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Almost immediately after learning I was pregnant with a daughter, I started thinking about self-esteem. I had been alive as a female for a little over 29 years at that point, and as amazing as being a woman is (and it sure is!) the world can be a challenging place for the female. Entire books have been written on this topic, but I think every woman can identify with the fact that the landscape of being a woman is very complicated and can feel very fraught. The intricacies of self-esteem and self-worth from young age, gender pressures, preconceived notions of what our bodies, faces, hair or voices should seem like, look like, feel like. What are the ins and outs of our beauty, our power, our intelligence, or worth– and where do these things come from? What constitutes them or takes them away? And I won’t even get started on sexuality. Too sexual, not sexual enough, sexuality for ourselves or for others. For pleasure or power– or both? Then as we grow older, how are our life choices or career choices interpreted and supported? What do we place our value on as women in our own lives and how is this reflected in our culture? Is my decision to work as a mother and wife valued equally to my neighbor or friend’s decision to work in the home as a homemaker/stay at home mother for her family? Are we rewarded equally for equal work in the workplace? When in comes to most of these things, we clearly still have a long way to go.
But how do any and all of these things snowball over time to alter our own perception of ourselves and of our self-worth? In a world where being a woman has become a near-political landscape of right and wrongs, valuable and undervalued, safe or dangerous– how do we RAISE a woman? And for goodness sake, how on earth do we raise a girl who will turn in to a woman who loves and values herself no matter what her choices may be? I started thinking about this when I was only a few months pregnant with Marlowe– and I continue to think about it almost every day since. I obviously don’t have all the answers, a crystal ball, or the ability to right the wrongs of the world (I wish!)– but there are a few things I’ve committed to doing as I raise Marlowe. During my pregnancy I thought long and hard about my own struggles as a girl and woman, ways that I’ve been supported or not, and the things I can do to help her develop a really healthy sense of self love and confidence as she gets older. I know the road for her won’t always be easy– no mother can guard against the heartbreaks and blows that life has to offer– but hopefully I can set a strong foundation that she can return to when the going gets tough. Here are a few commitments I’ve made as I Mother a daughter:
No Body Bashing. Ever.
This is a no-brainer. And, unfortunately, something that has become culturally synonymous with being a woman. Everywhere from commercials for vitamins or “light” food options– to exercise clothing, magazines, etc– you can always find a woman who wants her body to look different than it does, and is vocal about that. I obviously can’t shelter Marlowe from cultural mainstays, but I can alter my own behavior to make sure she never hears body bashing coming out of her Mama’s mouth. I’m very strict about this. I never, ever, under any circumstances, talk about my body negatively in front of my daughter. I never say that my clothes fit badly, are tight, that my stomach doesn’t look good squished in to the waistband of my jeans, that my arms look big, my boobs are saggier and smaller than they used to be, or that my butt looks bad in what I’m wearing. I definitely never ask her father’s opinion about my body in front of her. Of course I get these thoughts and others like them all the time. I’m not immune to our culture (or a post baby body) either! But I am hyper aware of not voicing those concerns in front of my daughter’s impressionable ears. I want her to see me as a person who likes herself just as she is. This is an excellent exercise, by the way, even if you don’t have children! I’ve found that when I stop verbalizing my body imperfections I actually think about them a lot less. I’ve also made it a point to never use the words “fat” or “chubby” about my body, her body, or other people’s bodies either. No “Look at this cute little chubby tummy!” when she’s wearing a bikini or anything like that. We can be descriptive without assigning loaded words to her body. I much prefer “Wow, you look so strong in that bathing suit!” or “I can see how tall you are when you wear that and how much you’ve grown!” I really believe that little innocuous comments can add up over time and really contribute to how a little girl views herself. (P.S- I also make sure that I don’t hang out around any Body Bashers with my daughter. You know the women I’m talking about, and I know a few too. If I know that somebody likes to talk negatively about their own body often– or about other women’s bodies– then I don’t bring them around my daughter.)
