It all started with School Picture Retake Day. For the record, I’m not big on school pictures anyway. But I want to support the PTA and make sure my kid isn’t the only one who doesn’t get that big envelope of pictures. Plus, the class picture is always my favorite. I love to see all these faces of the names I hear daily. Whether they’re smiling big or grinning goofily or have a blank stare from the pressure of it all…I love the faces of children.
My daughter’s school picture made her cry. She didn’t like how she looked. She wasn’t sitting up straight. She didn’t like her hair or her neck or her smile…whatever we told her to the contrary just wasn’t going to make a difference. I hate to see negative “self-talk” start so damn early. She’s not quite 9 years old.
I would’ve just let it go. The retakes were not important to me at all. But she wanted to do a retake. So, we tried not to stress and we practiced sitting up straight, chin held high with a big CHEESE. But I made sure to keep saying “It’s just a picture!” to play down the anxiety of it all.
She picked a dress and instructed me she would like “extra smooth hair in pigtails” and then it hit her. She freaked. Something snapped in her sweet head. And when this happens, she often writes me a note.
She grabbed a piece of paper and quickly wrote “I Hate Myself” and handed it to me. At that moment I couldn’t stay that soft spoken mother I usually am. I ripped it up and yelled, “I never want to see you write this again!”
I firmly explained, near tears, that when we say mean things to ourselves, we start to believe them. It’s OK to feel these ways… we can’t always control our feelings. But don’t make them real.
I have a vivid childhood memory of laying in bed crying over something. I don’t remember what. I’m sure it was a minor infraction in my otherwise very well-behaved life. I was about the same age as my daughter. In teeny tiny letters, most likely using a #2 pencil, I wrote “I am a very bad girl” on the pink painted wall by my pillow.
I would stare at these tiny words every morning and night and I can remember starting to believe them. And it made me sad. And it made me feel defeated inside. I let that one incident, whatever it was, define me. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t see it like this. It takes a long time to gain insight. And even longer to actually believe it.
Back to the morning of School Picture Retake Day…
After I ripped up her note, she went to her room and calmly got dressed. She came out to the couch and I did her pigtails as if nothing had ever happened. And we left for the seven-minute drive to school.
She had forgotten to bring a notebook. Her classmate was drawing at recess yesterday, and she didn’t know she was allowed to draw instead of play. I told her I have one in the car and handed it to her with a pen. I began to drive, and she began to draw. She was very quiet.
I told her a little story about her Godmother Stacy. I wasn’t even sure she was listening but I kept talking.
“Did you know who sometimes feels down? Somebody we know and love? She’s smart and funny and strong and beautiful and is a very good friend. But sometimes she feels down and sad just like everybody does. But now if she says something bad about herself, we all yell STOP! POSITIVE WORDS ONLY! Because words are powerful. All your feelings are OK, sweetie. I can’t tell you how to feel. But let’s not make the words real.”
I parked at school and came around to let her out of the backseat.
“I drew a picture. Can I show you?” She was already holding the notebook up against her body, ready.
And even though we were already a few minutes late for school, I’m so happy I said yes.
A drawing of a smiling little girl with fairy wings and pigtails with the words “It’s OK to feel down” gave her the permission to feel whatever she was feeling. I cried. She cried. We walked to the front door of the school.
She told Ms. De Sante at the front door that she’s going to get her picture taken again today. She had a note in her rainbow jacket pocket that simply said,
“Hello Photographer! Can you please help Miriam relax and just hold her head up high and smile!”
Hopefully, the photographer can read between the lines.
Feel all your feelings but don’t let the damaging ones become reality. The struggle is real.