By Rachel Macy Strafford
In my early twenties, I remember being overly concerned about my then-boyfriend’s appearance and image. I would kindly (and often not so kindly) instruct him on what to wear, how to eat healthy, and how often to exercise. I pushed him toward high status jobs despite his interests and passions. I saw the defeat in his eyes when I offered up these “suggestions,” but I said them anyway. I wanted him to make a good impression.
This is for him, I told myself.
Yeah, right. It was all about me.
My preoccupation with appearance, social status, fitting in, and gaining approval were my issues – he was just an easier target.
It did not surprise me that I continued this approach in my marriage and in my parenting. I took an excessive and unhealthy interest in my family members’ “good impressions” in the areas of performances (sports, music, academics) and physical appearance. My critiques typically fell on a continuum of mildly constructive to downright destructive, depending how stressed I felt at the time.
“I just want you to make a good impression,” I’d say.
It was for them, I’d say.
Yet, how could I explain the pain in their eyes – the pain I was willing to deny to make sure things appeared a certain way?
As with my former boyfriend, my concerns about my family members were all about me – my insecurities, my flaws, my desperate need to hide all the things I felt might cause rejection or disapproval.
These truths are not pretty, but they’re healing … and they’re life-changing.
I remember the day I came face-to-face with these painful truths – I’d been getting ready to go to a social gathering in our community. On the floor of my bathroom lay 27 outfits. I hated the way I looked in all of them. Rage and sadness bubbled up inside me as I finally settled on something dark colored and baggy. With my mouth set in a thin, hard line, I opened my daughter’s bedroom door to see what “improvements” needed to be made.
I saw her standing in front of the mirror surveying herself.
Initially, my eyes rested on the snug waistband of her favorite shorts; flesh spilled over and slightly protruded beneath her flowered shirt. My eyes rose to the mismatched top and messy knot of hair sticking from the back of her head.
As I opened my mouth to remind her of making her “best impression,” I saw her face in the mirror.
Reflecting back at herself was pure joy. Pure contentment. Pure peace – all at the sight of her six-year-old self.
Then she twirled in front of that mirror.
She actually twirled.
That’s when she saw me at the door, wiping tears from my eyes. She gave me a glorious smile – the kind of smile that says, “I feel beautiful, Mama.”
And that’s when a little protective voice inside me whispered, “Let her be.”
Let her be.
For once in my life, I would not shatter another human being’s inner contentment under the guise of making a “good impression.”
Besides, who was I to say what her “best” impression was anyway?
She believed she looked beautiful – and that was enough.
It suddenly dawned on me that unlike her blue eyes and freckles, she did not have to inherit my issues and insecurities.
I realized I could decide right then and there I would not pass on my issues to her. Plus, why would I want to?
Why would I want her to stand in front of the mirror for the rest of her life seeing TOO MUCH and NOT ENOUGH when she could see JUST RIGHT?
Why would I want her to play her music instrument for the rest of her life and think TOO MANY MISTAKES and NOT ENOUGH SKILL when she could hear JUST RIGHT?
Why would I want her to shoot baskets and dive off the blocks thinking she was only as good as the points she scored and races she won?
Why would I want her basing her inherent value and future potential on test scores and award certificates?
Why would I want her to go through life wondering what other people thought of her when she was quite happy with WHO SHE WAS?
I’m not sure I would have thought of that unforgettable reflection from five years ago had it not been for the way I’ve been talking to myself lately.
It’s bathing suit season. It’s a hard season for me – and it’s a hard season for many girls and women and boys and men too – bathing suit season doesn’t play favorites.
And when it was time to put on my swimsuit (on Mother’s Day, of course), I was not happy with my thighs. I was just about to start in on those thighs and that stomach when I heard those three healing words I said five years ago while standing outside my daughter’s room.
Let her be.
But this time, I was talking about myself.
This time, my inner protector was sticking up for me – and rightly so. I’ve just come through a challenging winter season that contained the successful release of my third book, a bout of depression, and the untimely death of my dear father-in-law. And in the name of self-preservation, I stopped stepping on the scale and focused on survival. I continually reminded myself I was doing the best I could.
The reflection I see in the mirror today is far from flawless, but I refuse to let the after-effects of my survival keep me from living and loving this summer.
I’ll go to the pool … I’ll get in the water … and I’ll pass the ball with my daughters. I’ll visit with friends … I’ll laugh out loud … and I’ll let myself be.
“Let her be,” I will say often because that phrase instantly puts me at ease, helps me breathe, and extends to my beloveds like grace.
And the timing couldn’t be better. Over the past week, I’ve been so thankful those three healing words came back to me at this precise moment in time. It’s report card season. It’s award season. It’s tournament season. It’s graduation season – and that means it can be a hard season for many of our kids.
So when my daughter brought me her social studies test and announced she was so happy with her B … and when she declared she might like to try tennis and take a break from competitive swimming … and when she told me she’d worked long enough on her poetry project and was calling it a night … I did not push, persuade, critique, or crush.
Instead, I let her be.
And I am prepared to watch her soar (and stumble) as she lives her truths in the light of self-love and self-acceptance rather than constantly second-guessing herself and her decisions.
Perhaps this sounds inviting to you, but you’re unsure of where to start.
It starts with being kind to ourselves about our issues and insecurities. They aren’t going to disappear overnight, but awareness and compassion are empowering and life-altering.
It starts with repeating the mantra “only love today” when the inner bully gets loud in our head and starts coming out of our mouth.
It starts with remembering to look through our children’s eyes. Perhaps where we see room for improvement, they see just right.
It starts with remembering our loved ones have teachers, bosses, coaches, and instructors who are there to offer critiques and improvements. That leaves us to listen, love, and support.
It starts with asking ourselves: Is this suggestion I’m about to give going to sound like help or judgment? Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all. Chances are, they’re doing the best they can, just like us.
To put it in a nutshell,
It starts when we decide to worry less about how our children’s appearance and achievements reflect on us and focus more on how our unconditional love reflects on them.
Our issue is not their issue – at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s step back and give them plenty of room to twirl.
We just never know who they might become … if we let them be.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years of experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this life-long writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog “Hands Free Mama.” Using her skills as a writer, teacher, and encourager, Rachel provides readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of distraction and connect with their loved ones. Rachel’s work has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Global News, USA Today, TIME. com, MSN.com, The Huffington Post, and Reader’s Digest. Her blog currently averages one million visitors a month. Rachel’s new book, HANDS FREE MAMA, is a New York Times Bestseller.