“You know he’s exactly like you,” my dad said, nodding to the 5-year-old boy singing a made-up tune in the background.
I do know, actually. It’s not something I like to broadcast, for fear of being “that mom” who narcissistically sees her child as an extension of herself, but holy smokes. I see it constantly. I’ve seen it from the time he was a toddler — the mannerisms, the playtime obsessions, the quirky personality and imagination. So much reminds me of a little girl I used to know, beyond old photos and home movies and family lore. Back to some part of my mind that recognizes a similar spark behind the eyes, a familiar something.
It pops up at the weirdest times, too. A few years back — he must have been 3 years old at the time — the two of us were huddled on my bed, comforter pulled over our heads as we muffled our giggles from the big, scary Daddy Monster. And there in that darkened space, I could have sworn that I was looking at the child version of myself. It lasted for a brief flash — like a déjà vu experience — but in that moment, I was flooded with love. Not just love for my son, but love for myself. For the very first time, I saw my purest self from an outside perspective — a loving, motherly perspective — and I could accept myself fully, down to my core. Even though it was only a quick trick of the mind, I know that my heart widened that afternoon, under those covers.
Even so, my dad’s validation surprised me. You see — that’s not the image I had of myself as a child. In my mind, I was the bossy older sister, a “mother hen” as my mom has said. I heard stories of my screaming tantrums, like how I’d bang my head against the hardwood floor when I didn’t get my way. I’ve heard that my attitude was atrocious, that I was a handful, that I was a precocious know-it-all. In my mind, I was annoying. Broken. Unlikeable.
When I relayed this to my dad, he looked shocked.
“What? You were exactly like him. That was you as a kid,” he said pointing to my joyful boy. “A carbon copy.”
Looking at my son again, I certainly saw bossy, stubborn, and precocious tendencies — but that’s not the full picture. I more see strength, charisma, determination, intelligence. My parents were horrified to know what kind of image stuck with me all this time, given that their own memories were quite fond — they remember me the same way I see my son. But for whatever reason — the particular stories that were told and retold during holidays, the language they used to describe me, the assumptions I absorbed throughout the years — I held a pretty negative image of my earliest prototype. (Parents, beware of how you speak to and about your child. Your opinions and anecdotes become sticky beliefs that hold way more weight than you’ll intend.) And for reasons beyond our control, those images of our child selves can color our self-esteem for years.
Now that I think about it, there is one glaring difference between my son and me: confidence. Insecurity was the biggest issue that plagued my life — the common denominator in so many problems. It would have been nice to see myself the way that I see my son — to see more good than bad, and to know that the “bad” is okay too. It would have been nice to feel that unconditional acceptance and love from myself, to myself.
I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon of self-love via motherhood. As my sister and I were looking through our parent’s collection of sloppy handmade Christmas ornaments, many featuring awkward school pictures, she stared at her third grade photo and said, “I always hated my eyebrows growing up, but now that I see the same eyebrows on Ben [her son], I think they were pretty cute!”
The two of us mused over our unexpected appreciation for ourselves, inside and out, from seeing our formerly hated traits manifest in our children. How cathartic, healing, this motherhood thing can be — from deepening our understanding and compassion toward our parents (they loved us just like this?!), to looking back at our childhood selves with a softer, more tender viewpoint.
I wished a thousand wishes for a little boy who would be a miniature version of the man I love (his father), and now I’m selfishly grateful to have a tiny “me” — not because I assume we’re the same person (he has his individuality, for sure), but because I’m finally able to extend that motherly love inward, to the little girl who never liked herself much.
“There, there; you’re okay just the way you are,” I whisper to the boy in my lap, and to the girl in my heart.
And she finally feels it.
Images courtesy of Michelle Horton