I identified myself as a reader at the same time I understood I was a self. I was at a sunny day camp which seemed quite far away from the city though it was not. I remember holding a book open before me under the sheltering high pine trees. Suddenly the words made sense. I saw pictures where I had seen dark code.
Now my daughter struggles to read. After waiting for her to catch fire, I realize that reading may not be her thing. Not that she can’t, or often won’t read, but at any moment the sheer delight of dipping into a a book does not compel her. Like dipping into a perfect body of water. I watch the laborious unnatural training of her mind and it surprises me. I find myself revisiting the lifelong companionship, luxury, addiction and pure pleasure of reading.
I want to open the world of my childhood. I want to introduce her to the families I knew. The words unfurl as I read to her, stored in the place age has not decayed. I cannot remember this morning’s ride but I can remember what comes next in Rush’s “First Saturday” or how the “All of A Kind Family” slept in cracker crumbs traded in the dark. She does, however, love for me to tell her stories. And so I grow with her. We create a new language, the Oliver stories. Marissa and Melissa, good and bad mermaids, Yoshi. a Japanese girl with a penchant for mischief.
The hunger to read has been, for me, like the hunger to practice medicine or be in nature. Only in the books of childhood do I see plots free of the romance tale. Girls are thinking and talking and feeling; they are using all their senses to become known in the world and explore history, cities, fields, cattle, spiders, farms.
Before “happily ever after” looms, featuring a princess and prince, or king and queen. run these stories. Many childrens books remind me of a time when my deepest being was absorbed in an enterprise of pure imagination. As I read I see girls wondering what they will be, or dancing on desks, or bossing their brothers. It is all about what we can be or do.
When I wait online at the school she attends, my daughter bursts out of the line with excitement. I wonder how long it will be before she peppers her definite needs with “like,” before she asks friends if she looks “fat” in her clothes, before she finds her anger terrifying. These books which guide girls quickly turn from exploration of self, other and the world into one story: a romance quest. The Holy Grail.
If there were one thing I wish she could grasp, it is that she is already complete. Everything which comes next will be misunderstanding. Books deepen and enrich us, they mirror and extend the understanding we already have. They also distort our goals, and our sense of an ending. Perhaps her body and dextrous hands will give her more pleasure than her imagining.
Perhaps she will be freer than I was. I could not imagine having a book and choosing to sew a satchel or go rock climbing. Her own extroverted nature may force her away from the distortions of introspection. She has so many friends she does not hide behind a book. Perhaps her knowledge will serve her better; she will grow like a tree, with stronger roots.
I was a guest contributor recently to WBUR’s Commonhealth Blog . You can read my entry here.
“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness” – Galway Kinnell
After years and tears spent treating girls with eating disorders, I found myself pregnant — in my 40s — with a daughter.
She is now 10, and suddenly, everything I’d preached and chiseled and chipped and interpreted in my office is getting put to the test. How was I going to try to prevent my own child from having an eating disorder? How would I prevail against a culture of young girls in short shorts, strappy tops and frankly lewd fashion, where my 4th grader must choose between “boyfriend jeans” and “skinny jeans”? As I had told my patients: “Many girls entertain diets — not everyone gets an eating disorder.”
Still, I reviewed the early dangers for developing such a disorder — flipping through my own brain for knowledge.
We had some family history of mood disorders but nothing that seemed so severe it couldn’t be tempered by attentive parenting.
2. Home obsession with foods
I made absolutely sure that nothing in my house was low-fat, low-calorie and insisted that dessert was part of the meal if you ate your ‘growing foods” a useful phrase I learned from her pre-school teacher.
3. Range of affect (or, enough feelings)
Yup, no problem there. My house was never one where feelings were suppressed. In fact, I might have spent too much time inquiring what my child thought or felt. I was politely interrupted. “Mom,” she said, “I’m watching the cars outside” or “Making a friendship bracelet” or “Telling myself a story.”
4. Too much affect
Yes, I wanted to tone this down. She neded to learn resilience — that horrible feelings, the dementors of loneliness, sadness and intense anger can be survived. She needed to endure them and learn to soothe herself. I reminded myself of this as I clenched my nails into my hand while she hurled about in her crib.
