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Bones, Baggage and Mama Bears

Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby

Okay, yeah—I’m sensitive about weight and body issues, particularly when it comes to my girls. I lay blame squarely at the feet of my childhood best friend’s mom. I’ll call her Evilene. Because Evilene was evil. Particularly when she stopped everything she was doing to look at my adolescent body with all its curve and thick and awkward and proclaim, “Humph—you sure are getting fat.” The first time she said it, I wanted to die. The second time, I started thinking maybe she was right. Each subsequent time after that, I’d figure out more ways to hate my body and secret it under mounds of sweaters and baggy pants and other stuff that would hide my hips and butt and thick legs from her scrutiny. And I’d tuck myself into the basement of my childhood home and exercise like a lunatic.

The good thing is that I was exercising. The bad thing, of course, is that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons—had, at age 13, internalized this grown woman’s criticism and processed it in a way that made me hate me for years to come. That I didn’t develop an eating disorder is a small miracle.

Now, finally, I love me just the way I am. But I’m a woman and a mother. And like Erykah Badu so poetically put it in her song, "Tyrone," I’m sensitive about my shit. And the second someone says something sideways to my girls about their weight or their hair or their skin color or whatever, I go all the way in. Hard. (Hey, not even Sarah Palin can do “Mama Bear” like I do “Mama Bear.”)

Which explains the what-the-crap conniption I had when Nick recounted a conversation he’d had with Mari’s coach, who, earlier this season, pronounced my 11-year-old needed to get “more fit.” In front of her. Took me right back to my days standing in Evilene’s kitchen, getting the “you need to lose some weight, don’t you think?” talks.

“So,” I said to Nick, fire in my eyes, hands on my hips, spittle on my lips, “after you flattened coach and he got back up off the ground, did he at least apologize to Mari?”

My husband, one of the most thoughtful, non-reactionary, sensitive-when-it-comes-to-the-girls guy I know, insisted that what coach said was right: Our daughter, who worked out with the team twice a week for two hours a clip, seemed to be slacking at practice and wasn’t putting in any extra workouts at home on her own and it was beginning to show in her performance because she was, indeed, slower than the other girls and she needed to get more serious about the sport and blah, blah, blah…

It didn’t matter what he was saying. I swear, all I could channel was these two grown men towering over my daughter, telling my baby she was slow and fat and lazy. And yeah—the rest of the conversation about coach isn’t fit for a public parenting site.

All I know is that I wanted to rush to my baby—to hold her in my arms and tell her she was just fine the way she was and to not listen to the stupid men and their “You’re finishing last because you’re not working hard” declarations and let her know that the minute I saw coach, I was going to have a choice word or two with him about how he speaks to girls. You know: Build up the girls, rather than tear them down—remember that they’re 11-year-old, pre-pubescent girls, not 16-year-old muscle-bound, football-playing boys. But Mari was in school. So instead, I recounted the whole mess to my friend Gretchen, confident she and all my other homegirls would Thelma & Louise it over to coach’s house to give him two pieces of our minds about how you talk to kids in general and young, impressionable girls in particular.

But here’s what you need to know about my girl Gretchen: She’s one of the most sensible women I know. And a smart cookie (despite her affinity for telling my girls they should skip Yale and become Georgia Bulldogs). And my own, personal Ambassador of No. And when I tell her stuff and get all hand-on-the-hip/neck-swizzlin’/I’m-gonna-tell-them-a-thing-or-two-missy, somehow she manages to stop the full-on Color Purple/ol’ Miss Sophia stomp I’m famous for and gives me a few choice things to think about before I set to burning stuff down.

In the case of the coach, Gretchen was clutch in suggesting that even though what he said to Mari was foul, what was more important for me to do as a mom was to figure out just how my daughter received his words. We are, after all, grown women with a whole bunch of baggage and bones when it comes to self-image and self-esteem, and “maybe,” she added, “Mari didn’t digest his words the same way you or I would as adults.”

“Ask her how she felt about it instead of telling her how she should feel about it,” she suggested. “If what he said made her feel bad, then you can let him have it.”

Man, I have smart friends.

Sure enough, when I talked to Mari about the whole thing—careful to ask her how she felt about what coach said instead of telling her how disgusted she should have been with him—my darling, beautiful, sweet, FIT daughter said, “I work hard at practice and in the games, but coach is right: I need to practice more at home.”

“So, you didn’t think he was trying to say you’re out of shape?” I questioned, choosing my words with the care I do apples and strawberries at the Kroger.

“No, he wasn’t saying that,” she insisted. “He was telling me that I need to work on my drills. So I’ll work on my drills more.”

And in her 11-year-old mind, it was that simple. Mari didn’t have any reservations about herself—her coach’s words didn’t crush her spirit or annihilate her self-esteem like they would have my 11-year-old self.

But then, Mari is not me.  

And I am not her.

And though I am a great influence on the woman she will become and live to protect her from all hurt and harm—whether physical, mental, or emotional—she is her own little human being with her own mind and her own ideas and her own notions of what hurts and what doesn’t and it’s my job not so much to dictate her feelings to her but to be there to hold her when the nasty things do bite and sting.

Eleven years into this motherhood thing, and I’m still struggling to find my way.

Maybe one of these days—certainly with the help of my Ambassador of No—I’ll get it right.