Looking Good

My mom was a big believer in reading. She was addicted to it. She read more than anyone else I have ever known. She loved to read everything, almost any genre, almost any book. LOVED it. When she was trying to figure things out, she would read to find a solution. Recipes, career advice, whatever. Parenting style. She loved her parents dearly, and she firmly believed that they did their best. But she also thought that they could have done better. So when she found she was going to have kids, she wanted to find out how to do things better than her parents had done. For the most part, I think she did an amazing job. She taught us so many things. To love your family and put them first. That people are not for hitting. That knowledge is more important than grades. That honesty is a value to be respected and honored, even if that means letting go of some much cherished lies. That a good book can be more important to you than a bad friend. That a good friend can be more important to you than a bad family member. That a good family member is worth doing anything for. I don’t know how much of this she got from books, how much she got from her family, and how much was just her. But I have felt really lucky in my own parenting, that I don’t often have to think ‘my mom goofed this up, how can I do it better?”

Of course, no one is perfect, and no parent is perfect. My mom made mistakes. She sometimes said one thing and did the opposite. She trusted her books too much sometimes. Anyway, I heard an author on the radio a while ago talking about a parenting book, about not putting excess stress on your kids by over praising them. Much of what he said resonated with me and I agreed with, but one thing he said reminded me of how we do not grow up in a vacuum, and that how our friends’ parents raise them also affects us. He said that you should not tell your kids, especially your girls, that they are beautiful or pretty, because it puts too much pressure on them to be pretty, and if they don’t FEEL pretty, it puts them in a strange situation of wondering if you’re lying. It gives them the idea that the most important thing that a girl can be is pretty. That if she isn’t pretty, she’s not worthwhile. That a better way is to tell them things you like about them. My mom raised me this way. She would say, “I love the way the sunlight reflects on your hair”. “I like your wrists…they’re so delicate and elegant”. “Your smile lights up your face”. All fine and good, but because my friends all were told they were pretty, in front of me, and I wasn’t told that, I grew up wondering if perhaps my mom thought I wasn’t pretty, and these compliments were just consolation prizes. Like, ‘too bad you’re plain, but at least you have elegant wrists.” See how good intentions sometimes don’t work so well? Sigh. So I grew up not knowing if my mom thought I was pretty or not. A girl should really think that at least her parents think she’s pretty. Yes, the pressure is out there, the pressure to look good. It’s not as important as how you treat people, as your sense of humor, as your brain or your heart or your soul. But it’s all over the place and very much there. I confessed to her how this method made me feel, once, when she was telling me the theory behind it. I think her heart broke a little, and she felt like a failure to a certain degree. But even then, I wondered, had she thought I was a pretty girl, a pretty child, or was she just trying to make me feel good? Maybe there’s no way to really make a girl feel confident in a culture so obsessed with looks, I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if she had told me I was pretty every day. Perhaps I wouldn’t have believed her.

But back in November, I went through her boxes of books. All 55 of them. Looking for some books that Richard had said he wanted, some books that I could send him for his birthday in early December. Her books are still at Kate’s house, as she’s planning on selling them on ebay, and we don’t have room for them here, and they’re covered with cat hair, which would probably kill Ted. So I went to Kate’s house, and she and I and dug through box after box after box. One thing I found was my baby book, which was pretty awesome to find. I haven’t seen that since I lived with my mom, back when I was 20 or so. Maybe before that even. Another thing I found was a set of binders, where she was trying to work out issues she had with her parents, my Aunt Colleen, that kind of thing. I skimmed them, and decided I didn’t want to try to bring that much frustration and pain into the house, and that she had gotten a lot of that stuff out of her system on her blog, which I can read any time I want to. So I didn’t keep them. But as I was flipping pages, I found one page, written when I was maybe 15 or so…and all it said was…

“Julie is the most beautiful girl in the world.”

I carry those words in my heart now. They fit just right, and they feel good.

15 thoughts on “Looking Good

  1. Oh, what a gift. I’m so glad you found that because it is what you needed.

    You’re fortunate that your mom was a writer and that you can see a sort of Legacy Trail of her parenting and philosophy. I won’t really have that with my mother, and I didn’t have that with my father. I do have the knowledge that my father always told us exactly where he stood on everything, and he always was very demonstrative with us. We all have no regrets of things left unsaid; we all knew he loved us and he knew we loved him.

    I think you raise–again!–such interesting and provocative points. My parents always told me I was pretty, etc. Even during the most awkward, ugly, overweight years. I never, ever believed them and knew they “had to” say that. But they also praised other attributes I had as well: artistic talent, writing, grades. The differences between way back then and now, I think, are the “helicoptering” aspect and the pervasive media. I don’t want to blog in your comments (any more!), so I won’t expound, but I’ll close by saying I think the best parents just do their very best with the love of their child uppermost at the time. What else can they do?

  2. No matter how it’s expressed or what exactly is said, we have a very human need for evidence of our parents’ expansive, unconditional and unique love.

    And on a related and yet separate issue, we also have a need to feel we are “seen.” Seen and valued, if not for everything we are, for *something.*

    And as women, yes, no matter how advanced we are in our thinking or our years, we like to know that someone, somewhere sees beauty when they look at us.

