Beautiful. That was the word my 8-year-old daughter Chloe used to describe herself. "I am beautiful," she wrote, meticulously underlining the word and then smiling up at me, proud that she'd completed her second-grade spelling-word sentences. In disbelief, I read it again. It was number-two-pencil proof that a daughter of mine not only had good handwriting but a positive self-image. I glanced over at her twin sister's paper. Without pausing to ponder whether her teacher might think she was conceited or seeking my opinion first, Willow had written, "I am a beautiful girl." I was elated: Low self-esteem wasn't hereditary.
But was it inevitable? I sadly wondered, realistically, how long their confidence would last. Even if my daughters managed to retain a strong sense of self in the face of future recess rejection, tween tumult, and size-zero celebrities, a major obstacle remained: me, their supposed role model. Feeling good about myself was a daily challenge.
When my girls were born, I vowed not to infect them with the guilty-about-every-bite madness I'd been struggling to shake since my teen years as a ballet dancer. I knew it was my maternal obligation to keep the negativity in my head and out of my mouth, so it couldn't creep into their heads and out of their mouths. Even if true internal change wasn't possible yet for me, self-criticism, at least in my daughters' presence, wasn't an option.
I kept my promise. If I had a bad-scale day, I kept the disappointment to myself. When I was overwhelmed by pizza-gorging guilt, mum was the word. I proudly told friends I never used the word fat with my girls, as if that were a noteworthy feat. But to me, reining in the inner ramblings that unconsciously but continuously haunted me was an accomplishment. I was the picture of restraint.
Unless, of course, nonverbal communication counted. When we dined out, did my daughters notice that I ordered what I thought I should have -- never what I wanted -- and then enviously eyed their father's more appealing (and less healthy) meal? During all those trips to the restroom, did they watch me lift my shirt, look in the mirror, and examine the relative flatness of my mid-meal stomach? Did they see my palm press against my abdomen when I was finished eating? I clearly remembered seeing my own mom smooth her hands along her hips and sigh.
My daughters begged me to wear no makeup ("We like your true self better"), but I felt naked without it. When we went shopping, they brought colorful, clingy dresses and skirts to the dressing room for me and I said, "Maybe next time" while trying on yet another pair of black pants. At the pool, they yelled, "Swim with us, Mommy!" But I remained safely clothed on a chaise lounge, preferring the company of a good book to the discomfort of exposing my body in a swimsuit. What was I really revealing?
I have a picture of myself at age 5 that I've always loved. I'm in the backyard wearing only a pajama top and underwear, my long blond hair tousled from the night's sleep, my cheeks the color of the pink rose cupped in my hands, my eyes bright and happy. Even as a teenager, I yearned to be that little girl in the photo again, fresh from joyfully running and playing in the yard, unburdened by concern that my thighs looked chubby in the natural light. I wanted my daughters to be the carefree girl I once was: to smile, twirl, and admire themselves. And so, I complimented their mismatched outfits even when they bore little resemblance to the coordinated ones I carefully chose in the store. I embraced their pudgy bellies protruding from too-tiny but cherished bikinis. I dropped them at school with kisses and tried hard to ignore their unkempt "but Mommy, I like it" hair. I encouraged their hard work, generosity, and empathy, and reminded them to always love themselves first and forever.
Was it enough? And could I keep it up as my daughters grew and their smooth skin and baby teeth transformed into blemishes and braces? I cringed to think that I might see my own awkward past self reflected back at me. I worried they'd sense disapproval in my eyes or in my words, even if I did my gushing best to conceal my doubts.
I asked my one truly together friend, Nancy, how she'd become so well-adjusted. She told me that her mother was neither over-complimentary nor critical of her and her three sisters. Instead, she demonstrated what she -- and by extension, they -- were capable of achieving: Her mom climbed trees and played baseball. She definitely jumped into the pool.
"I am awesome. I am awesome," one of my daughters repeated not long after that homework incident. First she said she was beautiful; now she was awesome too. "Did someone at school say that to you today?" I asked her. "No," she said. "It's just how I feel inside."
Then, it hit me. Despite my best intentions, I hadn't been the perfect role model, but so far my girls were doing just fine. Maybe I could abandon the goal of acting like a superconfident mom -- she'd be too hard for my daughters to live up to anyway. Would I start whining about my weight and hurling too-small skinny jeans across the room? Nah. Instead I'd take a page from Nancy's mother's playbook, and show my daughters the things I do well. Not tree-climbing, but listening, empathizing, and sharing my stories of survival (think eye patch and thick glasses at summer camp). And yes, I could even drop my towel, say a silent "I'm awesome," and dive into the pool.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.