Not that I turned out as a swan, but I started life as sort of an ugly duckling. When I was Haley's age, I had awful, too-short bangs with a cowlick I constantly fought. A frizzy perm. A penchant for picking out the not-quite-right outfit. Braces of course—and braces in the eighties were way bigger and more obnoxiously noticeable than they are now. Awkwardly applied make up. And a perpetual tremble in my belly: what if they make fun of me? I didn't have that thing that seems to come to some women so easily, The Ability to slip on the right clothes and smooth down a perfectly-styled haircut, glide that last bit of lipstick on without any smudges and walk out the door, completely put together; completely masked. My mask was always slightly askew, nudged by that perpetual tremble so that the cracks of my almost-right appearance seeped a little, marking me in ways that would have humiliated me had I known how transparent they really were. Making me an easy target.
Now, when I look at Haley as she heads out the door each morning, I can't help but notice the contrast. She is already a swan. She already has The Ability to hide the tremble in her belly. Because if I am certain of anything, it is this: all teenage girls head out the door with the tremble. They are all afraid of being wrong, somehow; of having a crack that lets something other than right be seen—a weakness someone else could snap up and use. Looking right—however it is defined in the context of their lives—is the way they shield themselves.
Even when "right" doesn't really fit.
So I watch her. She leaves for school in her favorite, very-fashionable jeans, with her tank-top-and-sweater combo that has become her stylistic uniform. Her hair ironed straight, her make up exactly so. She shows no sign of belly tremble—even to me. Especially to me. I straighten up, amazed that my daughter has The Ability; I curl into an inner misery, wishing she could know she doesn't need her mask on when she is with me.
I ask her to tuck in her bra strap. I tell her she looks cute, I hug her; she tolerates my touch, she leaves the kitchen and enters the world, her slight vanilla fragrance a warm lingering presence that belies her chilly farewell. I try to not get tangled in the mother-daughter sorrow, but I can't help remembering the days she was comfortable in her own skin, when she could have messy hair and a naked face and still be joyful:
A few hours later, I am also leaving the kitchen. My hair is far from perfect and I am wearing my running pants and a ratty sweater. Everyone I pass in the grocery store this morning will see me like this: slightly-messy hair, naked face, a tiny smear of yesterday's eyeliner revealing that I washed my face too quickly last night. Back by the dairy case, I bump into a friend. She's dressed: crisp jeans, stylish T, perfect hair, expert make up. We laugh and chat together for a few minutes and then hurry off to finish our shopping.
Again, I am struck by contrast: my belly did not quiver, even in the face of my friend's beautiful perfection. Of course, I mask myself off in other ways; we all do. We must. But as a grown woman, I have compensated for my lack of The Ability by making peace with who I really am, a woman who sometimes manages to leave the house looking completely put together, but not often. (Case in point: yesterday, halfway through work, I realized I was wearing my beachy flip flops. At work! I had on one of my favorite dresses, and a pink sweater, and floppy shoes I didn't even think about until I finally heard them slapping my footsoles.) And I do not care. I know that my appearance is only part of who I am, and that the people who really love me do so regardless of my Lancome skill.
Putting apples and pears into the grocery cart, I thought of Haley again. I thought of her ease with The Ability. Of a recent refusal to leave the house until her eyeliner was located. Of the ache in my heart: just let me see you. I hope—desperately, with all the influence of my troubles and joys since I was her age—that she will learn, too, to make peace with who she really is. That make up and clothes and hair can become accessories instead of a way of masking herself. If she becomes the sort of woman whose Ability continues to thrive (like my friend), who really can manage to leave the house every day looking perfect, so be it. What makes my belly quiver now isn't someone making fun of me or even of my cracks being visible. Instead, it is her outcome: I hope, with everything I have, that she can become the swan she really is. That her beauty and knowledge and identity can be what she shows to the world. That she can fly without the weight of fear. That she can allow herself to be seen, rather than only her jeans.
(This post is a response to the Mom's Thirty Minute Blog Challenge, even though it took me 42 minutes.)