If you have a little girl, you know that they hear the word “cute” about a million times a day. People love telling little girls that they’re “cute” and “pretty” Because they are! And these people mean well, of course. We as Moms love hearing that our children are cute– and guess what? The little girls do too. Well, most of the time. Occasionally, a stranger will get all up in Marlowe’s grill and tell her she’s cute, and she gets an expression on her face like she wants to kick them in the shins. LOL. But I digress…my point is that little girls tend to get a whole lot of positive reinforcement about looking cute. I’d like to think we’d all like our little girls to grow up knowing that “cute” and “pretty” are probably the least important attributes they should be cultivating. I think as parents we probably think of tons of positive adjectives all day long to attribute to our little girls that are so much more dynamic than “cute” or “pretty”. When Marlowe was born, I made a commitment to her to voice those attributes just as loudly. I love telling Marlowe that she’s so clever, creative, adventurous, brave, smart, funny, curious– the list goes on and on. If I’m thinking one of these things about her, I always tell her. One of my favorite things to reinforce also is when she’s being kind. If she’s particularly sweet with her little brother, with one of her friends, or a grown up– I always remind her how proud it makes me when she’s kind with others and how important it is to be kind as well as strong, etc etc. I’ve found that Marlowe loves this too! The other day I heard her telling her brother, “Don’t cry, Major Boy, I’m your sister and I’m really strong and funny so I can take care of you when you’re sad and make you LAUGH!” I love that she has the confidence to make her brother feel better and that she believes in herself to care for him. I definitely tell my daughter that she’s cute and pretty all the time (hello, I’m her Mom, I think she’s the cutest little girl in the world! Ha) but I always make sure that when I do I accompany it with some other character reinforcement: “Wow, Lowie, you look so cute in that dress! It looks perfect to do some exploring in today, you little adventurer!”
When people ask me what I think the trick is for a smooth transition when welcoming a new sibling, I always tell them that it’s all about Trust. I’ve seen Marlowe blossom so much in the past year when I have given her little opportunities to win my trust, or have put some trust in her in a small way. The biggest of these was when Major was born. We let her hold him right away, and really get acquainted. She even licked him at their first meeting! LOL. Internally, I was kind of freaking out– she had a snotty nose and was a bit under the weather– but the dividends we have seen returned by really showing that we trusted her to care for her brother in her own way has been beyond my wildest expectations. Since he was born, whenever Marlowe has asked to hold her brother we have complied. In a safe environment with a pillow propping him up, of course, but we let her do it all by herself. Watching her gain confidence as a caretaker for her brother, and to see the self esteem it has brought her to know that we trust her with such a precious thing, have been really amazing. And they are so close because of it! This type of trust reared its head again while potty training. I was getting so much resistance in the beginning when I was prompting her to “try going potty” and reminding her all the time. When I finally had a conversation with her where I told her I was trusting her to tell me when she had to go and I wouldn’t force her, she never had an accident at home again. Since noticing so much success with it, I’ve been fostering this trust in other ways too. If I have to step in to the kitchen (where I can still keep a sneaky eye on them) I will ask Marlowe if she can keep an eye on her brother while he plays and make sure he doesn’t put anything dangerous in to his mouth. Even though I’m still watching and there (of course) isn’t any real danger present, she gets so excited to have a little bit of responsibility and to know that I trust her to do a good job. I hope that as she grows up we can continue to work on this “give and take” of trust in our relationship together. Ultimately, sooner than we like to believe, our little girls aren’t so little anymore and they are out there in the big bad world with just their self esteem and and conscience to guide them. I hope that fostering a trust in herself, and with us, at a young age will help guide Marlowe like a compass as she gets older and has to begin making more complicated life choices.
