Take a like in the mirror: selfie-reflections on beauty

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I took these photos this summer, trying to capture an especially heartfull moment with my daughter. We were in Wateron Lakes National Park, truly my favourite place on this earth and possibly one of the windiest places on the planet. It was so windy that my nine-pound pup was in a continual state of lift-off. We were walking head-first into gusts that were easily 100+ km an hour. Even the trees were groaning. We could hardly breathe. It was ridiculous to be outside in that weather but we couldn’t stop the laughter. It was THE awesome.

My heart was bursting with it all. I hadn’t had a lot of those kinds of moments with her in the past year or two. I wanted to hold onto its sweetness, put it in a bottle and cherish it. In the absence of a bottle, however, I used my phone. I took these selfies. Joy captured on a  4-inch screen. Hilarious, wild, perfectly happy, savour-it-forever joy.

In the weeks that followed, I would occasionally look at the photos and smile at the memory. From my phone screen, they were the loveliness to me. I loved our smiles, our squinty expressions bringing back the memory of the wind that burned our eyes and took our breath away. I was moved by our mother-daughter similarities. I loved everything about it.

A few weeks after that, as fall settled in and I felt myself longing for the easy days of summer, I decided to make one of the Waterton photos my Facebook profile pic. But on a 15-inch screen, the image evoked a different feeling. Instead of joy, I felt shock. And these thoughts:

Ack! Look at the wrinkles! And the bags under my eyes. The chins!
What’s happened to my face? I don’t want anyone to see this.
Think! Quick! Delete! Delete! Delete!

I quickly swapped in a different photo as my profile pic, but before I could delete the McWrinkled version of me, people had ‘liked’ it. They were commenting on it, offering really lovely words. How could I delete this monstrosity now? Oh, balls. 

How could this photo, which moments before had made me smile now fill me with such utter embarrassment? Instead of seeing our similarities and remembering our joy, I saw only evidence of my daughter’s obvious beauty and confirmation of middle-aged, wrinkled me. Now instead of wishing I could hold onto that moment forever, I was cursing myself for sharing it.

Sounds incredibly vain, I know. Forgive me. I was a little disappointed in myself, too.

What was all this self-inflicted shame about? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m 50. I’m good with it. Right? It’s just a number. Blah-dee-blah-blah. Based on my vain reaction, I obviously am not as good with it as I’d thought. Crap.

As I reflected on all of this, I was reminded of a program I’d listened to years before on CBC Radio. The interviewer had spoken with women at various decades in their lives, from their 20’s to their 70’s. All of them, without exception, admitted that when they looked back on photos of themselves taken in the previous decade, they saw their unmistakable beauty. Whereas when they’d looked at the same photo when it had been taken, they’d wanted to burn it or bury it at the bottom of a trunk somewhere. 

The pearl of wisdom for me at that time was how important it is to appreciate your beauty as a woman today, right now at whatever age you are. This is clearly easier said than done. But the truth is, I do look back at photos of myself that had filled me with confidence-busting doubt at the time and think, ‘Wow. You were really pretty back then.’ Back then. Isn’t that sad?

So I have decided to turn this whole photo she-bangness into something I’m for rather than something I want to delete from the annals of my digital footprint forever. I also want to model something much healthier for my daughters, who are already looking at themselves in the mirror and telling themselves that they are either too much or not enough. 

We may live in a looks-obsessed and ageist society, but I don’t have to embrace it. This starts with telling myself a different story about myself. I want to go beyond looking in the mirror. I want to go beyond acknowledging my superficial appearance. I want to look in the mirror (or at a photograph) and recognize in myself what is easy for me to see in others: beauty. And I want to like it.

I want to make it a daily practice to say ‘Hello beautiful’ when I see myself rather than ‘Ugh. What’s happened to you, you wrinkly old broad?’

I think I’ll call it liking in the mirror. It’s going to take work, but I’m totally for it.

she to we to me

While there are times when I need a pretty good nudge to see the best in my kids, on the balance of my days, they positively delight me. Some days, they absolutely blow me away. Such was the case for me this past weekend with my youngest offspring.

