Thursday, November 13, 2014

This Is You

Our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, handed this piece of paper to me and said, "Here, Mom. This is you."

"Mom" by Katie Carleton, age 8

The first thing I noticed about the drawing is that my shirt says I love daughters, plural. Because I have but one daughter, I wondered if Katie is including an imaginary sister, or if she's including our female pets. Or, is she thinking more broadly, along the lines of my "daughters" being all the girls in the world. It wouldn't surprise me, since I often talk about how we need to help improve the lives of girls around the globe as if I'm a concerned mother. 

Once, when Katie was complaining about having to go to school, I shut down her negativity by saying, "Well, at least you don't live in a country where eight-year-old girls don't go to school because they are forced to marry middle-age men."

Kind of a modern-day clean your plate because there are starving kids in Africa.

When Will and I found out we were having a girl, the first thing to come out of his mouth was this:

"Good. I'm glad this baby will have you for a mother, because you'll raise her to be a feminist."

Beats my own father's reaction to being told I was a girl. My mom said the only two times she ever saw my father cry was when his mother died and when I was born. Dad already had a daughter from his first marriage. His first wife also gave birth to two other girls, and one boy, but none of them survived past the first day or two. When he married my mom, already the mother of two boys and two girls, I imagine he thought he'd struck uterus-gold. But alas, after I popped out of Mom's golden uterus, as Mom and her obstetrician smoked cigarettes and discussed how much damage I'd done to her body, the doctor chiding my mother, telling her that she shouldn't have any more children, Dad was wiping away his patriarchal tears.

When I became pregnant, I vowed to love and cherish our child regardless of how things turned out between its legs. I honestly didn't care if the child was a boy or a girl, or somewhat both, someone with ambiguous genitalia. In fact, my reaction to Will's awesome comment about how our girl would be lucky to have me for a mother so I could raise her to be a feminist reflected how I feel about gender in general. I said, "Whatever. I'd raise our son to be a feminist, too."

More than anything, my wish for all children is to just be themselves. Whatever that means.

My boss started this team-building exercise at work. She posted pieces of paper on the wall, one for each of us in the department. Everyone who walks by is supposed to write a positive description of the person on their sheet of paper. On mine, someone wrote, "herself."

 What is that supposed to mean, I thought. Since we were told not to use any negative descriptors, I did not take offense to the comment, which would have been my knee-jerk reaction to someone describing me in a way I didn't understand. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

"Just be yourself," we're told by people who love us when they want to encourage us to be our best.

Because I like to question everything, I decided to do a little research. I asked Google, "What does it mean to be yourself?" Here's what Google said, "Our true self is who we really are when we let go of all of the stories, labels, and judgments that we have placed upon ourselves. It is who we naturally are without the masks and pretentiousness." 

Oh, I like that. I like that a lot. It reminds me of this head-trippy video Will and I watched recently: 

The second thing I noticed about the portrait Katie drew of me is that, while my hair appears to be long on the sides, I'm completely bald on top of my head. Upon further inspection, my feet have been lopped off, but I focused on the bald head.

When I was about Katie's age, my grandmother told me that when I grew up I'd probably go bald like my dad. "But you can grow your hair out long on the sides," she said, cackling.

My grandmother was not ignorant, just mean. As the owner of a beauty shop, my grandmother knew that female baldness is rare, and that even though my dad started losing his hair when he was in his late teens, and that baldness is hereditary, it's generally only the male children whose bald genes get expressed. I didn't know this when I was eight, so I stared at my part in the mirror for years, wondering when it would start getting wider.

I actually had extremely thick hair when I was child. I remember my mom using "thinning sheers" on it so I wouldn't look so much like Roseanne Roseannadanna. Each time she'd thin out my hair, I'd worry that when I looked in the mirror I'd see Mom had gone full Telly Savalas on me.

She never did. Mom's not mean like her own mom was. Whenever Mom would take out the thinning sheers, I'd remind her that my grandmother warned me I'd go bald someday like Dad. 

"Oh, don't listen to her," Mom would say. The fact that Mom survived her childhood with an abusive mother and she herself turned out to be a good mother was enough for me to heed her advice. She must know what's what.

I stopped listening to obviously mean and crazy people as a kid, but it's taken a lifetime for me to learn to stop listening to anyone but myself. I don't know if it's my innate personality, or the fact that I'm the youngest of six kids and so I've never known what it's like to not be compared to my siblings, but it's hard for me to not judge myself against everyone around me.

I'm getting better. It's taken a long time.

A couple of months ago, I took Katie to a chop-shop to get a professional haircut the week before school pictures. While we were there, I glanced at the ends of my own hair and decided to have them give me a trim, too. I hadn't had it cut in about a year, so it's longer now than it has been since I was in high school. 

"How do you want me to cut it?" the hair stylist asked.

"Just trim it and shape it up a bit," I said.

As she trimmed my hair, we heard the other hair stylist, who was working on Katie's mop, say, "Wow, you have such thick hair."

I remember my mom saying the exact same thing to me when I was Katie's age. I looked around my stylist's station and saw a pair of thinning sheers. I hadn't seen a stylist use them on me in years.

I looked into the mirror at my long hair. I like the way it hangs around my face, accentuating my bone structure. I remember always hearing when I was kid that women over the age of forty were not supposed to wear their hair past their shoulders. Like wearing white after Labor Day.

"Long hair makes an older woman's face look saggy," I'd hear my mom and my grandmother say as if they were discussing sky blue refraction.

I looked into the mirror at my own over-the-age-of-forty face. My face doesn't look saggy. It looks well-defined. I'm going to be forty-four this month, and this is the finest I've ever felt.

Katie's hair stylist suggested "texturizing" her hair so it's not so prone to becoming a tangled mat under the top layer of her hair. I know that this is a modern way of saying that she's taking the thinning sheers to Katie's hair, just like my mom once did to mine.

"Do you want her to thin out your hair so it's easier to brush?" I called out to Katie, across from me in our spinning seats.

"Yeah!" Katie said.

"Does your husband have thick hair?" the stylist trimming my hair asked me.

"Oh yeah. He shaves half of it--in an undercut--and it's still really thick. Katie gets her thick hair from both of us," I said.

"Oh?" the stylist looked perplexed. "Did you used to have thick hair when you were a kid?" she asked.

I put my hand on top of my head and felt my part. It hasn't grown any wider over the years, but now that she mentions it, I realize the reason I like my long hair now is because it has gotten so much thinner that it doesn't grow out like an inverted triangle. I had long hair as a teenager, but I cut it off my senior year of high school because I got tired of fooling with it. In this last year that I've been letting my hair get long again, I thought I was just being feisty.

Women over the age of forty can't have long hair, you say? Let's see about that!

I thought growing my hair out long was primarily in protest to all the people who have ever said it shouldn't be done. But looking into the mirror at Great Clips, I realized the stylist was working on my hair in its current state with no awareness of the ultra-thick hair I once had. I had come to think of myself as a person with thick hair, just as I'm a person with green eyes or a person with blonde hair.

Oh wait. My hair started turning brown when I was ten, and it's gotten progressively darker over the years. Katie calls my hair "black" and I'm always like, really? I don't think of myself as a dark-headed person because my formative years were spent as a blonde.

Similarly, I was a tall kid. Always either the tallest or second tallest in the class. By fourth grade I was 5'3". At nearly forty-four, I'm still 5'3". I was a tall kid who stopped growing early, so now I'm a short adult. I was a blonde kid, but now I'm a brunette, and as the aging process continues, I find more and more silvery shimmers in my hair.

I like the way I look for the first time in my life. I'm myself, whoever that is, and it feels good.