We can tell our children to act a certain way until we are blue in the face, but unless we are exhibiting the same behavior ourselves, they never really learn it. This is true about manners (try saying please and thank you to your kids and watch how quickly they start saying it back to you!) and it’s true about Respect. Even though Marlowe is still a small child, I try to always treat her with the respect she deserves as a person. I start the day by telling her what the family plan is, what she’ll be doing, or if somebody besides me will be taking care of her. I don’t do this because she has a choice in the matter (she doesn’t, and she knows that) but by sharing the plan she knows that her feelings matter to me and that I want her to feel included. If she tells me she’s scared about something, or angry about something, I always ask her why and listen to what she tells me before responding. Most of the time, it’s a ploy to get out of something she doesn’t want to do (she is Two years old after all) but I want her to know that I will always take her concerns seriously. (This is also within reason. A few days ago, I was called in three times about a possible Big Bad Wolf sighting in Marlowe’s bedroom,and by the third time I was just cracking the door open and saying “Wolves don’t come in to houses in Connecticut without a warrant! I’ll check on you in a little while!” Ha!) But probably the most important lesson about Respect is respecting oneself. Marlowe watches her father treat me with respect, and I would settle for nothing less. I know that children pick up so much from how their parents behave with one another and so I make sure that both our home environment, and how I conduct myself in front of her is something that I would be proud for her to emulate. If there is a marital argument brewing, we make sure to table it until the kids are asleep to really hash it out.
Asking Before Touching
This one didn’t come in to play until Marlowe was an older toddler, but I think it’s really important. Now that she’s really verbal and aware, and potty training is in full force, a lot of body questions have been coming up. We answer her questions honestly, with the correct terms when she asks about what this or that is called (she is particularly confused recently by why my “boobs” look different than hers. LOL) – and if she has any other questions about genitalia we answers those as well. If we are undressing her for a bath, to change, or helping her to use the potty, we always ask first: “Can I take your pants off? Can I help you pull down your underwear?” I want her to understand that SHE is in charge of her own body, especially as she grows older. We also tell her that Mommy and Daddy and her doctor are the only people who are allowed to touch her private parts when we need to clean her, and that if anybody else touches her private parts she is supposed to tell us right away no matter what. We also tell her that if anybody ever does anything to her body and it makes her feel sad that she can tell us, and we will help her right away. Right now she’s very focused on the fact that her shots at the doctor hurt her body and make her feel really sad, and so she shouldn’t have to get them. Leave it to my two year old to find the loophole. Ha!
Showing Her That “Being A Woman” Means Anything You Want It To
I firmly believe that there are a million different ways to be a “good” Woman. Whether you like makeup or hate it, become a Mother or don’t, work from the home running your family life or become the CEO running a company, wear your sexuality on your sleeve or keep it more private, love fast cars or cooking, are extroverted or a more demure personality type– these are ALL “womanly characteristics” in my book. I think that all women are a beautiful study in contradictions– it’s what makes the way we parent and/or our roles as spouses and friends so unique and complex. I want to support Marlowe in being the beautiful girl that she is, and also fostering the sharp intellect and goofy humor that she possesses as well. I like when she watches me put on makeup or do my hair, listens in while I take a conference call for work– and then comes to my Studio with me so I can explain to her what I do on the computer, and show her other projects I’m working on. For me, being the woman I am is being all of these things together. I made the decision to stop trying to fit in to other people’s boxes a couple of years ago (Bye, Show Business! LOL), and it’s crucial to me now that I remind Marlowe how special her own uniqueness is. I hope she always knows as she grows older that the person she truly is inside is exactly the person I want her to be.
All of these choices are guidelines I try to live by as I Mother my sweet girl. I’m far from perfect– and I’m always learning about how I can improve upon my Mothering– but I find that having a set of my own guidelines to support my daughter as she grows older really helps me feel like I’m being proactive and doing my best by her. Do you have certain things you stick to as your raise your own daughters in this big, bad world? Please share in the comments below!
Photographs by Courtney Ann Photography