This here bringer of the pooper to the fun party

Newsletter: Month One Hundred and Eight

Dear Leta,

Earlier this week you turned nine years old. When I picture you reading this years from now I want you to know that you really are my favorite person in the world. No, I’m not dissing your sister in any way by saying that. She’s also my favorite person in the world but for totally different reasons. Do not argue with me and say that I can’t have more than one favorite. I checked both the Constitution AND the Bible and there isn’t a single word in there about it being illegal or immoral to have multiple favorites. So both The Constitutional Convention and Jesus Christ will back me up. Don’t mess with those dudes. They own guns.

One of them can actually do magic.

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In fact, you have multiple favorites, too. Like when you say that blue is your favorite color and then quickly add, “And purple, too. Purple is also my favorite color.” You like blue because it is the color of the sky, and you like purple because the deep tone of it wraps you up and makes you feel safe. And me? You are my favorite because you are so generous. Marlo? She is my favorite because she can burp louder than a foghorn.

I’ve told you this many times as I’m tucking you into bed. When you were younger I would read you stories and then turn off your lights, but those days are now gone, gone along with your infatuation with pink princesses and the refried beans you’d eat for breakfast. Now you are old enough to put yourself to bed (and eat actual breakfast food for breakfast), but I still get to put my hand on your face as you sit down to read and say, “Listen. I love you. You are my favorite person in the world.”

You always ask me why, and my answer is always different.

“Because of the way you laugh.”

“Because of the way you make me laugh.”

“Because of the way you treat your sister.”

“Because you knew I needed that hug today.”

“Because of my butt.”

I know. You hate that. You always will. Which is why I won’t ever stop doing it.

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Your ninth year introduced me to the diversity of issues I will face as a parent of the mother of an adolescent, issues I couldn’t comprehend when the majority of my day was making sure you didn’t choke on drool. Issues like what to say to you when you ask me why I won’t let you watch a certain movie.

“There are things in that movie that only adults should watch,” I’ll say.

“Like what?”

“Like, things.”

“Like, what things?”

“Like, mature things.”

“Like, what kind of mature things?”

And there I am trying to figure out a way to explain that there is a scene where more than two people are engaged in a sexual act without having to explain what a sexual act is. Sometimes this is a lot more mentally taxing than my brain is capable of handling at 6:30 PM, and so instead of coming up with a brilliant, award-winning answer that they will put in parenting books I’ll just say, “Spiders.”

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You’re becoming a lot more socially aware now, a lot more in tune with how kids treat each other and what generally triggers such behavior. For instance, a few months ago you asked me if I minded that you eat cereal for dinner. I told you that I didn’t care at all, that I loved that you had found something you liked to eat. Your eating habits and my hand-wringing over them have gone through many stages in your life, but all that came to a screeching halt in the last year when I wanted the time that you spent with me to be free and clear of that specific power struggle. And it had become exactly that: me wanting you to eat something green and you so clear about your feelings for food that is green that you were willing to torch the entire Northern Hemisphere to express them.

Sorry, Europe. Leta doesn’t like broccoli. Hope you have fire insurance! Wait, you’re socialists! OF COURSE YOU DO.

“If I eat too much cereal for dinner,” you continued, “will I get fat?”

HOOOOOOHHHHHHH. The real hard work of raising a healthy daughter? ACTIVATED.

“What do you mean? Where in the world did you get that idea?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But, I don’t want to get fat, right?”

You must have heard something about “fat” at school or on television because that is not a word we use at home. I like to think that the mothers of my generation have been through so much in terms of body image that words like SKINNY and FAT stay out of the conversations we have with our children. Whenever you ask me why I go to the gym or eat the way that I do I tell you, “Because it makes me feel good.” And that’s the truth. I do it because it makes my mind clearer, because it wakes up my body. I have a better attitude about life after working out. I don’t feel tired or sick when I eat the way I’m supposed to eat. These things make me happy.

That question instantly threw me back to the years before and during middle school. Kids used to call me “Skeletor” and “Bones Brigade” because of my scrawny figure, because all of my clothes hung awkwardly off the bony frame of my body. They used to sneak the folders out of my backpack and draw skulls across the covers because my chin and forehead were so pronounced. I felt totally freakish, especially when I grew a few inches taller than every boy in my class and they’d laugh when asking me how the weather was up there. Little did I know that I could have probably lifted them over my head and given them a good toss into a dumpster.

When they invent a time machine, maybe I’ll go back and threaten that. Also, I’ll tell them to find a more original insult.

