Wherein I Utterly Fail As A Parent

If I was a teacher grading my parental performance, I would have to give myself an F.

No….an F-.

If I was the principal of parent school I would expel me.

I keep on running the events of yesterday through my head and shuddering. It was, by every reckoning, a spectacular failure.

Here’s the thing: I knew, as the mother of daughters, that the specter of body image issues and low self and imagined ugliness would one day show its ugly face in my family. And I thought I was ready. I thought I was armed. This was a battle I had fought in my youth in the rocky and precarious territory of my own crooked heart, so I felt ready to  fight for my children. I was Joan of freaking Arc and I was preparing for war. 

Armor: Check

Shield: Check

Sword: Check

Righteous rage: Check

Religiously ecstatic devotion to my cause: Check

Possibly futile war that I have absolutely no hope of winning and that will probably destroy me if I try: Check and check.

Here is what I know:

We live in a culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies.

We live in a culture that tells girls that only their body matters – not their thoughts, not their talents, not their kindness and their care, not their grace or their poise or their generosity, not their hard work, not the amazing things that they can do. We live in a culture that teaches girls that, if they are not skinny, none of those things matter.

We live in a culture that makes healthy-weighted girls think that they are not good enough.

And what kills me – what really really makes my blood boil and my skin bubble and my hair catch on fire – is the fact that the magazines these kids see and the websites they look like don’t even bother photoshopping their anorexic models anymore – they’re using digital models with real-girl (though photoshopped) faces. It’s digital mannequins and it’s harming my child. And I hate it. I am made of hate. I am built of swords and rifles and tanks and laserbeam eyes. I am a one-woman army. SO LOOK OUT.

So I sat down with her, after she had said a couple things at dinner that troubled me.

And I was already upset (what do you mean you feel bad about the ridiculously healthy dinner that I just made for you?) (what do you mean you think you’re too fat?) (you are so beautiful I can hardly see straight) (I love you I love you I love you I love you Iloveyouiloveyouiloveyouiloveyou). My head was a whirlwind of words. My heart was racing.

“Honey,” I said. I took her hands in mine. And oh! Those hands! Those beautiful hands! And oh! That beautiful child!

And I said some stuff that I really don’t remember, and probably didn’t matter much. Something about healthy weights and how our bodies are our interface with the world, and that we experience all pleasure, all joy, all love, all adventure through and with our bodies and that any second we spend feeling bad about our bodies is a total and complete waste of a second – and one that we will never get back. I told her that we only ever get one body – only one. And it is a gift. I told her that I love her. That she is beautiful. That her body is healthy and lovely and strong. But that her beauty is only a small part of who she is – that the really amazing stuff had absolutely no bearing on what she looks like – that her talents in art and mathematics and music and writing and basketball, as well as her innate curiosity and deep thinking, made her a gift to the world. And that the world was lucky.

And then. Then.

Oh you guys.

I cringe at the thought of it.

Then, after all that blather, I said this: “Here’s the thing, honey, nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t good enough, and nobody gets to tell you that your body is nothing short of perfect, and nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t beautiful and astonishing and a miracle on this earth, and if anybody ever tells you anything different then I will punch that person in the face.”

Ella stared at me.

I sat there for a moment in a sort of stunned silence.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod!

Did I just say that?

Oh my god I did. I DID! Bloody hell.

Ella swallowed. “Um, mom?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling my sense of flamey, knife-wielding rage vanish like the dew of a summer morning. I tried to adopt what I felt might be interpreted as a breezy tone.

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“No,” I said. I was, though calm now, unwilling to backtrack. I mean, I said it, right? I couldn’t unsay it. “I really feel that. And I would. I would punch that person in the face.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “Have ever actually punched a person in the face.”

I sighed. I have a policy of not lying to my children (except in the case of the tooth fairy, santa clause and the easter bunny. Those aren’t lies per se, but rather are ritualistic and long term storytelling. They are pageantry.) so I had to come clean. “Yes,” I said.

“IN THE FACE?”

“Yes.”

“In a fist fight?”

“Yes.”

“Has daddy ever been in a fist fight?”

“I have been in exactly two more fist fights than your father has.”

“How many times?”

“Two. But that was a long time ago.

“How long?”

“Way before you were born. In college. I was….hot tempered back then. And I didn’t always make the best choices. And I wasn’t as smart as you.”

“But, you’d get in a fist fight for me? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Oh, honey,” I said. I didn’t cry. I honestly didn’t. But I wanted to. “In a nanosecond.”

“But what if…..”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What is it?”

“Um, can we have this conversation later?”

Of course we could. And we will. We’ll have conversations after conversations. I gave her a kiss and told her I loved her and she started getting ready for bed.

But here’s the thing:

I know what she was going to say.

What if the person making me feel bad is me?

