You know that scene in The Help, where the maid (who is so much more) tells the little girl, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”? Yeah, I love it, too. The thing is, in that movie, the little girl has only that one person telling her those things. But, as it turns out, one person is usually all you can listen to at a time.
As a Mommy, I do my very best to make sure my voice is heard above the din of this crowded and confused world. Or so that at least, my words will be there, sitting like a safety net in the back of their sub-conscious, should my children find themselves straddling the tight-rope of insecurity. “You are smart, and strong, and brave. You have courage. You are kind, and beautiful, and good. You are lovely, and loved, and you know how to love.” I say this, over and over, and hope that some of it sticks.
But sometimes, people come behind you and make things a bit slippery.
I had noticed, of course I had, that getting my newly 7-year old twins dressed for school had become increasingly difficult. Where they had once been relieved by my choosing outfits for them on school days, they now threw fits. Zoe defined everything as either “fashion” or “not fashion”. And Ellie reverted to throwing toddler-esque fits on the living room floor, arms and legs flailing, because no outfit looked just right. Our mornings, previously filled with sleepy hugs, tales of dreams, and mad dashes to their brick school building, became a dreaded part of my day.
And then one day, it all started to make sense. As we drove away from our usual after school pick up spot, one of my twins cried and cried that this was the worst day ever. I had, in fact, heard this same story starter many times by then, but the abundance of tears were an unwelcome addition. “Okay, honey, why was it the worst day?” I asked. “Because today, I am not cute, even though I wore my birthday dress. I am only cuter than five other girls, and lots of other girls are prettier than me. They said that I am only cute if I get a new haircut and have new clothes I haven’t worn before.”
Wait. Who? What? I struggled to keep my voice light and concerned, my face a neutral palette. I am not Switzerland. I am one of the least neutral people on this planet. I have strong feelings about everything, even things that don’t conjure feelings. As someone who did one of their college thesis’ on Womens Lib, I definitely have abundant feelings about belittling and labeling based on outward appearance. However, all my trainings tell me that when a child is trusting you with information, you keep it light and don’t show emotion. Just the facts, ma’am. But these are my kids, and I am a well-spring of emotion. Thankfully, I took drama classes, so I can relax my face and neck muscles on the occasions when my children tell me things that make me want to clench tighter than an orange-y, oiled, speedo-sporting body builder.
So, I sat, like a woman who had just received an extra shot of botox, as my daughters told me all about a group of popular 5th and 6th graders at their school who lined them up at recess to rate them. Apparently, this had been going on for a while. Everything was judged, your hair, your face, your clothes, your shoes, and your smile. Then, the older kids went around telling the young girls who is the prettiest and cutest, and who is not. They would also tell all the children exactly who is cuter than they are, and why.
As I drove home, I felt incredulous. Here I am, doing my best to knit enough true and uplifting words together, so that my children have something lasting to keep them warm, and those girls came along and pulled and pulled at the strings until it started to unravel.
I felt anger and grief in tandem. Anger for obvious reasons, and grief for complicated ones. My twins are in first grade. In the big picture they are babies. So new to the earth that they rarely cut their own meat at dinner. They are filled with hope and imagination. They are more lovely than wild, still looking to the people around them to tell them who they are. And now someone had told them that they are something other than what I have said, and treated them as if things that don’t really matter, are all there is.
Then, there was the grief that I felt for the older girls. How sad it made me, to think of girls that age having such a deficit that they would treat little children that way. I am not as noble as I want to be, so it was the anger that drove me to call the school that afternoon. It was handled, very tidily and full of concern for the feelings of all involved. Except, it isn’t over. Scientists have discovered that sound waves never die. Once something is spoken, it bounces around in the universe forever. Any woman could have told them that, without Doppler equipment. We all hear some sort of broken record in our thoughts, telling us that we are less than we are, at some point or another. I wanted more for my daughters. I still do.
It has been weeks, and I am continuing to pick up the pieces. Still rebuilding the fine things that were chipped by careless words and shallow judgements. Most days my girls now pick their own outfits. It shows, believe me, it shows. I force myself to just grin at their courage to wear what they feel best in, even when it is something that I would never select. They are only seven, soon we will have far bigger battles to face than wearing polka dots with plaid. A Mom should be your greatest ally, and I for one will not let my daughters be hit by “friendly fire.” When others shout at them, I hope that my words will be what they listen to instead. That they will have heard me say the truth about them so many times that they hear it in their own voice. “I am smart, and strong, and brave. I have courage. I am kind, and beautiful, and good. I am lovely, and loved. And I know how to love.”