She started at a new school this year – a change that has been remarkably good for her. Even still, she is missing lots of things about her former school. One of those things is the ‘Me to We’ program that she participated in for 3 years. Her new school doesn’t offer this program. To her credit, she’s been trying to find other ways to stay involved with Me to We. In particular, she has developed a burning desire to attend the annual event called We Day.

I  know she’s been giving it a lot of thought, but I really had no idea how much. And this is where my mind was blown. Without asking for my help, she sat down and wrote an email to send to the organizers of the event, expressing her desire to be a part of it. I was aware that she was working on it for the better part of the day but decided to leave her alone and let it simply be hers. When she finally showed it to me and asked for permission to press ‘send’, she got an immediate thumbs-up from her teary-eyed Mama. I’m proud of this kid every day because she’s an awesome human being. But this email she wrote is too sweet not to share. Here goes:

To: info@freethechildren.com
Reflections on and hopes for We Day by an 11 year old fan

Dear We Day Team,

Hi! my name is … I am turning 12 years old exactly 17 days after We day, and I love Me To We and doing what I can to make this world a better place. About 3 years ago I joined a school club that focused on different issues across the world such as hunger, child labour, poverty and many more that I want to help put a end to. We had the chance to address certain issues by taking on certain projects and then studying them to share what we have learned about the issue. Some people did projects like girls education, or free the children, and others did projects to raise money to build wells in Africa. And I decided to do Local Poverty. Of course I wanted to do something like building wells or helping raise awareness for girls and their education, but to get there I needed to start small. I didn’t have much hope because I was just one little girl trying to do something for local poverty. 

So I sat and I thought. I thought for along time. I thought about the struggles people must have. How they must miss their homes and their families. And for the people that can barely pay for food and for their homes, I can’t imagine how it must feel.

About a month later, the teacher who ran the club read the other kids and I a blog written by a woman who’s life just seemed impossible to live with. The first blog post was the woman telling us that it was April and the last time she had been to the grocery store was in February. She was a single mom who had two kids and could barely afford for her house. In the second blog post she described how embarrassing it felt for her to be in a food bank collecting food. This was hard for me to think of, because my family and I visit the grocery store weekly. And for someone else that hasn’t been to a grocery store in 3 months … this did not feel right at all. 

And then I realized, this was what I was looking for in my heart, to connect that final piece and to understand that feeling and to get my mind in the right place. This was when I knew that I had to do what I could put an end to this issue. Up until this year I continued to be in the club. I would be ready for every single meeting. My mom, before I was born and it was just her and my brother, she had a hard time affording things like his back to school supplies, or new clothes. So, when we were buying my back to school supplies this year, she was telling me the stories of when her and my brother would go shopping that it was hard to afford, it reminded me that this wasn’t only for people like my mom who had struggled, but for many other families too.

Every year, the grade 6 class gets to go and attend We day. I have been looking forward to doing that since I first joined Me to We in grade 3. I switched schools this year, and sadly at this school we don’t have a Me To We club. I plan to talk to some of my teachers about starting one and when that would take place. I searched up how to get We Day tickets and it told me that you can’t buy tickets, you earn them through service. I talked to my mom about it, and she said that I should try and tell you my story and about how passionate I am about Me to We. I would like to attend We day this year. It would be amazing and a dream come true if I could come and hear all the speakers and their stories. If there is any way I could do something to show you that I am devoted and how much I respect and look up to Me To We, and how much I would be honoured if I could come and be a part of that day. 

I just want to thank you for opening my eyes. For showing me the way, and how to help who needs it the most. Me to We does something more than help people, it changes people. It shows them a way to live fair, respectful, and to do what you love to do. You help show the world that instead of looking at someone’s plate and wondering if that person has more than yourself, it’s much kinder and more helpful to look at a someones plate and wonder if they have enough. It’s like looking at a glass half full, not half empty. You create idealists, with thoughts of what is right. You also create optimists, to help people look for the best in everything. Without you, I would just be a lonely realist, thinking that my goals in life are impossible with no hope. You help people’s dreams to help become reality. Without you, lots of people wouldn’t be as devoted to helping others and knowing about the issues. We wouldn’t have the dreamers living their dreams no matter how impossible they seem. No matter the challenge, no matter the journey, no matter the pain, everything has a silver-lining. 

