There is a video that exists of me, maybe 2 years old, swearing mightily as I drop a basketball in a puddle of water. It’s a tale as old as time, really – Mom says a swear word, child repeats said swear word, and usually in company you’d prefer not to know you sometimes swear. It doesn’t take long, as a parent, to realize your kids are listening. Not to instructions, per se, but to how you respond to the world around you. We are, on our best and worst days, their role model for how to treat and speak to each other and themselves. Isn’t that just terrifying?
So far, language-wise, the worst thing e has picked up from me is a tendency to reply with a sassy “yeah girl!” when I ask her questions. She’s also learning sarcasm, for which my husband and I share the blame. The trick is, this tendency for children to take on their parents’ ways is not limited to language. There are certain things I have an awareness of already – for example, I try to be careful about how I talk about food and my own body image when my daughter is around.
I try to be cognizant of the things I know [as a woman and as a counselor by trade] can be damaging to a little girl’s psyche. But I am not always as prepared as I’d like to be.
Recently, we surprised e with tickets to see her favorite singer in concert, Taylor Swift. We were so excited and made a big deal out of the unveiling of our surprise, so I took a video as we told her. Watching the video back with my husband, I saw my cute girl responding with all the excitement and glee we had hoped for and cringed when I heard my own cackling laugh take over the moment. “So great. Just wish I could take out my laugh!” I said, off-handedly, to my husband. The next day, e asked to see the video and, while I showed her, she cringed identically, and stated she wished she could take out something she had said. I stared at her, shocked, while she replicated precisely what I had done the day before. She is always listening. On my best and worst days.
I quickly knelt down, looked her in her eyes and reframed the whole deal. I said, “didn’t we have the most fun time? Wasn’t it fun to be so excited together? That’s what matters.” She took this in stride and accepted my reframe with – was I imagining it? – relief. She seemed happy to be happy with me, to focus on the fun, to allow ourselves an outburst of excitement without apologizing for it.
My first thought after this interaction with my girl was, well, horror. I need to be more careful, I thought. I have to watch what I say. I don’t want her to be 30 and worrying about her laugh in a video of a perfect moment with her child. It wasn’t until further reflection, though, that I realized that wasn’t going to cut it. I can’t just watch what I say. I can’t trick her, endlessly, into thinking I am confident about my cackly laughs or my soft tummy or my lullaby singing voice – the list goes on – if I am not. This is so much more important than that. I will have to do better than just watching it. I’ll have to live it.
I’ll have to offer myself the grace I want her to offer herself. I will have to love myself the way I want her to love herself. I will have to model for her, all day, every day, what it means to be a woman who is content to enjoy all I have, today, while working towards tomorrow too. Every day forever. No big deal.
I don’t think I will always be good at this. Or that I will always succeed. I will still be thoughtful about watching the words I say to my daughter, but I will approach this with the seriousness it deserves. I will do my very best to put into practice treating myself like I want her to learn how to treat herself. Because she is listening, on my best days and my worst days.
And so: I will laugh loudly and I will not apologize. I will eat the cupcake she makes for me without saying that I shouldn’t. I will sing loudly when my favorite T. Swift jam comes on. I will thank her when she tells me I look beautiful and I will soak in the way she looks at me. I will try to be deserving of her grace, love, and kindness to me by showing her not only how to accept it from those who love her – but also how to give it to herself.
Mamas, it’s easy to be hard on yourself. Easy to think we should do more, eat less, be quieter; the list could go on all day. We have to do the hard thing: we have to love ourselves. We have to be gracious with us. We’re the only ones who can show our littles how to do it. I’m not talking about showing them how to edit a video or slap a filter on a bad complexion day – I’m talking about showing them how to be true, whole-hearted livers of life, who are content and happy to be their loud, messy, perfect selves.