And it’s a good question. And a fair one. But in light of the nonsense that I had just spouted, it puts us in a bit of a conundrum. Because I told my child that I would punch the person who made her feel bad. In the face. And that person, right now, presumably, is her. Which means  that I have just threatened to punch my own child in the face.

In the face.

Oh for god’s sake.

I’m the fucking mother of the year, goddamnit. Oh, god, you guys. I’m cringing at the thought of it.

In the meantime, I’m bracing myself for more of this nonsense. And I know it’s coming. I wasted my entire adolescence and much of my young adulthood despising my body. This body! This is the body that carries me across this green earth. It digs in gardens and treks through forests and dances when it feels like it. It produced three beautiful children and it loves my husband and it is imperfect and awkward and mine. And I love it. And it wasn’t until I loved my body that I could start to love my life.

So I pray for my daughters now. And I pray for strength. Because, I’ll tell you what: This fight is gonna be hard, it’s gonna be brutal, and it’s gonna suck. And I know that anything I do will be futile and wasted.

My only hope is this: If my daughters see me fighting for them, maybe – just maybe – they’ll learn to fight for themselves.

 

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11 thoughts on “Wherein I Utterly Fail As A Parent

  1. Oh honey, you didn’t fail. You may have said somethings that you wouldn’t have if you had been more calm, but one thing your daughter can’t deny is that you love her and would protect her with the passion of a mother tiger. If you need to, tell her that you didn’t mean that you would hit her, but other people that might hurt her. Don’t assume that what you think she’ll say is what she will say – my daughter surprises me all the time by saying things I don’t expect. And never feel bad for showing your daughter how to stand up for herself (legally) – these girls need us moms to be strong! We moms need to stick together – no one is an expert at this parenting thing! Hugs and thanks to you for posting this, so when I have a rough day with my daughter, I know that I’m not along.

    • Oh, thank you. Sometimes, I wish I had a pause button on the world so I could take a breather whenever I’m clearly hurtling towards the brink.

      But you’re right: moms really do need to stick together. ❤

  2. I agree with Susie’s wonderful comments above. A couple of additional thoughts, focusing on what you did right helps take away some of the sting. Like the fact that you completely expressed how much you love her. (The visual you provided actually helped with that.) And, I think it’s interesting to think about how she might look at the conversation if it were your husband who said those things to her instead of you. I find my daughter tends to accepts his comments more openly than mine when it comes to this kind of thing. A different dynamic. We all have to teach them to stand up for themselves and they can only do that when they are confident and feel good about themselves. Cheers to you!

  3. Why is it your bad parenting days are like my *good* parenting days?? Have been worried about my daughter’s self image ever since she tried to rip her glasses out of her preschool class picture. Thanks for the heads up on what’s to come. I will be working on my left hook =)

  4. I find your passion for the subject awesome. Perhaps your delivery needs a bit of work, but this is NOT bad parenting. Trust me, I’ve seen bad parenting first hand back when I taught special Ed. You really don’t want to know.

    Not that I’m an expert on parenting, having only one child, but might I suggest something? You have a story. A story of how you overcame your negative self-image. And while this issue obviously caused you some grief, it also empowered you in ways that are off the awesome scale. Even now you have the Tiger Mom energy crackling in your finger tips and making your hair smoke.

    So rather than suggest to your daughter what the world is like, why not tell her that story? Cause you know, you’re one damn fine story teller. She may not get it, she may have to face this battle the same way you did, but at least she’ll have a good story to follow when she is ready.

    My boy is a sensitive lad, so I if were to act like this, he would freak out. Moreover, if every time a subject like this came up, and I went supernova, it would only take him a few times until he learned this was not a topic he could talk with me about. And that would be a bad, for both of us.

    • Yup, I think you’re right. And as I say, this is just one moment of what is doubtless a long, long series of conversations.

      My good friend who has grown up to be a pastor told me yesterday that when we raise children, we’re not just parenting our offspring. We’re also parenting our own child-selves, with this totally misguided notion that we could somehow reach back in time and nurture the child that we used to be away from the brink of the stupid stuff we used to do. And I think she’s right. What bothers me about what my daughter is going through is not just her pain, but mine too, you know?

      • Sure. We are a product of our own issues, plus that of our parent’s. It’s bit like the army getting stuck fighting the last war, not the present one. We are forever limited by what we have experienced and what works for us. None of which may apply to our children.

        Your minister friend sounds pretty sharp.

        I learned through therapy that being a well balanced adult meant, among other things, being a good-parent to myself. I actually had to learn how to do this, as it wasn’t taught to me (or I didn’t learn, take your pick) when I was growing up. I work hard to not dump my personal issues on my son. Fortunately my wife has a completely different set of issues, and a different sub-set of parenting ideas. She does a great job of telling me when I am reacting to our son’s issues, and when I am reacting to my own issues through him. She also tells me when to take out the trash. 😉

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