Several months ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I learned that I was an “embarrassment” to my eight-year-old daughter. Eleni was wolfing down a bowl of cereal while I gazed at a cloudless, blue sky outside our apartment window, contemplating whether I would join her in a “Go Green!” walkathon that her school had planned for that day. Suddenly, my daughter gave me a funny look. “Mom,” she said, studying my uncombed hair and the holey leggings that I wear only around the house. “Are you going out like that, or do you think you’ll change?”
Surprised by the question, I assured Eleni that I would freshen up, but asked why she seemed so worried. “Well,” she began in a little voice. “You know, sometimes you kind of embarrass me.” As soon as the words slipped from her mouth, Eleni burst into tears; seconds later, I began crying, too. To be honest, I was stunned and hurt, as I had always thought I was a “cool” mom. When we’d regained our composure, I asked Eleni what I had done to embarrass her — but she wouldn’t respond, so we walked to school in silence.
That day (after skipping the walkathon), I took stock of my life and realized that Eleni had a few valid grievances. For one thing, I’m 50, and not as young as some of the other mommies at her school. On top of that, I’m a single mother, with too little time and disposable cash on my hands to look fashion-forward — or fashion-anything! Then there’s the fact that our family life is not as “traditional” as others’, despite my best efforts to create a loving, stable home.
The next day, Eleni and I talked and she finally admitted what was bothering her. Surprisingly, it was none of the things I had worried about. Rather, it was the fact that I speak inappropriately in public sometimes, or in a voice that’s too loud. She brought up the day I reprimanded a movie clerk for being rude, and the time I cheered too loudly at her soccer game. There was an instance when I called Eleni “baby” (instead of “honey” or “sweetie”) in front of her friends, and the time I told a neighbor something “private” (an innocuous story of how Eleni got a bug bite).
When I heard my list of infractions, I sighed with relief, as they were mercifully easy to correct. But Eleni’s revelations made me see something deeper: My fun, lively daughter is growing up and becoming more self-conscious. In the mornings, for instance, Eleni painstakingly combs her shiny, long hair and studies her Asian features in the mirror. “Mom, look at how my eyes get small when I smile,” she’ll say, with a tone of consternation. “Isn’t that kind of weird?” Or she’ll pick out an outfit for school, then change because a shirt is too baggy, a pair of pants too tight.
Eleni is nearly nine years old, and beginning fourth grade. She’s becoming more aware of who she is, how others see her, and how she fits in with the crowd. For all I know, she loves me because I’m her mom. But I suspect that my beautiful, complex little girl doesn’t want an occasionally loud-mouthed mom to spoil her fun or tarnish her evolving self-image.