked in the mirror the other morning while weighing the necessity of makeup for the day, and I can see life etched out in my face now. Years of caring for children, loving and losing, devastation and joy that makes me laugh until I cry. The youthful mischief and incessant day dreaming have melded in my eyes with careful discernment and reason.
In short, it makes no sense for me to try to look like I did prior to children, because I’m not who I was prior to children. I have evolved, and I am better.
And this body houses that soul.
My girls have two very different body shapes. Two very different and unique senses of style. Two different interests in different physical activities. And as they age and grow into two different people with different life experiences, that will even further change their appearances. But I don’t want that to be a struggle like it has been for me. I don’t want them to fight themselves into looking any kind of way.
So now the scale is for measuring “how much muscle” we’ve put on, which will always be in tandem with a discussion of what we’ve done to earn that new strength. Makeup is for when we’re feeling extra sassy, because we’re beautiful the way we are naturally (it’s just fun to be a little more fancy from time to time). Exercise is to keep our bodies ready to tackle any new adventure that we find.
And the right person will find us as we are, doing good things, when it’s time.
(I hope I’m doing this right.)