Kids made fun of me because I looked different. It’s what kids do, yes, but at the time I would have given anything to camouflage those awkward elbows and shoulders, to shrink a little closer to the ground. I would have given anything to blend in.

I so badly want to go back and give that Heather a hug. I was perfect in every way and had no idea. I just as badly want to protect you from this type of treatment, even though I know that’s not possible. Because it doesn’t matter what size or shape you come in, that size and shape may stand out just enough that kids will draw attention to it in uncomfortable ways. Hence: “I don’t want to get fat, right?”

I knew that my answer to that question could quite possibly be one of those sentences that gets hooked in your brain and will replay itself again and again when you’re doubting yourself. Like the time an adult in my life pointed to a woman whose body filled out every inch of a bikini and said, “That is what a beautiful woman looks like.”

I looked nothing like her.

So I leaned forward on the table as I gathered my thoughts and said, “If you’re hungry, I think you should eat until you’re not hungry. If that’s one bowl of cereal, that’s one bowl of cereal. If it’s two bowls of cereal, it’s two.”

You wrinkled your forehead a bit and then pushed harder. “But what if two bowls of cereal make me fat?”

“You know what?” I said. “If two bowls of cereal fill you up then dinner was a success. It doesn’t matter what you look like.”

“It doesn’t?” you asked.

“No,” I answered. “You want to know why? Because you’re absolutely perfect and always will be.” I then lifted up one of your arms to make a point. “Even if this hand right here grows to be as big as a house, it will still be a perfect hand.”

You giggled and shook your head. “I won’t be able to pick up a spoon and eat cereal if my hand is THAT big.”

“Well then, I’ll get you a bigger spoon,” I said.

This seemed to satisfy you, but I wanted to make sure that these words lingered long after that meal. “Leta, you are my favorite person,” I said.

You swallowed a bite of cereal and completed the ritual by asking me why.

“Your arms and your legs.” I answered, “The shape of your nose, the way your glasses fit your face. The green of your eyes. The way your hair jaggedly falls down your back when you get up in the morning. All of it is perfectly Leta. All of it is perfectly you.”

I could tell that you were relieved that I didn’t say, “Because of my butt.”

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Love,
Mama

……

This post brought to you by Secret Mean Stinks. Gang Up for Good here.

  • Jennifer

    Oh, I love this. I just had a baby girl in September and I feel so much more responsibility over her than I do her brother. A lot of it having to do with building her confidence in herself, her appearance whatever it may be, and protecting her from the meanness in the world that seems to target girls. I just hope when the time comes I can be as encouraging and composed as you!

  • HeatherArmstrong

    Thank you. As much as I thought I was prepared for that conversation, her question did almost knock me over. Like, oh my god it’s happening NOW. I knew I had to be careful.

  • RileysMom

    I have told my daughter (who turned 3 last months) that she is beautiful so many times that now she says it wears her out. 🙂 When we talk about what makes her beautiful, we focus on both internal and external beauty.

  • RileysMom

    Ugh, typo! * Last month

  • I wish I had heard beautiful things like that when I was a child. If I ever have one of my own, they’re definitely going to get an earful. 🙂

  • Angie

    Are there 10 candles on that cake?

  • Sara

    One to grow on?

  • Lauren3

    Love this, Heather.

  • Oh jeez, thanks for making me cry.

  • Sara

    Cried. Baaaaah!

  • Dawn @thedalaimama

    You couldn’t have answered that question better. Way to go.

  • G!

    I have been shamed so many times for being fat, that even knowing how kind you are, as a thin person I was afraid that the punchline was going to be that Leta didn’t need to worry about getting fat, building upon the assumption that fat is the evil. I was bullied for the opposite of looking like a skeleton – to your point, everbody different has to pay the price. Thanks for your gorgeous answers to your daughter and this post.

  • I held it together until “I’ll get you a bigger spoon.” That’s the best thing a mother can do, I think. Be there, ready to get a bigger spoon.

  • I tell both my kids every night when I tuck them in “you are my favorite boy” and “you are my favorite girl”. They then tell me I am their favorite girl too 🙂
    I remember Dr. Phil saying he told both his boys similar things before bed each night too. I think it was something like, out of all the kids in the whole wide world, how did I get so lucky to get you for my own?

  • I’m scared to have children because of these kinds of conversations. With my luck, I’d have triplet girls on the first go…

  • Heather

    Beautiful!