    I was teased about my looks as a teen and to this day I feel some of my insecurity is rooted in those words that I could never quite detach from.

  3. I’m so glad you found that! It’s perfect.

    For me, growing up in a different era, different circumstances, different culture – those things like being told you’re pretty wasn’t something that was said. I think it was thought that comments like that would give a person a “big head” etc.

  4. I love that you found that page. Isn’t it wonderful when a compliment sneaks up on you?! And even more wonderful that what your mom wrote down was exactly what you needed to hear. πŸ™‚

    It makes me wonder if she was just bursting to tell you how beautiful she thought you were, but she was trying so hard to do what the books said, that she wrote it in her journal because she just HAD to tell someone!!! πŸ™‚

  5. This is a wonderful story. My mother did the exact same thing as your mother. I was never told that I was pretty in general– only that specific pieces of me were pretty. I always wondered, too.

    I think that it is great that you found the answer to your question in such a way as to make you take notice of it. Sometimes life falls into place so perfectly.

    • Ally, I’m sad and happy to hear that someone else went through the same thing. Now maybe you know why your mom did it…she was trying to help your self esteem, not hurt it!

  6. You made me tear up with this, J. That is lovely that you found that page.
    Funny growing up, I don’t remember my mom ever commenting on my looks. I don’t think she put much importance on it either – as you can probably tell by the way she dressed me and cut my hair as a kid! And as a teen, I had horrid acne, terrible teeth and coke bottle glasses so I would have known that she was lying anyway!

  7. Karen MEG, I had a very awkward phase as a kid that I think really shaped me…crooked hair cuts (my mom cut it, and I couldn’t sit still), braces, glasses, corrective shoes, and acne. It’s hard for someone who goes through that to ever feel like someone might be telling the truth when they say they’re pretty, no matter how many times they hear the story of the Ugly Duckling.

    Deb, thanks. Nice to see you’re still around. I check your blog from time to time (chappy’s mom), and don’t see anything new, so I assume you have more important things to do.

    Starshine, I wouldn’t have thought it at the time, but now, as a mom, I’ll bet you that’s exactly what was happening. She tried so hard in so many ways to be the very best mom she could be. I miss her every day.

    Michelle, your comment reminds me of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Ma was so careful not to make Mary conceited by telling her she was beautiful. And if that was the culture, it was probably fine. For me, I didn’t get told that at home, and then went to my friends’ houses and heard it from their parents, so it was hard. Had everyone else been raising their kids that way, it would have been fine. However, I would not like to have been raised in many of the ways they were. My mom didn’t spank or pressure us in so many ways.

    V-Grrrl, you’re so right. It is great to be recognized for who we are, in a wonderful way. I wish the pressure to look good weren’t so huge in our culture. Especially as a mom, I wish my daughter weren’t under that pressure. She’s gorgeous…great skin, great hair, great figure…and still, I’ll bet she feels it.

    Nance, you’re right. I feel so very fortunate to have my mom’s writings, and that we had a very open and close relationship, so we were able to talk about a LOT of these things later on. Not in my teen years, because I was closed off to it. But later. And the helicoptering… Ugh. Exhausting. My daughter was getting an A in her French class last year, and then failed the final. We wanted to meet the teacher to try to suss out what might be going on, where we could help her, etc. The teacher was SO defensive, and slowly relaxed as she realized that we weren’t there to hammer her, just to ask her for help. It made me realize how exhausting such helicoptering must be when you’re faced with it. Sigh.

  8. Incredible! Reading saved me over and over again during my life. Loving but crazy strict parents who watched my every move. Social interaction mostly limited to church and school. Books kept me going. If I couldn’t really have the fully realized life I wanted for myself while growing up, I could at least read about the lives of others.

  9. Aww! I’m very glad you found that.

    I really related to this post. My mother was (and is) a feminist and didn’t want us to obsess about our looks, so she didn’t tell us we were pretty, and so I wondered the same thing you did: “Uh, does that mean I’m NOT pretty?”

    She was critical of people who went out of their way to look sexy, and I understand where she was coming from, but it was also a bit paralyzing, because then I felt I was doing something wrong if I tried to look attractive.


    • Linda, that’s it, exactly. Sigh.

      Scarlett & V, you’re right. I’m extremely lucky to have had her for a mom. If I wrote about her as often as I think of her, this blog would be like Facebook, but full of mom mom mom.

      Day 2 Day, indeed. I never expected to find something so JUST WHAT I NEEDED. What a wonder.

      Third Rail, I wish I knew who you were, anonymous one…I had a pretty good childhood, free to roam and wander and explore, very little dogma. And still, books were some of my dearest best friends. πŸ™‚

  10. Hey

    I think I’d cry buckets if I found the equivalent. My parents had box after box of books but pretty much each and every one of them was a religious tract of some kind (“Nothing was revealed.”)

    I always find it so touching that you recall your mother in such detail.

    I do wonder about the ‘pretty’ issue, especially knowing that my own daughter is so obsessed with Barbies and appearances and (especially) Rapunzel. She is, of course, utterly beautiful, but surrounded by impossibly artificial standards of so-called ‘beauty’ that no human being should have to live to. Sigh.

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