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When you’re the parent of a highly creative (read:
temperamental), determined (read: stubborn) and tremendously bright (read:
devious) 6-year-old, having a really excellent day where there are no tantrums,
bouts of inconsolable hysteria, hollering, hunger strikes, cleanup time
walkouts, professions of hate and periods of intense pouting is as rare as a
unicorn sighting, or the chance you might have been the second-runner up had Amal Alamuddin declined George
Clooney’s marriage proposal.
Which is to say: It’s highly unlikely. So when a surprisingly
good day happens, you embrace it, write it down for posterity, love it and speak
wistfully of it as if Bruce Springsteen actually wrote “Glory Days” all about
that one 24-hour period when you parented well and your first-grader actually recognized and appreciated it, too.
Because what inevitably happens the following day is that she
sits down to dinner and says this:
“Jane told me I’m kind of fat.”
Parenting is about the good days and the bad ones—it’s about all the days. But
it seems that there are more days than not lately that I’m seriously ready to
wave the white flag on the whole “I’m someone’s mom” thing.
To be sure, I do more wrong things than right ones, but what
I am positive I do well is tell my daughters often that they are intelligent,
hard-working, kind, sassy, strong, funny—and, yes, pretty. What I don’t tell
them is that they’re thin—instead, I tell them they’re healthy.
The only word that resonated (with my daughter) was “fat.”
My older daughter knows we don’t use the word "fat." She
literally doesn’t know what a diet is. We talk frequently about assembling
smart choices at each mealtime. I have more food hang-ups than every issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, model on the
runway at Paris Fashion Week and
Oprah Winfrey combined, which is why I make Herculean efforts not to pass them
onto my daughters.
So when she told me what her friend said a couple of days
ago, she was partly asking if I also thought she was kind of fat, and she was
partly telling me she knew her friend said something hurtful. We talked it
through—about how it’s never OK to comment on someone else’s appearance
unless it’s to say something nice. About how words can hurt more than punches.
About how it’s none of our business if others decide to do or say things that
might not be acceptable in our family.
But I saw her confusion, anyway. And I saw the look in her
eyes that told me what I was saying was going in one ear and out the other at
that moment, because the only word that resonated was “fat.” She knows it’s
totally fine to call actual hippos fat. So, as a far as my daughter is
concerned, a 7-year-old girl named Jane basically told her that she’s a large, mostly
herbivorous mammal that’s indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.
You can prepare your kids for everything, but there’s still always going to be something you didn’t think of.
What’s worse is that I felt even more insulted by her being
called “kind of fat” than she did. We’re talking about a girl whose legs go on
for days, whose cheekbones look like they were carved by a sculptor, whose arms
are starting to show definition because her diligent work on the monkey bars
can’t be missed, and whose belly has just the right amount of padding that I
won’t injure her when I hug her tightly to me for extended periods of time.
I also know that in the few days since this happened, she’s already
moved on, but I also know what she doesn’t, which is that “kind of fat” will
remain tucked away somewhere in the recesses of her memory, just waiting to be taken
out and brushed off the next time some other thoughtless, misguided or wicked
girl or boy decides to hurl a true or false, but nevertheless punishing, adjective at her.
You can prepare your kids for everything, but there’s still always
going to be something you didn’t think of. And lately that something keeps me awake some nights. It eats away at my heart like
a slow-burning acid that stinks and smokes but can’t be stopped or contained. It's an ache that tells me I can’t protect them from what I can’t predict is coming,
no matter how hard I obsess. Sometimes the pain is so nagging that I wonder if
having kids was right for me because I just can’t bear to shoulder what will
ail them emotionally at the callous hands of others.
The feeling always passes, of course, because my kids are
more precious to me than my limbs and breath. I just need to steel myself even
more than I already do for future verbal ammunition that will be fired at them, since the fact remains that it’s out there just waiting to be uttered—just as my white flag remains hidden in my mom closet, all-too-often
standing by at full attention to be waved.