5. Too much talk about appearance
I failed on this. I could not even try to stop my outpouring of sheer joy at her natural beauty. I was, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy” in this department. I craved her attention like a jilted suitor. But it amuses both of us — and possibly helped her — that I would joke about my “separation issues.” I believe I gave her the freedom to express those same feelings and a good many more.
6. A sense of purpose
We are currently working on this. The most effective cure for the most recalcitrant eating disorders is — surprisingly — community service. Like people in a nursing home who thrive when they care for a plant, children do better when they feel their effect on the world is real. I ramped up on chores, folding laundry, carrying grocery bags. A child who danced for hours could use her legs to help me.
When my daughter was three, I saw a child in her nursery school crumple up a drawing, burst into tears and throw it away. I vowed I would do my best to melt perfectionist thinking. We practiced making mess-ups into other shapes. We practiced turning pages over and writing on the backs of things. I told her often, purposefully, about my own mess-ups, what caused them and how I still was growing. I learned to ask her if she felt proud of something — not to tell her that I was instead.
This huge piece of influence is almost indescribable. Culture is written across the bottom of shorts, the straps of shirts, the piercings and tattoos called body art. Wherever you stand on particular trends, it’s hard to deny that a new, frankly lewd look is popular. Somehow feminism has been replaced by exhibitionism. Reality TV and instagram make looks all that matters. Sexting seems a natural outcome from this atmosphere.
All I could do on this front is to hold my ship fast at home. I batten down the hatches. I encourage critical commentary about dolls that are too thin, pictures of girls who were too thin. Movies which demean fatties. I censure TV and books about mean girls.
What I cannot plan for is my daughter; her own self. She dances (at a studio she feels is like a second home). All I did was steer her toward the one that has the most diverse group of girls’ strong bodies I’ve seen.
But she is at a liminal age and it terrifies me. She is a perfectionist at times and it drives me nuts. I never want her to look at herself with loathing, to pinch a part of her skin with disgust and wish it gone. I detest the bonding that begins — very soon — when girls turn to each other and say: “I’m fat.” And the response — rather than saying “Don’t be ridiculous” or “How boring,” the only scripted response is: “Are you kidding, I’m fat. You’re thin.”
A few days ago we went to buy jeans — she’d grown again. I was sick to see that our choices were reduced to two categories: “Skinny jeans” or “Boyfriend jeans.’ Those are her choices.
Is she skinny or does she have a boyfriend whose clothes she borrows? She’s 10. Why can’t the pants simply be called straight or baggy?
I don’t know how we can hold back this enormous wave surging toward our girls. But we must keep trying. I hope I will not be reteaching Penelope her loveliness as I do, here, in my office, every day at work.
A friend recently confessed to me that she sent a child to school without socks and that she has occasionally offered her children pop-tarts for breakfast. “Am I a bad mother?” she asked. She feels guilty that she hasn’t signed her child up for the Young Scientist program at a local museum.
Perfect children need perfect parents—good enough won’t do. The trouble is, though, none of us is perfect.
I’m excited to be speaking on the topic of perfectionism and parenting at Lesley Ellis School in Arlington, MA on Wednesday, January 13th at 7:00 pm. The event is part of the school’s ongoing series of Parent Education talks. These talks are free and open to the public. Please call or email the school for more information.
Lesley Ellis School
41 Foster Street
Arlington, MA 02474
Photo credit: Cliff1066 Painting by Marie Cassatt
The news is not good: women are not happy.
According the survey that has tracked America’s mood for over 30 years, women are not as happy as they used to be. The General Social Survey by the University of Chicago is a face-to-face survey of randomly selected adults.
Columnists are speculating on the reasons.
Maureen Dowd’s take on our funk in the New York Times is here.
Arianna Huffington’s musings are here.
Both also refer to economists Betsey Stevenson’s and Justin Wolfer’s report, ” The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” originally published back in 2007 and recently updated.
Back then, more than a few writers questioned the premise. Maybe, they opined at Freakonomics, women are more unhappy because women’s lives are more like men’s lives now, and men have historically reported being less happy. Or maybe there’s less social pressure for women to pretend to be happy. Or maybe surveys designed to elicit self-reports of happiness produce questionable data.
Some want to blame feminism for making women unhappy. Others believe it is evidence of an enduring degree of inequality.
What’s your thinking?
Photo credit: deflam. Painting by John David McCosh.