I remember a conversation with my mother one day, before I was married. It was a late night and we were talking about life and decisions and I confessed to her that I felt like I was messed up, beyond hope, beyond repair.
She was exasperated with me.
“All your life, I told you how beautiful you are, how smart you are. I never wanted you to suffer from low self-esteem like me.” (Pardon me, Mum, if I have paraphrased.)
She didn’t understand why I should suffer from this same affliction after all her efforts to counter it. I didn’t either, at the time. Why wasn’t hearing these good things enough to develop a healthy self-esteem?
The answer eluded me until just a little while ago when I started praying over Abby that she would become big and strong like her daddy, and Tim started praying over Abby that she would continue to be smart and beautiful like mummy. My first inclination was to correct him. It sounded a bit like gender stereotyping and despite the assurances of my husband, my self-esteem isn’t entirely healthy (though it is still better than it used to be!).
But, before I could open my mouth to deny the intelligence and beauty that my husband was attributing to me, I recalled someone else speaking out to deny the same thing. That person was my mother.
My mother has struggled her entire life, right from birth, with various physical aflictions and complications that in turn often set her back emotionally and socially, but despite her protestations, never mentally. Being the second eldest child of four, she assumed the responsibilities of looking after the other kids (even her older brother) when her parents were at work. She took the blame when the kids misbehaved or messed up the house she had just cleaned. These are just a drop in the bucket of struggles and obstacles my mum has been through.
She became an entrepreneur. She took skills she had and turned them into a business. My parents ran a computer and desktop publishing business for over 12 years while we were growing up. She even once worked on a political campaign, among other projects. She’s also a published author. And despite all of this, she would brush aside compliments as mere flattery or even lies intended to make her feel good.
And so, while she was careful to tell me how beautiful I was, how smart I was, she in turn denied these same things about her, even though I also could (and still do) see them in her. That’s why telling my daughter she is smart and beautiful is only half the battle.
How can I expect Abby to believe me when I tell her she is beautiful if I deny my own beauty? How can I expect her to see herself as intelligent if I ignore and deny myself?
I am not super-model thin, or exceptionally tall with great hair. I don’t wear make-up most of the time. But I know that beauty is more than skin deep. I know that beauty comes from within. And my husband sure thinks I’m a knock-out.
I’m no Einstein. But I know that there’s more than just book-smarts that make a person intelligent. I value the ability to think critically about problems and situations, to recognize how to find an answer if it’s not already known.
And as far as praying that Abby will be big and strong like Daddy and smart and beautiful like Mummy – I hope we instil in her that these are truths. That Daddy is big and strong (but not because he’s a man) and Mummy is beautiful and smart (but not because she’s a woman), and these are things that Abby can be, too.
It is my hope and my prayer that I can model acceptance of truth for our children so that they will believe in themselves, accept honest compliments, and appreciate who they are.