  • This is excellent. I have struggled to never make commentary on my childrens’ bodies in any negative way, even if I’m saying it as a positive (i.e. “Oh look at your adorable little pudge!” to my almost-2 year old daughter who still has the sweetest, most poke-able baby belly in the world). I will not allow anyone to talk about her thigh “rolls”. I will not allow anyone to joke about the way that my 3 year old son’s knees point slightly inward. I will not do it myself, and I simply will not allow it from anyone else. Because I have no idea when children begin internalizing those messages. I am sure it’s years before anyone realizes it. And not only will I not comment on my childrens’ bodies as “pudgy”, “skinny” or otherwise, I am doing everything I can to stop commenting on my own body. I’ve been engaged in a lifelong battle with self-hatred. I’ve been thinner and I’ve been heavier. (I love food, what can I say?) And my mom, as long as I can remember, has been obsessed with her body and her weight. And I refuse to do that to my daughter. Even if I’m not happy with my body, I’m going to keep it to myself. And hopefully one day, when I’ve gotten used to not vocalizing just how much I hate my “fat” body, I’ll actually stop hating it every second of every day.

  • Becky

    That was beautiful. You are a truly loving Mom.

  • Valeta

    I read this while nursing my 4th child. I cried. My 9 year old son has said similar things. My 5 year old daughter was worried when she got her first pair of glasses. She said, “What if they all think I look weird.” I hugged her and told her I would be weird with her. I always tell my kids they are my favorite whatever age they are. You are my favorite 9 year old. You are my favorite 5 year old.

  • I don’t have any children, but I do have two nieces. One is nine and also starting to become aware of her body. Her mom and I have both had body issues and I hope those don’t get passed down. Thank you so much discussing that here.

  • I just absolutely cried at this one. Body image is ridiculous. As a recovering “fat” child, you just never get over it. My mom put me on WW in 5th grade! I cannot imagine having a child and having to protect them from that. What an awesome way to approach a horrible subject. GO HEATHER.

  • Aaaaand now I’m crying.

    Thank you, Heather. For Leta, for this letter, for what you’re trying to do as a mother and as a writer. <3

  • Johannes

    Just wondering why are there 10 candles? I know that seems shallow given the content of your writings; which are very grounded and maternal. There are very few who are not made fun of, shamed, bullied, ridiculed, castigated and frowned upon. This is the nature of homo sapiens. I tried to protect my kids from all that too. We have to live on the planet with 6 billion other people, 5 billion of whom do not have mothers like us. It’s never easy wether you’re bony, fat, short, tall, freckled, bespectled, red haired, not the local majority flavor etc. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Ultimately I told my kids everyone has a different favorite color; no one is wrong.

  • kimspangrude

    But, but, but……

    But she sounds very bright – and obviously an influential person in her life – teacher, health care provider, grandparent? – talked to her or around her about the problems with eating too much cereal. In my narrowly developed opinion (I am a health care provider), I know that for certain people of certain age and predisposed conditions, eating too much cereal could be bad for your health and could contribute to obesity. Is that what she was asking?

    I guess I am just saying that an answer could have been more nuanced, because, althought she is only 9, she sounds like she is a very smart, intuitive and inquisitive 9. Only you are the judge of that.

    Maybe something like “Yes, eating too much cereal could be unhealthy for certain people – only a small percentage of people – but it is not unhealthy for you BECAUSE you are young, healthy, and you are not in that small percentage for whom it could be unhealthy.” I find with my grandkids, sometimes just saying “you are perfect the way you are” is enough for some of them – that is all they need or want to hear. For some of them, though, it is not enough to tell them that. Some of them are more “scientific-minded”, secure in who they are, and they want a bit more detail. These ones are more accepting of the shades of grey, and are able to understand that not all answers are “yes” or “no”. It just depends on the individual child.

  • You always need one to grow on.

  • Andrea

    My daughter is ten months. In the same week, we were told both ‘she’s underweight’ and ‘she’s gaining weight too fast’. It starts so young, and I’m terrified. I just want to run around behind her with a baseball bat and threaten anyway one dares to tell her she shouldn’t be who she is. That seems much easier then constantly dealing with the aftermath of the judgmental conga line telling my baby she’s only as good as her fat cell count.

  • PandoraHasABox

    Hard to believe that Leta is nine. Thanks for sharing the ride that is parenting. You’ve got two good kids.

  • JenG

    Lovely post — my daughter turns 9 in April and we’ve been having similar conversations.

  • issascrazyworld

    Happy birthday to your amazing girl.

