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About Mommy and Daddy: How are you characterized?

The other day, Mr. G and I sat down in the nursery to fill out the "About Mommy and Daddy" pages in our soon-to-be-born daughter's baby book. This simple action became an enlightening moment for me when I saw the striking difference between the way my husband wrote about himself and the way I did. It suddenly became clear to me how much the narratives of my loved ones affect the way I view and feel about myself, and then how much my self-characterization determines the way I write and the way I feel about my writing.

typography self-portrait by Stacy Benson
I have often said that as a writer, I used to be much less confident about sharing my writing. Allowing others to read first drafts felt like baring the ugliest parts of my body and soul for criticism, and even gentle suggestions made me feel ashamed of myself for weeks. Sometime after college, all of that changed. Now, I separate my writing from my sense of self. My writing comes from me, but it is not me. Now, I welcome straightforward criticism as a tool for improving my writing, and it doesn't sting like it used to. I never really thought about what, exactly, had caused this change--maybe just maturing as a writer, I supposed.

Then my husband and I sat down to summarize ourselves in one paragraph for our unborn child. We both felt strange about the task and didn't know what to say at first, but then we dove in and put down whatever came to mind. I wrote mine in third person; he wrote his in first. Mine listed off educational and work stats like a resume. His made no mention of schools or work history and only described his favorite activities and colors.

I looked at my husband and had a little epiphany. All my life, the people I loved most had described me by my accomplishments and accolades--my parents, my teachers, competitive Catholic schoolmates, and later, boyfriends, had all introduced and described me in terms of what I had done: "This is my daughter/friend/girlfriend. She studies [subject] at [institution]." My personal success was defined in terms educational credits and earnings potential. My college boyfriend of about three years showed he cared for me by pushing me to achieve the best scores, recommendations, and awards.

Mr. G is also an intelligent man who did well in school and received awards and high scores. But somewhere along the way, along the difficult path of his young life, he stopped caring about those social statistics and began to define himself and those around him by their personal qualities--who they were, not what they had done. I realize the two can never be totally independent of one another, but they are two very different ways of looking at and interacting with people.

And I realized that my writing changed when my relationship with Mr. G began. He is not heavily involved with my creative writing. He is supportive and encouraging of my writing time, and occasionally he will read pieces I show to him. But he is not actively involved with my writing process. He doesn't come to my writing group meetings or engage in his own creative writing. What Mr. G does is feed my mind and soul from the outside. He lets me know through all of his interactions with me that he loves me for who I am, regardless of what I do or don't accomplish. That gives me a safe place, internally, to write so that I don't feel exposed and vulnerable when I reveal my writing to others. If people don't like what I've written--or if I look at my own writing and realize it could use a lot of improving--that has little to no bearing on how I feel about myself these days. I can think that my writing is terrible without thinking that I am terrible. And that separation allows me to look for ways to improve my writing, without feeling bad in the process.

Having a child is making me hyper-aware of these personal narratives. How will my daughter define herself? How will I describe her? How will I introduce her to others? I know that the way my child hears me talking about her, and the way I talk to her, will greatly influence how she sees herself--and thus, how she presents herself to the world and what she produces creatively.

I hope that I can instill in my daughter the wisdom and strength it took me a quarter of a century to find. I want her to know from the start that she is loved and she is valued no matter what she does or how many mistakes she makes along the way. I want to give her that safe place inside from which to explore, learn, and grow so that she never feels bad about herself for smearing a painting or breaking a crayon. I want her to understand that the things she creates and does come from within herself, but not the reverse--the results of her efforts do not make her who she is inside.

I think that having a child will give me many more of these moments of awakening, when I become aware of the story behind the story and come to appreciate what really matters in life.


  1. Being a mom is an absolutely incredible experience, but don't be surprised if it takes you a few years to realize that! Interesting post. I often wonder how other people see me. Altho I'm not even sure how I see myself half the time.

  2. The thought of sitting down to try and characterize myself for a child (or really, for anyone) is horrifying. I'm not even sure I could pull it off.

  3. Karen: I think I'm realizing it already! Since studying child development academically, I have never bought into the idea that childcare or parenting are in any way unsophisticated or less important than any career or way of spending one's time.

    Nevets: But we do it all the time for things like online profiles, author bios, and resumes. It is a lot different, though, doing it for a family member instead of a public audience.


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