The response. Less than 24 hours later from the We Day team:

Hi there,

Thank you very much for the note and for sharing your story with us. We would love to have you attend a We Day event this Fall. Can you please let me know where you are located so we can provide tickets for a city nearby?

In my journey as a parent, I’m exceedingly clear on what I’m for. And that is to raise our kids to be decent people who respect others, live with compassion, practice empathy and go for their dreams. This email written by my daughter … well, I’m for all of it. And I’m for her engaging with the world in a way that ‘instead of looking at someone’s plate and wondering if that person has more than yourself, it’s much kinder and more helpful to look at a someone’s plate and wonder if they have enough.’

My heart is full. What more could a mama hope for from her almost 12-year-old kid?

happy birthday to you, sweet girl.

I’m not the only gal in our family celebrating a big birthday this year. My daughter also just turned 13. Gah. I remember turning 13 like it was yesterday. I remember feeling like the world had suddenly opened the top of my head, tossed in painful seeds of self-doubt and buried them deeply in hormone-infused soil. Then the slow and mind-boggling experience of junior high fed the concoction with a continual, powerfully toxic trickle of ‘not good enough’.

Okay, retrospect makes this all sound a bit dramatic, but there’s no doubt that ’13’ presented me with very fertile ground for a skewed sense of self-worth to take hold. I clung wildly to every negative belief (lie) about myself that sprung from that period of my life for years. For years. So as my daughter enters this phase of her life, I want to fill her with the antidote to the cultures that can take hold in the Petri dish of adolescence and junior high. When the top of her head is opened by her world, I want to be the first to toss in seeds of esteem and cover it with rich soil that grows beauty and blocks self-doubt. Then I want to feed it with a continual stream of ‘so much more than good enough’.

So while she was sleeping away the last few hours of being a 12-year old, I wrote her this letter:

My sweet girl,

13 years ago – at precisely 3:54 in the a.m., you shot into this world, bringing with you rainbows of love and GOODness that have transformed my life. From the moment you were placed in my arms, I knew you were special. I remember so clearly staring into your eyes with wonder. You looked back at me with a heart-flipping depth of truth, knowing and love that seemed to say, ‘Here I am. I know you’ve been waiting for me. I am here to heal your heart.’

And heal my heart you have. It’s not your job to heal my wounds but you do. The soft kisses you plant on my head, cheek or lips, the love-infused tone you use when you say ‘mama’, the way you check in with me when you know things aren’t quite right. Your giant love makes me feel seen. It tethers me to this world when things are hard and it makes all of the goodness of my life shine brighter. You are a miracle. 

Your entrance into the world 13 years ago gave me a deep certainty of who I am and who I wanted to become. You also added a beautiful symmetry to our family as well as a permanent smile to your daddy and brother’s face. You infused an already happy life with a whole new level of laughter, joy and wonder. You also set a place at the table of my heart for your sister’s eventual arrival. 

You set things in motion. You set them in motion with your love. You continue to do this every day in every arena of your life. You are a powerful force, my darling girl. You are a force for good.

I think the true miracle of you is that you don’t know this about yourself. And you don’t even have to try – your gentle energy just makes people feel better. You cast a spell of goodness that makes people feel lighter when they’re around you. I know that I feel this every time I’m with you. I’ve seen it happen with your dad, your grandma, your brother and sisters. Your cousins, your friends, my friends, your aunts and your uncles. People are drawn to your loving presence. You are a gentle, undeniable force of goodness.

So happy birthday to you. Happy 13th birthday. My wish for you is that the year ahead brings you all that you bring to me every day: 

  • a knowing that you are loved and loveable
  • a belief in your deep worthiness
  • belly laughter and joy
  • connection with what and who matters
  • moment after moment of ridiculously wonderful fun 

I love you with all of my heart. Mama.

