Now that I’m a mom of two girls, I guess I get why my mother did what she did. When you’re overworked and way underpaid, and you’re of a generation that thinks kids are to be controlled, rather than reasoned with, and you’re afraid of having to deal with the cascade of hormone-driven adolescent problems that come with being the mom of a girlchild, you search for silence. Demand it, even. Talking about teen stuff like periods and first kisses and confidence and beauty wasn’t an option for her, because speaking about it somehow condoned and encouraged a flurry of inappropriate behavior—invited her daughter to be difficult.
Let’s just say difficult wasn’t an option for my mom.
Of course, her no-nonsense parenting style had its plusses: I stayed out of trouble, that’s for sure. And it kept me focused, so that worked out pretty well for my adult successes. But her heavy-handed, be-quiet-and-do-only-as-I-say approach gave me a wicked case of low self-esteem—made me uncomfortable with my body, with the opposite sex, with the accolades that came with my successes.
To this day, coping with these things is still a struggle. But I promised that it would be much less so for my little ladies. From the moment my Mari opened wide in my womb and revealed herself to be a girl, I made the conscious decision to set about being a different kind of mother to her—to do everything within my power to make her the kind of girl who could square her shoulders. Walk with her chin held high. Be comfortable in her skin and appreciate who she is, no matter what anybody else has to say about it.
And I work hard at this.
Every. Single. Day.
For instance, when we see the bus rounding the corner and heading toward our stop, I lean in and kiss my girls—Mari, 11, and Lila, 8—and triple dog dare them to be brilliant. “Who are you not to be?” I ask. They are, after all, smart girls. And their father, Nick, and I, are investing a massive amount of time and cash on art and music classes, academic enrichment programs, science camps, even Mandarin lessons, to open our girls’ eyes to the possibilities—to show them that our world is so much bigger than our little corner of Georgia, and that they don’t have to be stuck here being average when culture, class, and yes, brilliance can take them places their parents and their parents before them have never gone. It is these constant reminders—those high expectations—that not only keep the A’s coming, but make my girls proud of their smarts. They are trying to please their parents, sure. But they’re also impressing themselves—planning to be great. Something I was too afraid to do when I was their age.
I was also profoundly uncomfortable with my looks; my kinky hair and my dark skin and my curvaceous body seemed always to be a study in what was wrong, rather than what was beautiful, about me. Maybe because no one ever explicitly told me, “You’re beautiful, Denene.” And so, ashamed and terribly shy, I hid—couldn’t figure out how to fit in, always tucked myself into the shadows of my prettier friends, certainly avoided talking to boys at all costs. I don’t want this for my girls, so I tell them they’re beautiful—every inch of them—everyday. I also make it clear that there is true beauty in different—that freckles and red hair and afros and plump physiques are just as amazing as any other characteristic pop culture serves up as an ideal. Knowing this not only makes my girls comfortable with their loveliness, but encourages them to forgo judging others because they don’t fit whatever “ideal” others serve up. Do I run the risk of creating conceited monsters? Maybe. But there is honor in loving oneself—in appreciating you, even if few others do.
The most important thing I teach my girls every day, though, is that there is strength in imperfection—that making mistakes and owning up to them are the first steps to being better, and that you release yourself from an incredible amount of pressure when you recognize you simply cannot do it all.
This lesson is, perhaps, the best of the three because even as they embrace their strength, beauty, and fearlessness, they’ll need to know that they have the right to take off the “superwoman cape”—that it’s okay, sometimes, to get it wrong and cry about it and ask for help and lean on a dependable shoulder. A shoulder they can trust—as strong as a baobab tree.
These are lessons we could all stand to embrace. I know on my tougher days, I have to remind myself of these things. My hope is that my girls will get in the habit of pursuing excellence, loving themselves, and embracing imperfection now, so that they’ll continue to walk with those squared shoulders and their chins held high.