Was it something I said?

When I was a girl my mother told me this:

“I’m glad my daughters aren’t beautiful.”

(She had four of them.)

“My daughters are interesting and smart and clever instead.”

We were sitting at a stoplight at Stapley and University.

I don’t remember where we were going.

I had heard this in little bits and pieces all my life, but somehow, maybe my age, maybe the stillness of the car, maybe the car itself as holding cell for an unwitting prisoner—this time especially, the words stung.

And penetrated deep into my soul.

My mother was always pointing out who was beautiful; not just pretty, but really beautiful:  My tall, blonde, confident aunt with high cheek bones and deep brown eyes– oh, yes, movie star beautiful; someone in my peer group at church, who was not especially nice to me–  yes, she was beautiful too;  a smattering of beautiful cousins; the whole population of Czech girls—after the return from a humanitarian trip.  The list went on.

Here’s what I knew about myself:  I had a thin long face and I didn’t look good without bangs.

My mother told me so.

(Incidentally, it was seven years and three children into my marriage before I finally threw the “no bangs” rule out the window.  I actually tried my absolute best to never let my husband see me with my bangs pulled off my forehead.  I laugh now.  What wasted energy.)

My mother is not a wretched woman.

I think in her own way, she meant for that first statement to be a compliment:  “Honey, I am so proud of the brilliant, independent, interesting person you’re becoming.  You are so much more than your beautiful face.”

But somehow, by default of my tender age, I missed that.

And maybe

no one ever told her she was beautiful.

How could I be so hideous (my words, now) and unattractive to the one person in the world who was supposed to love me best?

The explanation: It must be true.

Sometimes, now as an adult, my mother will tell me I look nice.

It’s sad–I think she really might think so; but it’s hard for me to believe it.

My poor husband, he tells me I am beautiful, and tells me all he sees when he looks into my face.  He tells me officially, now he’s “had me” longer than my parents so all those insecurities should be undone.

But scars are scars, and they run deep.


So, in my mothering, maybe I’ve gone overboard in the opposite direction.

I think my children are beautiful, and I tell them every chance I get.

Truly, they are more than likely to hear it at least once a day.

Am I raising delusional, stuck-up children, full of pride and conceit?

(If you knew my children, I think you would say not.)

They have their insecurities and doubts just like everyone else.

Am I raising children who are focused more on looks rather than character, integrity and intelligence?

(If you knew my children, I think you would say not.)

Am I raising children who are disproportionally preoccupied with the way that others see them, rather than how they see themselves?

(If you knew my children, I think you would say not.)

Maybe the key is not comparing their faces to anyone else’s.

It’s not about my favorite color of eyes, or a nose that is just so, or my preference to a particular shape of face, or the wave or texture of their hair.  It’s not about telling them that I think they are more beautiful than their friends.

It’s the smile that melts my heart that is beautiful; the one with the chapped lips and crooked teeth, or the deep dimple right in the middle of their cheek.  I tell them that is beautiful to me.

It’s the twinkle in their eyes as they tell me a funny anecdote; the depth in their eyes as they share a concern; the kindness in their eyes as they help someone and don’t even know I’m watching; the way the light hits their eyes and makes them sparkle like a thousand stars when they tell me about something good that happened to them that day.  I tell them that is beautiful to me.

It’s the way their brow furrows in concentration, or the faraway look of a great ponder, or an amused smile at that really funny part in the book—so absorbed in the reading that they are oblivious to having an audience.  I tell them that is beautiful to me.

It’s the way their eyelashes lay in a shadowy smudge across their cheeks when they close their eyes to pray, or when they’ve fallen asleep.  How that one lock of hair keeps finding its way to a troublesome spot and requires an absent-minded, automatic brush of the hand…

They watch me drink in every last inch of their faces, and they know that I love what I see—because I tell them so.

Sometimes I worry.  Have I told them they are beautiful too much?

Due to circumstances not of our choosing, four years ago, we plucked them up from comfort and familiarity, and set them down in a place that was more than a little prickly and cold, and culturally different from anything they had ever been exposed to.  Welcome to a taste of the refiner’s fire, my babies.

It has been full of challenges, culture shock and loneliness.

But children are incredible.

They survive.

I am so amazed at their strength and courage and resilience.

And if the knowledge that their mama thinks they are beautiful has helped to weather these early thunder storms of life, if the knowledge that their mama thinks they’re beautiful has given them the quiet confidence to get back up when they are pushed down, if the knowledge that their mama thinks they’re beautiful helps them on their journey to discovering who they are and all they can accomplish,

then I’m happy to have given it.

And I’m glad it was something I said.

