Friday, March 8, 2013


My oldest girl had a tough day yesterday. I just had a terrible day! were first words when I picked her up. Terrible!

A thing had happened, and then another thing. Neither of them was really significant by the time we talked although they had felt so in the moment, but as it was my sweet E found herself feeling sad. She had made the self-determination, though, that she had cried and would not cry in school again. She was reaching for her emotional equilibrium. She was trying to pull it together, and she was proud of herself for the effort.

My sweet, anxious, sensitive girl. You know that's so accomplished of her, right? She considered her feelings in an objective way and made a decision to course-correct. She's come a long way, baby. She had decided the thing and the other thing could be thought about more at home, later, but that she was going to find her composure to comport herself as any other thing-unburdened classmate was doing.

And then.

Someone -- an adult -- an authority figure -- looked at inward-turned E's face and said, "Smile, E." She lost her hold on her precarious composure. She dissolved into tears.

Telling me later, she said that she was embarrassed. She had been trying so hard to look no-longer-sad. She had been trying to behave just like anyone else, to let the attention find its way away from her, to be not the girl everyone was watching. And this person brought all the attention back to her.

She felt ashamed, she said. She had thought she was achieving that elusive equilibrium and for an adult to call out the sadness on her face meant that she had not been succeeding after all. She felt a failure.

And then she felt angry -- at the adult, for embarrassing her, and at herself, for all of it. She just wanted to be not-the-kid-who-wears-all-her-emotions-on-her-face. She wanted everything to be simple, and safe, and nothing felt simple. Nothing felt safe.

It's been a long time since I've been told to smile but I remember that happening a lot when I was little. I always had the same reactions, some mix dependent on the specifics of the circumstance of shame, embarrassment and anger.

As I got bigger, those comments led me to believe that my face in its natural state is angry-looking, or ugly.

In college, I came to associate being told to smile with the patriarchy. Men want to control women's appearance and behavior. Women are more socially acceptable when they're cheerful.

In recent years, I haven't thought about it at all. That's interesting, because I have actually become happier as I have aged, so maybe I do just naturally smile more. But also, it's important to consider that 36-year-old women just don't draw (as much) attention as 20-year-old women. It's a feeling I'd forgotten, being commanded to smile.

So back to my girl: I'm fairly sure hers isn't a story of sexism or patriarchy, and I know her face is beautiful. But it is undeniably true that societally we prefer our individuals to be calm and cheerful. Strong emotions make us skittish, don't they?

Is there a lesson here? I haven't fully absorbed it yet, but it's no wonder my girl exerted herself to look unbothered. Why is having emotion so difficult to witness?

I hope your weekend is full of smiles - but only because they're what you feel.

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