This week I’ve got something very raw and vulnerable to talk about.
Someone close to me—I’m not going to say who—said something to my two-year-old daughter Niamh that shocked me. My wife Annie was napping and the three of us were alone together and feeding Niamh lunch. I gave her a cup of juice cut with 80% water, and this other person looked Niamh in the eye and said “You’d better drink water instead of juice, or you’ll become a fatty!”
I was stunned for a moment—did those words come from the lips of someone who loves me and my daughter? “Fatty”? FATTY?! My daughter is only two years old and already people close to her are tossing that vile word at her as a weapon of shame? Does a toddler need to bear a burden of anxiety over the shape of her body? Does anybody?
The word was spoken by someone with whom I often experience sharp values dissonance, despite our closeness. Ordinarily I would bite my tongue and remain silent in the face of such a remark, to keep the peace between us. But this was different—this was an attack on my daughter, on her very identity. So I looked this person in the eye, and I said:
“Please don’t ever use that word in front of my daughter.”
The person laughed it off, and for a moment I thought that would be the end of it—my valiant defense of my daughter’s personhood met with avoidance. But a few minutes later, the person spoke up: “I won’t say that word to her. But studies do show that kids who drink juice instead of water tend toward obesity. And I only said that because she doesn’t understand what it means.”
I pointed out that Niamh understands more than you might think, to which this person agreed. My first thoughts after this conversation were a combination of outrage and pride at standing up for my daughter. When I had time to reflect, though, I saw more dimensions at work. I realized that the person was doing this out of genuine health concern, valid or invalid though it may be. They weren’t trying to shame Niamh or put her down. They weren’t even addressing her, really; they were addressing me, telling me in an indirect way that they were concerned with how I was regulating Niamh’s food and drink. Passive-aggressiveness aside, this is a well-meaning and helpful goal. But in the process, this person unwittingly engaged the shame machine and set it loose on my little girl.
One thing above all else that terrifies me as a parent: the magnitude and volume of messages that bombard my child all day every day, from family, from friends, from entertainment and advertising, from simply living in this society and breathing in its assumptions. Niamh is taking it all in, wide-eyed, curious, accepting, and already forming the conscious and unconscious scripts that will guide her thinking and her life. The messages she internalizes could be the most life-affirming and joyous, or the most hateful and stifling—it doesn’t matter, she’ll take them in all the same.
And the messages pour in, morning till night, and will continue as long as she lives. And some of those messages come from her mother, and from me.
There’s a warrior in me that longs to stand up to injustice, right wrongs, and defy a wicked world. That warrior wells up to fiercely guard my daughter in body and soul. But that warrior is not always mature and wise in its use of strength. Sometimes in my desire to battle evil, I accomplish nothing but inflicting harm.
A few months ago I had a minor crisis that I treated as a major catastrophe. I thought that something important might be lost in the mail. I had a total meltdown, stomping around, yelling, and snapping at anyone who tried to talk to me. While Annie, Niamh and others looked on, I ranted dramatically that if I didn’t get the package my life was OVER, and if the postal service sent it back I’d just KILL them, and so forth. At the time I was seeing it as an issue of JUSTICE—others were counting on me to receive this package in time, and a wicked mail service was standing in my way! I see now that it was merely an inconvenience. But that’s beside the point, here.
The point is that while my fury was not at all directed at her, Niamh stood and took in every sight and sound. And the very person who months later, as I described above, would speak words of body shame into her life, witnessed this and emailed me: “When we were talking about the mail issue, I noticed Niamh froze and riveted on you as you talked of murder and suicide. Even though she’s not saying those words, yet, she is certainly absorbing them.”
So, once again—the person who warned Niamh of becoming a fatty had my and her best interests at heart. At the time, I brushed this off, filing it away in a “who do they think they are, telling me how to parent?” box and deciding that I was dealing with the issue just fine, thank you very much. But unlike this person, I didn’t return after reflection to engage with the concern. After the “fatty” incident I did reflect, and I realized to my horror that my message of violence, even figuratively and indirectly, is just as much a soul-cutting wound. Every word that I speak into her life is a gift, unconditionally accepted, and if I give her poison…SHE WILL DRINK IT.
This is what terrifies me as a father.
So this isn’t a smug, self-righteous story about how I stood firm like a White Knight and defended my little girl. This is a story about the battlefield Niamh walks every day, with no clear good guys or bad guys. This is my story of how in my zeal to guard her from outside threats, I sometimes inflict the wounds myself. Fighting evil is an all-too-convenient substitute for doing good.
I still aim to fight against the shame machine, and what’s more teach Niamh to do the same—filtering voices, finding a voice, remaining sure of who she is. But I must never forget that everyone in her life can be at times an ally and at times an enemy, and that the shaming, wounding voices can come from anywhere, even her daddy. So I had better guard myself. I’ll be honest, I don’t know any magical strategies for doing that. As I described in “The Sheathed Sword,” the progress I’ve made toward healthy, nonviolent, shame-free patterns has been hard, grueling work. It’s uncharted territory, and slow going. But if I keep forging ahead, maybe I can at least help Niamh by leading the way.