On Your Seventh Birthday

A Sestina

Born on the thirteenth of March,
you entered our world so fast and pure.
No epidural: there simply wasn’t enough time,
but for you, it was worth each searing pain.
Through gritted teeth I cursed and yelled
and brought forth another baby girl. You—Beautiful You.

It had always been the three of us before you.
Like Goldilocks, you marched
into our home to chatter and sing and yell.
You are sensitive heart and pure,
unadulterated joy. You are morning snuggles and growing pains.
You were six. Now you’ll be seven. Time

hasn’t slowed. If anything, time
is accelerated by you.
Years before your big sister, you learned the pain
of pierced ears. Marching
toward the next stage in life with lipstick on and pure
abandon. “Don’t rush,” I want to yell.

“Don’t grow up so fast.” But this yellowed
sun is already staining the sky pink. The time
of make-believe, this childhood purity
will come to an end for you.
Not this year, not this March,
but one day you will realize the subtle pain

of a closed door. A pain
that smells of nostalgia and feels like a phantom limb. As we yell
“Happy Birthday” this March
thirteenth, you’ll blow out the candles marking time
and we’ll celebrate you.
Abree Meli—hold on, for now, you are still pure,

and your innocence purifies
the air I breathe. It diminishes the pain
of an aged reflection, for when I look at you
I remember what it was like to yell,
to dance, to fly, to be present in each moment. Time
is ephemeral, but every memory with you slackens that march.

Abree, you are all that is true and good and pure.
As you march through life, may you wink at your pains
and continue to yell your presence to the world. Make a wish now. It’s time.

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The Wolf Strikes Again

You stood before my dresser mirror brushing your hair. I stood a few feet away and watched you.

You wore no socks, no shoes, and I couldn’t help but think, “My, what big feet you have.”

“The better to wear high heels with,” I supposed.

I saw the silk of your hair and noted how your lips are still as plump as when you were a baby. With your large, blue-green eyes and the slope of your nose, you are beautiful, but you haven’t realized this yet.

I, however, have known it all along.

I observed your long legs and thought about how you have outgrown yet another bike. Your figure is changing too. You are maturing, and every day, I hold my breath… and wait. It won’t be long before we are shopping for bras and I am watching your cheeks flush with embarrassment.

Lately I joke that if you had an extra head atop your own, you’d be as tall as me. What you cannot know is that each time I wrap my arms around you, I kiss your parted hair if only to measure whether you’ve grown. I rest my chin, breathe in your smell, and try to be your cloak, to protect you.

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In front of that mirror, for just a moment, you seemed already a woman, and I was mesmerized.

But then, the brush got snagged in a knot of hair and you turned to me for help. Just like that, you were my child again, albeit one with great, big feet.

Still, the shift has begun. The other evening when I reminded you to use better table manners, I felt the weight of your stare. There was resistance there and defiance flickered in your irides. For now, these challenges pass quickly, but soon, you will be consumed. When that time comes, you will gnash your teeth and growl at me. You will attack when you feel you’ve been provoked–and everything will provoke you.

I know because when I was only a little older than you, I stopped listening to my mother. I ventured into the dark wood and was swallowed whole by the wolf.

Your feet may seem in disproportion to the rest of you now, but when you are freed from the beast, your transformation will be complete. You won’t be my little red riding hood any longer, but I will still be your mother and I will await the day I hear your high heeled shoes on that well-worn path as you return home, to me.

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Like Mother, Like Daughter

There are a million reasons why parenting is exhausting. From infants who need to eat every two hours to waiting up past midnight for your teenager to come home safely from that party. There are middle of the night vomit sessions and days where all you seem to do is discipline. Breakfasts. Lunches. Dinners. Load after load of laundry. Scheduling dentist appointments. Back-to-school shopping. Recitals, games, and birthday parties.

The most exhausting of all though is that you are always, always being watched. I’m not talking about when you’re sitting on the toilet, although there are often eyes on you then, too. Rather, your behavior and the words you speak, the way you live your life– our children are learning from us every…single…day.

I have parenting moments that I am not proud of. My children have witnessed me send a quick text while driving. They have seen me lose my temper and they have experienced my bad moods firsthand. Curses fall from my lips like candy from a piñata. But have they noticed those moments when I look in the mirror and frown? Have they ever heard me question my husband about whether a certain pair of pants makes my ass look fat?