Jenny lives on the east coast with her husband and five terrific kids. Her children say: “she cooks good food, and takes too many pictures.” She likes to eat food that other people cook (preferably, people in restaurants), take pictures, write, shop, spend time with family and to be on vacation. She can be reached at jenny.mom2five@gmail.com.


12 responses to “Was it something I said?

  1. Oh Jenny! I love this! I love you! I was raised the same way and those scars DO run deep. And like you, I praise my children generously.

    The first time I ever heard my mother say something nice about me was second-hand– a neighbor who said my mom was proud of my college scholarship. I remember being shocked that she saw any good in me at all. Sad, isn’t it because she must have loved me but never found a way to say so.

  2. This is such great advice. No matter how old we get (I’m almost 60) we still have a need to please our parents (mine are now dead.) To look back and remember their high opinion of me would save so much grief. I know I was occasionally told I was smart, etc. but I was told more often that I wasn’t as smart, cooperative, helpful, friendly, poised as so-and-so. I still think about those people I was compared to and feel diminished and unappreciated. Kids need to hear compliments from their parents!

    What saved my self esteem is that my father thought my mother was beautiful and she believed him. She didn’t stand in front of the mirror and whine about her weight, hair or imperfections–she truly FELT beautiful. Her makeup, hairstyle and clothes were adorning HER beauty. As a little girl I copied her actions and I believed I was beautiful, too. Our actions do speak louder than our words.

  3. I have to laugh. How often I have overcompensated for what we thought was my lack in childhood. In undoing my scar, I heal my children from that, but I’m sure their hidden wounds will still come out in something else.

    • TJ,
      I totally get that.
      We parents try to do the best we can, but there will always be something! {sigh}
      The only map I have to navigate this tricky course is to take the things that my parents did well and try to improve upon the things I felt were lacking.

      (And * hope, hope, hope* I don’t screw it up too badly!)

  4. I also wonder what I’m doing unintentionally to wound my children- to make my scars seem less visible. THank you Jenny for your thought provoking letter. It was beautiful!

  5. That really was beautiful. Children really do believe everything parents tell them. It sounds like you are doing a great job to instill a good dose of self esteem in your own kids.

  6. this was very thought-provoking. sometimes even what we don’t say speaks volumes.

  7. I loved this. There are those moments in our childhood that definitely define a good deal of our later lives, whether or not they should. Thanks for sharing your story!

  8. Such beautiful wisdom. Jenny’s children are so blessed to have her.
    My mother couldn’t care less about physical beauty. She never wore make-up, never wore her hair in anything other than a braid, and cared very little about clothing. Yet, she was wise enough to sense it was important to help her daughters feel beautiful(especially during our teenage years).
    One day, when I was perhaps 15, she humored me by sitting with me as I paged through a fashion magazine. I pointed out a model I found beautiful. I told my mother that I thought she had pretty lips. My mother told me that I probably liked them because my lips were full and pretty just like the models.It was very uncommon for my mother to make a comment about someone’s physical appearance, but looking back I suppose she made the choice in order to help me feel pretty. This comment stuck with me, and I even chose to believe my mother over a boyfriend who told me my lips were two fat earth worms after kissing me.

  9. Thank you for this lovely post. My father always refered to me as ‘my beautiful daughter’. When he died this year, it began to sink in that I would never hear those words, from a man, again. I miss his attention so much.
    In my 30’s, constructing myself as a board certified physician,I went through a strident phase when I found it sexist that he would describe me that way. Maybe it has just sunken in so deeply, I didnt need that regard… but could I really see all those patients and not screw up? Could I pull off the intellectual challange?
    Once I was over 40, a professional and a mom, he also called me ‘his wonderful daughter’, with generous helping of beautiful. He wasnt a boastful guy andI doubt he ever said this in my absence. He was just a sweet and loving father.

    My mom, also the mother of 3 sons, told me I was pretty, BUT, that I must never use my looks to manipulate. I beleive she was really thinking of her sons,and fearing they would be hurt someday. Her message was, being pretty was a liability and a responsibility. At 52, I look my age. I dont need feel a need to strive for youthful beauty…maybe it has just lived a full life.
    Last year, we relocated my elderly parents from the midwest. My beautiful mom and I are spending time together, enjoying a new intimacy of the mundane: meal planning, grocery lists, errands and yes, motherly advice! She looked at me as I was dressing one day, and said , like a revelation,” you are so beautiful!!’ I will alway remember that moment, like we were sharing some great news!

    I too, tell my kids they are beautiful, and then add ‘wonderful’ and ‘creative’ and ‘smart’ and, well you get the idea.

  10. Jane,
    I’m so sorry for the loss of your father, he sounds absolutely wonderful.
    And I’m so happy for you and your mother — that you are adding new layers to your relationship and are sharing these beautiful moments together.

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