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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A Mighty Fortress Is My Butt….

This morning Leo decided to sing some songs.

Cordelia was not amused.

“Jingle butts, jingle butts,” he sang as I handed him his hot cider. “Snow got on….my butt!”

“MOM!” Cordelia said. “Make him stop singing.”

I hadn’t had any caffeine at that point, and was only vaguely aware that I even had children. I struggled to find a gap in the press of clouds.

“Cordelia,” I said. “Your brother is just singing Christmas songs. Lighten up.” She stomped away. “Leo, I said, resting my forehead on my fingertips and waiting for the kettle to boil. “We’re having Silent Breakfast today. The quietest kid wins a million dollars.”

Leo, knowing full well that I am, was, and always will be, full of shit, began to sing. (though, bless him, quietly. In his sweetest voice.) “Silent farts. Holy farts.”

“MOM!” Cordelia said.

“Leo,” I said. “There’s no such thing as holy farts.”

“Anyone who’s holy farts holy farts,” Leo said in an infuriating holier-than-thou voice. “That’s what holy means.”

“Well, I’ve had enough of it,” I said. “Move on.”

The kettle boiled. A miracle! I poured the water over my tea bag and set the timer.

The timer in my head rattled against my skull. Which would come first, I wondered? Tea? Or an exploding brain.

“A MIGHTY FO-ORTRESS I-IS MY BUTT,” Leo bellowed. “MY BUTT IS SU-PER A-A-AWE-SOME.”

Cordelia erupted in a sound that was curiously similar to the sound that cartoon characters made when their faces turned red and their ears erupted with steam. In fact, I can’t say for sure where the sound came from. It might have actually been from her ears. Indeed, it might have been steam.

“MOM,” she said. “Punish him. Please.”

“I’m not punishing anybody,” I said. I poured the whole milk into the tea. Tea! I am saved!

Leo,” I said. “One more song and you’re sleeping in the garage tonight. And I’m giving all your toys to the neighbors.”

He didn’t hear the second part.

“Wait, really?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

“And you’re not going to change your mind.”

“Not at all.” I said. Should I have been curious about his sudden enthusiasm? Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I should have.

“YESYESYESYESYESYESYES!” Leo shouted, jumping out of his chair and punching his fists in and out.

“What?” I said.

“I GET TO SLEEP IN THE GARAGE?? AWESOME!!!!!!”

“But–”

“THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!”

And he ran upstairs to pack a backpack and find his sleeping bag. Cordelia watched him run up the stairs.

“Oh sure,” she said. “Just reward him, mom! FINE!”

“But-” I said.

And she stomped up to her room and slammed the door. I could hear her rustling around. I assume she too was packing a bag. I decided not to notice.

And it was quiet. And the tea eased its way inside of my skull, disabling the dynamite lodged in my frontal lobes. I pressed my fingers against the curve of warm ceramic.

Apparently, my children will sleep in the garage tonight. I hope Child Protective Services doesn’t mind. It was, after all, their idea. Well, really it was my idea, but I am, as I mentioned before, full of shit. I wasn’t gonna make him. But now he says it’s the best day of his life. So I’m stuck.

With these thoughts I drank my tea. I let it slip its way down my throat, into the solar plexus, into the heart, like a prayer.

“A mighty fortress is my butt,” I sang quietly to myself. “My butt is super awesome.”

And you know what? I really meant it.

On Raising Beautiful, Butt-Kicking, Feminist Girls (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Girl Scouts)

Before I launch into this post about my eleven-year-long quest – nay, struggle – to raise girls who trust themselves, and honor themselves – and more importantly who trust and honor the other girls in their lives-  and who wouldn’t think twice to kick a boy in the shins if he really, really deserved it, I need to take a moment to talk about the Girl Scouts.

And the lady who started the Girl Scouts. This classy dame here:

File:Juliette Gordon Low - National Portrait Gallery.JPG Juliette Gordon Lowe. Isn’t she lovely?

What I love about her story is that she took the classic trope of the Jilted-Wife-Done-Wrong-By-Her-Man and re-invented it into a Juliette-Goes-And-Gets-Some story. In a nutshell, Juliette’s no-good, boozing, philandering, and woman-degrading husband pestered her to no end for a divorce so he could shack up with his mistress in style. She refused, and his whoring continued until he died suddenly of a stroke or heart attack or “bad company” or however men of his ilk used to kick the bucket in those days.

Trouble was, he left his fortune to his mistress, leaving his wife high and dry.

So did Juliette lie down and take it? No ma’am, no she did not. She sued the jerk’s estate and came away 500 million richer – which was quite a lot in those days. And instead of sitting in the lap of luxury (or anyone else’s lap, for that matter) she used her extensive funds to start the Girl Scouts which, in addition to highly addictive cookie-hawking, has been the go-to place for sassy, uppity girls everywhere.

I love the Girl Scouts.

The thing is, that love has been long in coming. I was a Scout for two (or was it three?) rather miserable years in elementary school. As I believe I’ve blogged about before, I was a lonely kid in grade school – a bullied kid, a dorky kid, a broken kid and a painfully-awkward kid. I was in Girl Scouts, and the bullying and nasty behavior that I endured during the school day simply followed me to our meetings in the livingroom of one of the kids at school.

I didn’t learn to like myself in Girl Scouts. I learned nothing about Girl Power or consciousness-raising, or positive self-imaging or sticking with your girl friends no matter what. I just learned how to stay quiet, stay unnoticed. Disappear.

And then I forgot about the Girl Scouts.

But then. Lots and lots of years later, I had daughters. And then the Fear began.

We live in a culture that teaches girls to dismiss themselves. We live in a culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies. We live in a culture that teaches girls to define themselves by how well they can attract sexual partners, instead of how well they can keep a friend. And I held my little tiny girl-baby and I was afraid for her.

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When Ella was in Kindergarten, she joined a Brownie troop. I was ambivalent, but the child was adamant. She joined, loved it, and she’s been with this same group of girls ever since. And while I’ve been around, and I know these girls very well, I’ve never had the opportunity to interact with them as Scouts, nor have I seen how they operate as a team of girl-powered friends until this weekend, when I went as a chaperon to their yearly encampment in the woods.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have never seen such a group of committed feminists.

You have never seen such a group of magnificent communicators.

You have never seen such a group of collaborative leaders – they assessed the needs of their situations. They asked for input. They delegated. They formed committees. They assessed their own results. They praised one another, and boosted each other up. They were clear, forthright, kind, honest and hard-working. They appreciated one another.

And they never once – not even once – talked about boys. Instead, they made fun of commercials and they badmouthed Twilight (they all agreed with Ella’s assessment that the book would have been vastly improved if Edward had died tragically in a fire) and they told scary stories in the dark.

And I realized that the wolves in our society – the ones that dress up in nighties and lurk in the dark – well, they’re still there, and I still worry about them, but the Girl Scouts have given my daughter a weapon that I had not counted upon. My daughter – though just as unsure, just as placeless as I was at eleven – not a kid, not a teenager, with no real place to fit in – is much more equipped to survive and thrive than I ever have been.

That child is powerful. And so are her friends.

Girl Power, the girls told me this weekend, could move the entire planet off its axis if we wanted to. We choose to let the world spin.

This was true, I told them. But they had more to say.

Girl power’s gonna change the world – and it needs changing. And girl friends can change your life.

Indeed, I said. They do it every day.