An impending move prompted my family to go through several dusty storage bins of photos. It was not always a pleasant stroll down Memory Lane, like when my twenty-something daughter held up her school portrait from sixth grade. “How could you even love me?” she demanded. “I was so ugly!”
I reassured her that I had in fact always loved her, and always would, even if she had a short choppy haircut and braces on her teeth and the overall work-in-progess look of a sixth-grader. But I think of that exchange now, so indicative of the premise, given to us by society, that only the beautiful deserve to be loved. We women especially believe in our hearts that if only we are pretty enough, we will find love. But we also know that we will never be pretty enough. Or thin enough, or smart enough, or successful enough, or talented enough, or funny enough. We will never be good enough. We will never be enough.
But here is the truth, which on a good day, and at the age of 60, I understand: We are enough. I’m just afraid that I never instilled that belief into my children’s psyches.
- I don’t know a lot about raising sons, because I raised four daughters. I imagine young boys struggle with low self-esteem and poor self-image, too, but my personal focus was on girls. How do you raise daughters to be self-confident, whole, well-adjusted human beings? Answer: I don’t know. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They fyou up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Lord knows I made plenty of mistakes in mothering. I’ll start with my bad habit of judging myself harshly, especially my physical appearance. I was brought up by a plump mother who was always on a diet, always unsuccessfully, and always concerned with how to dress to hide your flawed features, and never satisfied with herself, lessons I carried with me into motherhood. On many occasions, I called myself a cow, a pork chop, a slack-bellied, thick-ankled disaster. I was not enough. My daughters in turn struggled with their appearance, with weight, with height, with crooked teeth, with freckles, with acne, with being too smart, with hair they hated, with clothes that weren’t from the trendiest stores, with that pervading sense of inadequacy that their mother demonstrated, and with which we all wrestle at some point in our lives. My daughters had a less-than-helpful role model in me.
They are grown-ups now. They have weathered childhood and adolescence. At times their hearts have been shattered, their dreams have gone up in flames, their failures have been public, their hopes have been dashed. Yet I submit that they are women who are kind and loving and giving and exactly who they are supposed to be. They are each, uniquely, the absolute apple of my eye. Each one is exactly what God had in mind, to borrow a phrase from Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries. They are enough.
I pray that they believe it.
Each of us is enough. Do we believe it? Being enough is not the same as smug self-satisfaction, or the stagnation of spirit. Being enough is not to be mistaken for giving up on forward progress. We can always learn and grow and evolve for the better, no matter how old we are, and self-improvement is to be desired. Not one of us is perfect, after all. But at our core, we need to trust that we are enough. We are exactly what God had in mind.
As parents, our sense of being enough has a direct effect on our children’s self-images. Parenting is wonderful and magical and a holy blessing, but it’s also tough and frustrating and a heavy burden. Like most things in life that matter, we must take the fantastic with the terrible. Most of all, when we do the things that make babies, we must embrace the responsibility that babies bring with them into the world. Girl babies are especially susceptible to societal conditioning, to the epidemic of messages of inadequacy and imperfection, and we parents are the ones who must counteract all that. So maybe the best we can do is to practice the mantra until we believe it in our hearts: I am enough. You are enough. We are worthy of love. Even our awkward sixth-grade selves are the beautiful souls that God had in mind.