Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gonna Catch a Big One

Going on a Bear Hunt, originally uploaded by toyfoto.

The day had been ordinary, we all had our work cut out for us: employment responsibilities for the adults, play for the children.

Nothing was unusual. Everyone seemed happy.

But the sun is waning. The witching hours are setting in. And as night closes in, strange things start to happen.

Sudden fears pop up. Angry accusations. Every step lands in a potential minefield.

She is crying in the backseat of the car as we start the 11-mile commute home. A few minutes earlier she had been happy, bubbly; singing nonsense songs to make her brother laugh.

All of that was gone now; clouded over my the pitfalls of growing up.

"I'm so, so, so, so sad,"
she cries, and breaks into incoherant sobs.

I can hear the fatigue of a long day in her voice.

I am tired, too. I am at the edge where I would trade all the happiness in the world for a 20-minute commute filled with comfortable silence. I am at the very place where losing my patience meets screaming my head off.

But all of that building rage disappears the instant she finishes her complaint:

"I am not pretty. My hair isn't pretty. My clothes aren't pretty. I try and I try and I try but I am never going to be pretty. I am always just going to be me."

I do what every parent does when words their kids say rip at their hearts.

I search what's left of my mind to come up at a loss: Where. Is. This. Coming. From?
How could she think she's not pretty. Has she not seen this? Or this? I mean really?

In an instant, I jump to cruel world of summer camp.

"Where did you get that from? Who told you that? Did someone hurt your feelings at camp?"

No, she assures me. No one stomped on her tiny little ego. Again it's JUST her.

I am taken offguard by the outburst, but when I think about how to answer I realize I shouldn't be surprised.

Hasn't she been trying to look different lately? Wearing dresses? Wanting her hair to look just so? She is watching and comparing and accounting for every slight, every stern look.

She tells me more about the problem's genesis. The kids, weeks ago, who wouldn't play with her. They all had pretty clothes and pretty hair. That must have been the difference, she reasons. She wasn't pretty enough.

I feel like I'm trapped in a cave.

Of course I want her to grow up unaffected by societal pressure. I absolutely want her to be comfortable in her own skin, whether it's beautiful or otherwise. I know all about beauty being skin deep and in the eye of the beholder and underneath. But I don't want to tell her that beauty is unimportant, especially when it clearly holds importance to her at this moment in time.

I've thought about what I would say. I've pondered the possibilities. I've wondered if by telling our smart girls that wanting beauty is petty and shameful we haven't completed a circle begun when our grandmothers we're told they should be pretty and obedient. A circle that skirts the truth of the matter.

Yet I also thought I had more time to ease my way into the pool from the shallows.

Instead I dive into the deep end: I tell her that what she feels in normal; that we all feel unpopular and unattractive at times but that often these feelings, while real, aren't always true. We compare ourselves to ideals that can't always be met, and we're also not always the best judges of ourselves. ... I don't know how much she understands. She is, after all, only four.

But she accuses me of not understanding:

"You are a grownup. You aren't like me. You don't know."

"You are right I am nothing like you. But I was a child once, only I never had the gumption you have. I would never have gone up to a stranger and asked them to play with me. I never would have had the guts to try. Your father even talks about how amazed he is with your courage. You are not like me. You are better.

"This is all the tricky stuff of growing up, you know. ... We humans are silly. Sometimes we belly up to the things that scare us and give them a good old poke in the nose, other times we take those same fears and give them a pat on the back.

"It's really hard to figure out which to do when. Even when you are a grownup."

I look back into the rearview mirror, and see her blotchy face, calm and serene. I know from her expression that the conversation won't continue. She's not convinced, she's just moved on to another topic.

"Can we have ice cream when we get home?


mamatulip said...

From one extreme to the next, huh?

Kelly Anne said...

Oh.. my heart is torn from reading what she said, so I can't even imagine what yours feels like.

Your answer was blissfully awesome, Siobhan. Good for you for not dismissing her feelings. You're really an awesome mom.

apathy lounge said...

Oh, god. As a mom I know you would do anything to alter her perception of self. It's so precarious. So delicate. So easily bruised. For what it's worth...I think she's gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Dear stranger,
Being a mom is tougest role / jobe/ life in the world!
And you are SOOOOOOOOOOOO good at it.

Ellen, John & Sophia said...

Nothing like a tug at the heartstrings before I've had coffee. Girls! You said wonderful things, and even if she doesn't catch them all now, she'll read this when it really aches.

Anonymous said...

I knew it when I first read about it… and it broke my heart. I was an ugly child and was ignored for years but when I reached adolescence things changed, and I mean dramatically… I was never without a good looking date. The best advice I can give and this is from firsthand knowledge… read the story “The Ugly Duckling” to Annabel and be sure to tell her that sometimes the story can be a true one. And be sure to stress to her that she is not ugly, because she is not...I personally think she is a beautiful child.
I also believe the children may have been intimidated by Annabel’s superior vocabulary… kids are cruel.
Later, Kcoz

Binky said...

Once when I was around 10 years old we went camping and these mean kids rolled my little brother down a hill in a garbage can. I wasn't there, but he came running to me afterward crying about what had happened. I still remember the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and sadness. I may not have been the best big sister, but I was pretty firm in the belief that I should be the only one allowed to mistreat my brother. I think about that incident a lot now as I wait for the first time my own children come to me after getting hurt(their feelings or their bodies) by someone else. I don't think I will be nearly as articulate as you were (though I am studying your response so that maybe some of the wisdom will sink in). I'm afraid that I will probably start to cry. That's what I did when my brother came to me after they rolled him down the hill.

Carrie said...

You are such a great mom. I love how you talk to Annabel.

Anonymous said...

thank you very much for sharing this! i think you've done an excellent job!! i could never have come up with what you said!!


xdm said...

Oy. I can't believe it starts so early. That's what I said in Junior High. I want to bubble wrap her.

Jen said...

You are such a wonderful mom. My heart ached reading that from her. Sweet, beautiful girl.

Andrea said...

I love your answer. And those pictures of her. She is captivating, and very beautiful. Hopefully someday she'll believe that. And more.