    Sigh. Tween years come with so much more parenting that I’d ever of though. Big things instead of the things we think are big when they are three. Like why they can’t have Bratz dolls or lollipops for dinner. Or will they ever ever ever stop watching that one flipping movie. It’s neat though too. I’m liking it so far. Most of the time and I hope you will too.

    We’ve been through the fat thing many times, in many forms over the last few years. It kills me that they think about it this young. For what it’s worth, I think you handled it really well.

  • It’s not that often that I read such love.

  • Kimberly

    Made me tear right up. You are a good mom.

  • Thanks for making me cry again, jerk!

    (No really though, you’re an incredible mother and I wish mine had taken the time to say anything half that lovely to me. No wonder your kids are so amazing!)

  • Timmys mom

    One of my earliest memories was of my mother drying me off after a bath and pointing to those ugly lines on my six year old body with a disgusted look on her face while telling me I was already getting stretch marks. She said it happens when you get fat. The dirty word always came with that disgusted look and emphasis on the ‘f.’ My daughter was raised not to judge anyone by their size or color or looks. I am grateful for you, Heather, and everyone else who does the same.

  • christina

    I have to say that I love this kinder, gentler Dooce. You done good as a mama.

  • Damn. You’re a fantastic writer. This was great. The cruelty of children may never change, but you did a fantastic job knocking it back

  • Marilyn

    I can’t believe people have actually counted the candles.. I do wish I could have been as wise as you when my daughter was younger. But when she was 9 my marriage broke down (there was another woman involved) and I didn’t handle it at all well. My poor daughter. ‘Kids are resilient’ people told me over and over again. But they really aren’t. Somehow she has grown up to be a wise, kind and caring woman and I’m so proud of her. She’s now in her thirties and she’s taught me so much. About so much. Parents have such a big responsibility and yet children don’t come with an instruction manual. Who we get as parents is just pot luck. Your girls hit the jackpot with both of theirs, in my humble opinion.

  • melisa ann

    owhh I just loveeee your Dear Leta posts. I think you’re doing an AMAZING job with your girls. 😀 And her ballerina shirt in the first pic is gorgeous! Does it come in an adult size? tee hee.

  • I have two daughters and this made my cry. Thank you for this. Oh it was good for my momma soul.

  • Annalyn

    She is a beautiful girl! I was 11 when I became self conscious of my figure. It’s so hard when you’re that age. I was never overweight or even close to it (in fact I’ve been underweight in the past) but I felt fat anyways. Still do. It’s this terribly ingrained thought. I hope she never feels that way. I hope if I ever have daughters I can raise them to love their own bodies.

  • Tom

    When I was growing up, at around that age, maybe a little older, I remember asking my mom whether looks mattered. Like would she marry some large green blob? Did it really not matter a little bit? To her credit (like you), she persisted that no looks didn’t matter and, yes, she would. If this blob had an enjoyable personality and there was good conversation and ideas, etc. That was the end of that and it stayed with me.

    Decades later though, I wonder if one can’t still get good at being who one is. That’s the only thing I would’ve added to a 10-year-old me. It doesn’t matter what you look like. But get good at being who you are, whatever that is, evolving your priorities (none of which should be simply based on how you look) as you grow.

  • MG

    Yeah, I guess she needs that healthy dose of shame, right kim?

  • KatR

    Right. The answer to a slender 9 year old who is a picky eater is a lecture on why “some people” shouldn’t eat two bowls of cereal.

  • jenny

    Thanks Heather for making this first time pregnant mother cry alligator tears into her cereal this morning. Beautiful post

  • Necole Kell

    My nine year old told me that she got hit in the nuts yesterday. I had to explain to her that girls do not have nuts which almost lead to a conversation I am not ready to discuss yet. My husband just sat there and said “Yep, I have nothing to say”.

  • oddFrogg

    Awww…that’s really beautiful. Happy Birthday Miss Leta!

  • Lisa

    I don’t have a daughter. But if it ever comes to pass that I do, I want to remember this. I want to remember that this is how you work, each day, to raise a daughter that will be healthy in mind, body, and spirit. This is how it’s done right.

  • Tiff

    I almost held it together. But at 35 weeks pregnant with my first, a little girl, I just couldn’t help the tears. This is so perfectly, perfect. Thank you.

  • Dee

    Nice post. If you let her eat cereal for dinner, I hope you are at least giving her a good multivitamin every day? I tell my son he is lucky to get a choice: broccoli [YUCK] or a vitamin. He is very healthy.

  • michelle

    like. like this post a lot. 🙂 our daughter’s share the exact birthday. happy birthday to leta. thanks for sharing.

  • She is blessed to have you for a mom.