Yesterday morning I noticed my mommy babble -- that prattling, one-sided conversation that mothers carry on with their infants -- as I got my daughter ready for the day. It went something like this: "Who's Mommy's little girl? Who's my precious girl? My sweet little Lady-Lou, little buttercup, my pretty lady, yes, you're a pretty lady. So, so pretty."
I suddenly stopped cold. Why was I talking so much about how pretty she was? Immediately I felt like I should be praising other attributes instead of, or at least in addition to, her beauty. And then I went one step further and realized that I was feeling this pressure, and that it was coming from the outside.
It's a complicated train of thought, and it doesn't necessarily make logical sense. There is more to a person than her physical beauty. I shouldn't get in the habit of praising my daughter's beauty, or else she will think that is why I value her. But I shouldn't praise it too little or she will take it as me disapproving of her physical appearance.
And this is where I run into trouble. While I value modesty in so many forms, when it comes to my admiration of my children I am anything but modest. In fact, I remember the moment, rocking my son to sleep when he was a baby, when I realized that the reason my love for him was so unsettling to me was that it was so immoderate. There was no thought of what I would do if I didn't have him -- the thought itself was so unthinkable -- I had no backup plan; I had put all my chips on this one hand of cards. I loved him completely, and that was dangerous, it left me open to loss and pain, but I could not love him any other way.
And now, three years later, I lose track of time gazing at my gorgeous daughter. Her beauty is something I can't even put in words -- her sweet, girlish smile, feathery little eyelashes, soft peach skin so bright and new it is almost transparent, with a ruddy blush just on the apples of her perfect little cheeks. Her smile, her voice, the tiny curve of her infant smile. I delight in her beauty, and I wonder, why do we have such a complicated relationship with feminine beauty?
A few years ago I went with my husband to an office softball game; while we were there, I met the wife of one of his coworkers. She sat next to me in the bleachers and we chatted about this and that, in a very amicable way. Her two daughters, who were playing near us, had the most striking, vivid red hair I had ever seen. In the course of our conversation I remarked, "Your daughters have the most beautiful red hair."
Setting her mouth in a grim line, and responded curtly, "Yes, and two excellent BRAINS underneath as well." She stood up and left immediately. I was taken aback at what seemed to be her assumption that I was implying that her daughters' beautiful hair was their only good quality; of course I did not mean to imply that red hair was their only strength--I only meant to compliment such a lovely feature.
And yet I can't blame her for her protectiveness. While it was unwarranted (or at least exaggerated) in the case of our conversation, still a mother must feel a strong urge to protect her daughters from being quantified and priced according to physical beauty.
What a shame it is that we live in a place and time in which physical beauty is so exploited that it almost becomes a liability, that we feel we have to deflect, even refuse, compliments. But even in this hostile territory I can't help the lilting chatter that floats out, unbidden, when I see my girl's beautiful face, like sunshine, a perfect sugar-dusted cupcake, a tender dumpling; pure delight: My pretty girl.