I share these words with you because feeding my sweet girl – all of my children – with this kind of certainty is at the deepest heart of what I’m for. Sometimes I fail at showing or expressing it. Sometimes I don’t offer it up in moments when it’s most needed. This is my journey as a mother, filled with lots of sweetness and just as many ‘let’s have a redo, shall we?‘ moments. I want the scales of my children’s self-belief to tip heavily toward the ‘I’m good enough’ side. It’s what I’m for. Every single day, this is most what I’m for.

straight from the hurt

Last night at dinner, I heard my voice coming out of my youngest daughter’s mouth. I didn’t like it very much. Her sister was telling us about a project she was doing at school that involved describing the members of her family. She excitedly told her dad and I the words she’d used to describe each of us. When she got to her little sister’s description, my youngest said, ‘I’ll bet you said that I’m more interested in looking in the mirror than I am in my family.’

Woah. Uncomfortable laughter was followed by silence. And the silence was followed by the darkness of my own shame. These were words I’d said to her in a moment of frustration just this summer. Hearing her use my criticism to so glibly describe herself was not my proudest moment as a mother. Not even close. Hence the shame.

At the risk of sounding defensive, let me give you some context. Through no fault of her own, my little girl is growing up. In fact, she is hurtling into pre-teendom at breakneck speed. She is understandably fascinated at the prospect of leaving childhood behind. It’s fair to say that I’ve been finding it considerably less fascinating.

So … back to my shame. There was no poison in my daughter’s words. She wasn’t flinging them at me or trying to sting me. Maybe if she had, I would have dismissed what I’d heard or told her she was being silly. I’m so glad that I didn’t. Because instead of letting my ego dictate my behaviour in that moment, I led with my heart, learned a valuable lesson and allowed a wound to heal.

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the conversation, but the gist of it went something like:

Me: Is that how you would describe yourself?
Her: Yes.
Me: Is that how you think I see you?
Her: A little.
Me: That must feel pretty terrible to think I see you that way.
Her: Yes. It does.
Me: (tearms forming)
Her: Don’t be sad, mama. I’m sorry if I hurt you.

Still no poison. Just a heart-wide-open truth that I needed to hear. For in spite of the hundreds of compliments I have happily and easily offered my sweet girl this past few months, what stuck was a singular criticism. Holy moly, Molly. The pain.

She crawled into my lap and I held her for a long while after this exchange. I whispered a fervent apology as my husband and older daughter silently looked on. The healing that took place in that moment was for both of us. Time stood still while grace descended.

It wasn’t until later, when I was saying goodnight to her, that the wisdom came for me. As we chatted quietly, we agreed that that past few months had been a rough ride for both of us at times. Her part is her story and I’ll not share it here or anywhere for that matter.

Here is my part: it’s hard for me to see my baby growing up. I think I may even be grieving a little. But it’s had me moving from the wrong place as a parent too often recently. It’s had me moving from a place of my hurt rather than a place of my heart. I am never (ever) at my best when I do this. Not in my work, not with my friends and family, not in my marriage and certainly not with my children.

This awareness got me in touch with a huge ‘what I’m for’ – and that is raising a daughter whose sense of worth bubbles up from a spring of unwavering affirmation from her mother. I am for reflecting her goodness back at her rather than harping at her about her shortcomings. I am for keeping the heart lines open so that she knows she can turn to me in all things – whether life is coming up roses or bringing her to her knees.

I’m the mother of three. One of the three is a grown and married man, so it’s not like this is my first rodeo. I get that my children’s various stages of independence are not a personal affront to me. I’ve always known that I wasn’t raising kids. My goal as a parent has been/is to raise my kids to become great adults.

I think I’ve been bumping up against feelings of uncertainty about my changing role as a mother as my children become less reliant on me. While I’m quite happy that the diaper changing days and sleepless nights are over, I would still gladly cut their meat into bite size pieces, tie their shoes, hold their hands when they cross the street or kiss them on their sweet downy heads while I buckle them into the back seat of the car. Those are things I understand – everyday things I’ve done for almost 24 years to show my love and care.

But my truth is that time marches on and it requires that my journey as a mother be ever changing. My children’s evolution as human beings challenges me to be honest about my own. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it even hurts. But in the moment that I shift from hurt to heart with my kids, I am the kind of mother I most want to be. And that, more than anything, is what I’m for.