It was just after 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I was in the living room with my 7-year-old daughter. She was in a blue Frozen nightgown and drawing on a white board. We’d just had breakfast, and I was putting the dishes away when I noticed a folded-up piece of notebook paper on the table. I opened it, and there was a portrait of sorts. I could make out hair and a face although the lips were a little too full and the nose looked a lot like a boot, but it was clearly a drawing of a little girl’s face by a little girl.
In the top right corner, her name was written: “Norah.”
“Did you draw this?” I asked.
Norah turned around, saw what I was holding, and went a little pale.
“Listen, Daddy,” she said holding out her hand. “You need to give me that right now.”
I took a step back. “Why? It’s cute.”
“No, it isn’t!” She said. Her eyebrows arched up into her bangs. This was her serious face. This was the face she made when she really meant business. “It isn’t cute. It makes me look,” she stomped her bare foot and flexed her little fists, “like a nerd.”
Then she walked to me, grabbed the picture, and said, “You know what I’m going to do?”
“This.” She started ripping up the picture as if it were dirty evidence of some horrible crime. Then she stomped to the kitchen and threw the shreds in the trash. She gave me a misty-eyed look of conviction, then went to the sofa and buried her face into the arm farthest from me, her legs curled beneath her.
I just looked at her for some time, not sure what to do. As a father of a little girl, this happens to me a lot. When my son shuts down, I get it. I know that if I give him a minute to cool off, he will chat with me, and then it will all be good. He’s a lot like me.
But Norah, she’s not like me at all. She wears a lot more on her sleeve. When she get’s emotional, things get theatrical. There are long diatribes on how she will never, ever, ever, hug me again unless I let her have a friend over, or how she is going to throw a book at me if I keep making her read words she doesn’t know. She stomps her feet and hides her face a lot, and oftentimes I am clueless as to why.
This was one of those moments.
I knew I needed to do something, but I wasn’t sure just what. We’d had a long night with our toddler. She was finally sleeping, so Mel had gone back to bed. I didn’t have her to consult, and my son was in his room.
It was just Norah and me.
I sat down next to her. I tried rubbing her back, and she reached around and swatted at my hand, her face still in the sofa. So I sat, silently, for what seemed like a really long time, but I’m confident it was just a few moments.
Eventually Norah said, “Samantha drew it.”
“Oh,” I said.
It took me a moment to remember that Samantha was a little girl from church. They sat next to each other the week before in Sunday school, and apparently Samantha had decided to draw a photo of Norah.
“I just look like such a nerd,” she said.
She stopped talking, once again.
I wouldn’t take a friend’s crappy drawing of my face personally, but I suppose this is one of the challenges I often run into when trying to help my daughter manage her emotions. I think this was the first time Norah had seen herself through someone else’s lens. Sure, she’d seen pictures of herself, but I think she must have had one of those moments we all have every now and again when we say, “I don’t look like that…do I?”
“You know, Norah, your mom and I are total nerds. We wear thick glasses and like to talk about books. It’s okay to be a nerd.”
Norah let out a long breath that seemed to say, “You just don’t get it.”
And the fact was, I didn’t get it. And as a father, I had a cold realization that I might never get it. It’s hard to love someone so much, and yet never really understand them. To be honest, I don’t fully understand my wife either. As much as I like to talk about equality, equal pay, and egalitarian relationships, there are still many differences between the sexes, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt them more than when I’m trying to help my young daughter through a difficult time. I want her to grow up and be confident in who she is as a whole, from her mind to her body, and everything in between. But that’s a tough nut to crack.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything again. Then Norah said, “I just look ugly. That picture is how ugly I look.”
“You know, Norah,” I said. “I’m not going to tell you that was just a crappy picture drawn by a crappy artist because I don’t think you’d believe me. And I doubt I could draw a much better picture of you. But what I will say is that you have really curious blue eyes. That’s cool. And your nose is small and — you get that from your mother. You have a smile that is very inviting, and it makes people want to talk to you. You have very sweet ears that pick up things I don’t ever notice. You get your cheeks from me, and although they look big and nerdy on me, they complement your jawline, which is soft and wonderful. Your mouth asks very good questions. And I love that about you. That’s how I see you, and if I could paint your picture, that’s how I’d paint you.”
She didn’t look up, but I could tell she was smiling because her ears were up. She sat up, turned, and then buried her face into my side, her arms wrapped around me.
As a father, I will take any opportunity to tell my daughter how wonderful she is, so I gave it a shot and hoped for the best. I think the hardest part about all of this is that it doesn’t really matter how I see her. It matters how she sees herself. So I told her that, although probably not as eloquently. She held me even tighter then.
“I don’t know if everything I just told you changes how you feel. But I hope it does. I love you.”
We sat like that for a while, and I wasn’t sure if she felt 100% better about the way she looked, but I got the distinct impression that I was able to lift her spirits, and for me, as a confused father weaving my way through this parenting thing, it felt like one hell of an accomplishment.