Twas the night before Mother’s Day, 2019. My 5, almost 6 year old, daughter, Luciana was finishing the artwork that she would use to stuff her handmade cards, the artwork: ponies colored and cut out of her coloring book. She would personally deliver them, to each woman in our family, the next morning at breakfast along with cupcakes she decorated earlier in the day and a hug. Bedtime-ish was approaching so she enlisted me to help with the cutting and a little detail work. Since my designated tasks were under her direction she still seemed to take ownership of the final products. We finished off the pony that was supposed to look like “Applejack” and inserted it, along with the others into each card (with their heads popping out of the top of the card, very important detail), each pony assigned, with specific intention, to it’s decided upon individual. We stacked the cards, placed them with the cupcakes on the counter, and I put her to bed.
While getting myself ready to crawl into my sheets I reflected on how I encouraged her by telling her that they were looking very nice but also praising the hard work and detail she put into them. I made sure to remind her how much fun we were having while making them, a practice I have been conscious of in my efforts to teach her to enjoy the process, not just the outcome of her efforts. I pat myself on the back for being present with her, for being patient as she changed directions through the process, and for letting her take ownership.
We woke up to some yucky weather but our breakfast plans were indoors so we just went about our morning routine-ish without much alteration but to add sweaters to our chosen outfits. Teeth brushed, baby changed, beds kinda-sorta made, clutter kinda-sorta cleared, a little bit of tv time with Elmo, Cookie, and Gonger, and then out the door with our gifts in tow.
We walked/ran into the restaurant, through what felt like horizontally falling, cold rain, and settled into our table for 12, plus a highchair. We left the cupcakes in the car for after but brought the cards inside.
Once we were all sorted into our seats and going over the menus, Luciana asked to hand out her cards. I whispered into her ear to get out of her seat, walk over to the first person’s chair, make eye contact, say Happy Mother’s Day, and to deliver the card with a hug. She pulled her ear away from my mouth and acknowledged that she understood the task with an aggressive single nod and smile, a signature move for her when she is confident. I felt excited for her and watched as she pulled out her chair. I notice something. Something I have felt inside my body but couldn’t witness on myself. Her body, her posture, her behavior. Her shoulders curled inward, just slightly. This looked familiar. Her normal gait shifted to one where she purposefully walked on the heels of her clogs to get to the other side of the table. Her voice changed from proud, big girl, to mouse-like babyish talk. She won’t let herself smile her full smile for too long, taking breaks making a pursed lips little expression as to not come off as too big for her britches, or her little cherry print dress in this case. My stomach does a thing. A little empathy thing.
She delivered her cards very politely and each person responded to her with delight as praise, as expected, but why the shift? Why the apparent twinges of shame or guilt or uneasiness personified in her little being that she won’t be able to name for many years to come. That I am just learning to name myself at 29 years old. Have I taught her to do this? To make herself small. Have I modeled this for her? Has she already absorbed this from our culture, at just 5 years old? To be guilty of her pride? To be humble to the point of almost total loss of identity?
She comes back to me after all of the cards were delivered and hugs me, I feel her relief and exhale in that hug. She sits back in her chair and her shoulder return to their normal position. The praise continues from different directions across the table to her. She will let herself enjoy some of it but still alternates her smile with the pursed lip smile, accompanied by a nervous shrug. It’s ever so slight, maybe so slight that only her mother would notice but its there. And she is mine, all the way down to the chromosomes.
I whisper again to her, “You can be proud of yourself, you worked very hard on those, it’s okay to be really proud and feel happy!” We went on with our morning, she enjoyed her pancake and apple juice.
To this day, I feel in myself and can empathize with this pain. I want better for my daughter. Not because this little expression of humility or shame is going to kill her, but because this little expression represents a bigger picture of shame that will eat away at her over time. I know how it feels to have little shame holes inside because this is what I perceive now that culture expected of me as a little girl too. I am certain that I am not alone in wanting more for my child than I have had myself. But I am also certain that no matter how hard I try, I am modeling this for her, to some degree. No matter how much I have evolved over the years. No matter how much praise and encouragement I receive and let myself own.
I think a lot of us are modeling this to our little girls. Our language is important. Our sense of self worth which is expressed by our bodies and worn on our sleeves is important. I want my daughter’s daughter to deliver her artwork to me as her grandmother with broad shoulders and a no-holds-barred smile!
I am taking responsibility, continuing my efforts in honoring my own pride so I can show her how, and hopefully inspiring other women to do the same, to shift our culture for our girls.