In an hour from now, on this snowy February day in Chicago, a blond curly head will peek around her bedroom door frame before barreling into the living room and catapulting into my lap. Our post-nap cuddle happens like clockwork around three o’clock each afternoon as she settles in against my chest. I wrap my twenty-seven-year-old arms around her three-year-old body and inquire about the dreams she may have had and those of her stuffed dog as well. Smoothing her bed head, we rock back and forth. “You are brave,” I tell her. “You are brave and strong and funny. You are unique and special and a lot of people love you very much. Including me.”
I’ve nannied Johannah since she was two months old and I believe she is the strongest woman I’ve ever met.
As I evaluate my role as a strong, positive role model in Johannah’s life, I am particularly cognizant of the image of myself that I share with her, that I unconsciously project into the world. I may be found, at times, in front of a full length mirror scrutinizing the lumps and bumps of my body, rough patches of skin, the crookedness of my front teeth.
But the time I spend with this child is focused on providing for her and building the character that will carry her into the future. She does not need to know that I nary wear a dress without spandex underneath or about the scar that runs from bellybutton to pelvic bone. She needs to understand that I am capable of feeding her when she is hungry, of bathing her, of holding a fifteen second plank position when she jumps on my back to play in the morning. She looks to me for new words, for explanations, for structure and discipline that will guide her into forming her own moral code. She needs to know that outward beauty has no value, that I love myself because I am strong, because I am capable, because I am a good person.
Is the image I have of myself communicating that the love I have for her will never be tied to any flaw, perceived or otherwise?
I grew up with a mother who embodied hard work, who provided for my sister, brother, and I through multiple jobs and little sleep, who would sacrifice much of her well-being and all of her happiness for her children. She was beautiful, attentive, a really good cook, everything we understood a woman to be: I walked into the kitchen one day to find her sitting in front of a window armed with a pair of tweezers and a mirror, plucking unwanted hair from her eyebrows, her lip, her knee caps. There was a time she taped a picture of her pre-baby body to the refrigerator and incessant complained of being fat. As an adolescent girl who surpassed her mother’s pants size in junior high, I transitioned the seemingly superficial insults she displayed toward her body into my own sense of self.
As I near the end of my twenties and have more successes under my belt than I could have ever expected, I settle in to loving the person I have become. I’m loud and introverted, opinionated and ambitious, and a partner to a red-headed husband who has never tolerated self-loathing even for one single day. I have grown an appreciation for woman-kind so strong that I am humbled by imperfect beauty our very existence radiates. If we don’t love ourselves, who will?
I go to work in an office where the only other woman present gets called sweetie baby by her co-worker and then I walk into a meeting with two male colleagues wherein all the men present shake both of their hands, but not mine. Last week, my alma mater sent out an alumni magazine now addressed to James Thomas and Kelli Wefenstette after they presumptuously assumed I had taken my husband’s last name and I complained. Yet the same institution that grounded me in stance of equality did not spotlight a single alumna in their magazine. They still ask for my money.
More than anything else I can give or share and despite all the times that I will be wrong, I will love myself enough to love her… for all she is and is not and may one day be.
I return to our afternoons, to holding a sleepy child poised with her thumb in her mouth and her stuffed dog’s ear flopped over her nose. I consider the promises that I want to make to her, not that she will live a life free from pain or void of sexist paradigms or even that she will have the same opportunities as I did when I was her age.
I want to teach her that she and I are a pair and that I’ll always have her back. That we are brave, we are strong and funny and that happiness is more than feeling good. That happiness is contentment planted deeply at the core of our beings that grows when we are good to ourselves and good to other people. That more than anything else I can give or share and despite all the times that I will be wrong, I will love myself enough to love her… for all she is and is not and may one day be.