Raising daughters, living in a society hyper-focused on appearances, I worry: What have they learned about body image from me, from the media, and from others? As they grow, as their bodies change, as they deal with the influx of hormones and all that results, how will they perceive themselves? Will they be able to stand firm in their belief that they are beautiful?

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In the eighth grade, I would come home from school every day and make myself a bowl of ice cream. Seated on the kitchen counter, I would indulge while my sister’s boyfriend would tell me that I was going to get fat. By the ninth grade, when my family took a trip to visit my grandparents, I had acquired my first freshmen fifteen. Stepping out of the car in the hot Florida sun, my grandmother was waiting to embrace us.

Oooh, Chubby Checker,” she teased.

Growing up, I had aunts who would constantly ask me if I thought they were fat. They weren’t. In my eyes, they all resembled movie stars, yet nothing I said could convince them of this. No sooner would they finish bemoaning their size and shape, I would be handed a bag of hand-me-down clothes.

I learned early on that to be a woman was to be body-conscious, and a body could always be improved. My high school was filled with girls who were dieting, or taking pills, or starving themselves, or binging and purging. This behavior was not only commonplace, it was considered normal.

Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape. Unfortunately, only 5% of women naturally possess the body type often portrayed by Americans in the media. (DoSomething.org)

There are days when I love my body and all that it is capable of. I have given birth to two healthy babies. I exercise regularly and feel stronger now than ever before. I am conscientious about what I eat, while at the same time, allowing myself the pleasure of enjoying the occasional craving. Nothing makes me happier than picking up my daughter from preschool on a warm, sunny day and surprising her with a trip to 7-11 for a couple of Slurpees and a bag of Doritos.

This is a judgmental society though. One where to be fat, or to be skinny, results in criticism and attack.

You look good. Did you lose weight?

Somebody needs to give that girl a cheeseburger. 

She has such a pretty face. It’s too bad she’s so heavy.

Real men prefer women with a little meat on their bones.

I will admit it: I’ve placed my body on the continuum of those that surround me at the beach or the water park. I’ve eyed up other women at the gym and worked a little harder as a result. Ultimately though, it is not about comparison. It is not about skinny or fat or skinny-fat. It is about self-esteem. It is about self-acceptance. It is about self-love. It is about self-worth. And now that I am the mother of two girls, it is more important than ever to lead by example.

Dr. Christiane Northrup writes, “Each of us takes in at the cellular level how our mother feels about being female, what she believes about her body, how she takes care of her health, and what she believes is possible in life. Her beliefs and behaviors set the tone for how well we learn to care for ourselves as adults. We then pass this information either consciously or unconsciously on to the next generation.”

I had wanted to do a cleanse for some time, so when my mother bought a book that included recipes for a 10-day green smoothie detox, I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t looking to lose weight; I just wanted to kick-start some healthier habits. I measured myself before and after, but more so to validate if the cleanse worked rather than simply trusting how I felt.

My daughter, looking at the book on the counter and watching me drink sludge-colored smoothies day after day, asked me if I was on a diet.

“No. I’m just trying to be healthier.”

It was important to me that she not think that what I was doing was about weight.

On day three of my cleanse, I took my daughters to the park. It was a sunny day, so we packed a picnic: turkey sandwiches, barbecue potato chips, and green grapes for them; baby-poop-like smoothie for me. Still in my exercise clothes from my morning visit to the gym, I sported a tank top that read: I Hate Running.

“Mom, do you hate running?”

“Pretty much.”

“So do I.”

“But you know what? Even though I hate it, I do it anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s good for you. And even though I hate running, I love being healthy.”

Would conversations like these be enough?

Later that week, I came across a zippered bag containing leftover Halloween make-up that had found its way under my daughter’s dresser along with the dust bunnies and run-away socks. Despite that it was discovered in her sister’s bedroom, my youngest daughter desperately wanted it.

“You can have it,” my eldest told her.

Since nary a day goes by that my youngest doesn’t try to wear, at the very least, some lip gloss, this was hard for the little diva to fathom.

“You don’t like make-up?”

“I like it, I just don’t need it. I like the way I look just the way I am.”

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Even as I acknowledge that she may not always feel this way about herself, I pray that she will. While I cannot control the culture in which we live, I can control the messages that I impart on my children. As their mentor and role model, it is my duty to ensure that it’s a positive one.

As their mother, it’s my duty to love myself just a little bit more.