So often, I’m inspired and intrigued by the writing of another mom out there on the web. It’s wonderful to read another woman’s words and think, yeah, I totally get where she’s coming from, and I am so glad she wrote that!
Today, I’m having this feeling about Kasey Edwards‘ piece over at Role Reboot, entitled, “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat .” Her letter to her mom is a bit of a truth bomb, especially as she describes when, at age seven, she first heard her mother called herself “fat, ugly, and horrible”:
“In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life. I learned that:
1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.
2. Fat is ugly and horrible.
3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly, and horrible too.
Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure, and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.”
That first idea, that “you must be fat because mothers don’t lie,” really strikes me. It goes along with the notion that “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice” (most often attributed to author Peggy O’Mara). But what Edwards implies is that not only does the way we speak to our children become their inner voice, but the way we speak to and about ourselves in front of them contributes to their inner voice as well. I think for many parents, myself included, we place a lot of emphasis on the way we speak to our kids about them, but not quite so much on how we speak about ourselves in front of them. Perhaps, though, this is just as important.
Edwards goes on to talk about the responsibility she feels toward her own daughter: to end the passing chain of self-degradation around ideas of beauty and worth. Her piece makes me think about my role as a mother, too – only I have sons, not daughters.
What Am I Teaching My Boys?
I believe I have a huge responsibility as a mother of boys to model positive ideas about beauty and worth with regard to women and girls – ie. that there is no connection between social norms of beauty and inherent worth as a person. (Yes, with regard to men and boys, too, but the correlation is so much stronger for women in my culture, so my work has to start there).
But damaging ideas about beauty and thinness are actually not what I worry about passing on to my boys the most. I have a different brand of negative-self-talk that I worry will affect their perception of girls and women.
We all have our baggage. Mine is along the lines of general self-doubt and low self-esteem. Now, I’ve done some hard work on this in the last decade and I think I’ve come a long way – a looooooong way. I no longer have panic attacks about not being good enough. I don’t wallow for days in a defeatist stew of blaming myself for everything and everyone unhappy around me. I don’t have unrealistic, perfectionist expectations that follow me around everywhere while I try to put on a happy face as if my constant effort isn’t painful.
All. That. Being. Said…
…There are still rare moments where glimpses of this unconfident, former self re-emerge. When I’m particularly sleep-deprived, or there is too much on my plate, I occasionally still hear myself (usually through tears) saying things like:
- Oh my god, I’m just the worst. I’m terrible. (eg. when my child gets more than a minor hurt and it scares me and I wish I could have prevented it)
- Sorry, sorry, I don’t know why I’m like this. I just can’t ever seem to read situations right. (eg. when I’ve realized after a meltdown that I could have chosen a better time to have a difficult conversation with my partner)
- I don’t know why I never ever learn! You’d think I could have figured this out by now. (eg. when the same obstacle presents itself over and over and I wish I had prevented it)
- I can’t ever do anything fucking right. (eg. when I’m particularly stressed and so have more at stake than is reasonable on something, and it doesn’t go perfectly)
Let me start by saying I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me having these feelings of stress or regret in and of themselves. Feelings are what they are, and I can’t control that they arise. But I can try to control what I do with them. And importantly, I need to consider how my kids may perceive my reactions, especially as they get grow and learn about the world around them.
It’s not unreasonable to suppose that my kids, growing up in a family with hetero, cis-gender parents, are probably going to form some pretty deep-seated ideas about “how women are” and “how men are” from their two main role models: me and my husband. Whether I like it or not, this is probably what’s going to happen. So if in times of stress, I resort to self-blame and devaluing myself, but in the same stressful situations, my husband does not have these reactions, what might my sons learn?
Well, I can’t be sure, but it might go something like this:
- Mommy must be the worst, never learns, and can’t figure out how to do things right, because mothers don’t lie.
- Daddy must be getting things right since he doesn’t worry (out loud) about not getting them right or say he is the worst.
- Daddies (men) get things right and are fine the way they are; Mommies (women) don’t know how to get things right and always need to improve.
A thought-train like this will sure play nicely into established ideas about men and women that they’ll see all around them in their dominant culture. Men as self-assured, women as flaky. Men as rational, women as emotional. Boys as good enough, girls as having something to prove. Patriarchal valuing of “male” attributes over “female” ones will be reinforced. What they see at home will reflect what they learn from their culture, strengthening it.
Changing My Language
So I’m going to try to remember this in times when my old baggage comes creeping back. If I bring myself into the moment instead of making those sweeping conclusions about myself, I can lower the stakes for these times. Maybe I can change some of my words, as even small shifts could have a big impact.
Instead of talking about how I’m the worst, maybe I can focus on how I’m disappointed with what has happened right now. Maybe instead of apologizing for being the way I am, I can acknowledge that I could have done this one thing better and move on. Instead of bemoaning that I never get anything right, I can applaud my dedication to always keep trying.
And instead of worrying about the negative things my boys might think of me, I can strive for the things I want them to learn about me, and vicariously, to infer about women and girls. Now that list could get really long… it’s a thought for another day!