This piece was originally performed at the Listen to Your Mother: Pittsburgh 2015 show. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to watch Tamara perform it live.
I have pages of letters I wrote to each of my boys while I was pregnant with them. Pages of hopes and dreams—unfettered excitement. I identified with my growing belly each time, instantly and completely. Raising a son, then two sons, and cultivating the bonds of brotherhood between them, my heart seized the opportunity and spilled out on paper the plans I had for us all.
When my daughter asks where her letters are, I’ll have to tell her that there aren’t any. Because all of the letters I wrote to her while I was pregnant started and ended in my heart. They were locked there with fear. Fear of being unfit to mother a girl.
When my son asks innocently why I wear mascara on my eyes I tell him, “This is what girls do to make their eyes stand out.” He shrugs and walks away.
But when a daughter asks, “I’m a girl, Mama. Do I need my eyes to stand out, too? Then will I be beautiful?” What will I tell her?
How can I teach a daughter to love and respect her body when I am constantly torn between awe and dissatisfaction with my own?
Raising a son to respect women is different than raising a woman who will respect herself. Raising men who learn to be aware of glass ceilings isn’t the same as a daughter who strives to break through them.
For my boys, I look around my life to all of the upstanding men and I draw from their examples.
Mothering a daughter feels like looking in the mirror.
To do that I’d have to look past the woman I am today and dig down to the depths of my soul where the scars are. It’s a battleground down there. Minefields of reactive, emotional, angry versions of myself that I left in the past, happily locked in a time before words became public in a thoughtless keystroke.
Honor roll, cheerleader dating the star running back. My demons saw none of it.
“Be better; be thinner,” they’d say.
Singing and dancing my heart out in coveted roles. My successes were as clichéd as my faults. I was a good friend and a fierce enemy.
Inside I was weak.
“The people in your life who love you are better off without you,” I heard in quiet moments alone with myself.
In my yearbook pictures, prom pictures, senior pictures, I’m smiling and laughing. I was an actress both on stage and off.
With doubt and self-loathing tugging at my insides I searched for ways to stay in control. At 90 pounds I was barely alive, but back then it felt like golden armor protecting me from what was inside. Lying and hiding what I ate felt more like success than college admission.
And I know that I was broken because after swallowing what I had calculated to be plenty of those pills–I went back and finished off the bottle. I was beyond crying for help, I wanted silence.
To know me today, you know nothing of this. You are shocked and somewhat disbelieving. Because life is about taking hold of the chances you are given, and with years of work, I climbed out of that place where I’d never be good enough and I found joy.
Motherhood did that for me.
Not all at once, but over time I have come to truly believe I am the best mama for my boys. All of the versions of me aligned because as I loved them, I learned to love myself. In teaching another person about human emotion, it is amazing how much we learn about ourselves.
One year ago, my daughter was born in two pushes just as the first morning sun kissed the sky. I remember thinking as she left my body, “I’m not ready to meet her. I’m scared.” My husband placed her on my chest as I sobbed a familiar exhaustive cry of relief and elation. My arms were holding her but I didn’t look down. My husband’s voice broke through the fog saying, “Tam, she’s hungry. She’s hungry now, you need to feed her.”
I looked down to see her vernix-covered head bobbing up and down, her mouth and eyes surprisingly agape. She was rooting around furiously impatient on my chest. We fumbled for a minute before she latched onto my breast. I heard tiny raspy gulps. It was perfect. I let myself look at her, really look at her. To my surprise I saw dark eyes—indistinguishable between the brownest brown and the deepest blue. My eyes darted to her long thin fingers and dark, wavy hair. Her appearance startled me.
Dark hair and dark eyes. Who is she?
Born from my body with phenotypic traits akin to my husband she was clearly ours. Mine. And in that moment as I looked down at my daughter my heart leapt with realization. Realization that what had paralyzed me for almost my entire pregnancy wasn’t true.
She wasn’t me.
She was a new person, all her own. A blank slate knowing only the blessings God whispered in her ear before giving her to me.
My daughter, she sparkles. She loves just as fiercely as the hunger with which she was born. And by six months her eyebrows grew in red and her brown hair turned ginger. Her eyes lightened to a steely blue, identical to my husband’s. But her smile. Her broad, reaching smile that she reserves only for people she knows—her smile is all mine. My namesake. And it surprises me how happy I am to see parts of me emerging in her.
It’s been said that, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.” And I have a daughter now, so I need to tell myself a different story. A version where every choice I’ve made in life brought me to today. I have a loving husband and a beautiful family. The good choices have been many. We are all broken people whose children are born to love us unconditionally. And slowly, over time, we become human to one another.
My Dearest Daughter,
I’ll start by saying I’m broken. I’m broken but my pieces, when gathered up with loving arms and spilled unto you, make me guardedly but affectionately whole. You and your brothers are the very best that I have to offer this world. I’m proud of you before you’ve even begun to succeed, smitten even before you’ve wrapped me around your little finger and here for you even before you’ve felt even the slightest pang of sadness.
Because every single thing you feel is valid and important. Just as everything I’ve ever felt and feel is, too. That’s how our stories play out. By grace we are given chances to be happy beyond our wildest dreams. Owning my story set me free. And not being bound by my own mistakes gives my heart endless space to help you through yours. Because they’ll be different mistakes than I made.
I see myself in your red hair and creamy skin. Our smiles mirror one another. But you are not me. You are the best versions of me and your daddy, mixed with the anticipation of you.
I can’t wait to watch your story grow, to show you what love is and to watch you give it to others. Mothering is my greatest struggle and deepest honor.