When my daughter was 10, every time I told her she had a beautiful voice, she’d shrug and say, “I know.”
No arrogance, no doubt. Nothing but sheer confidence.
I wasn’t the only one to praise her singing, either. People complimented her often though she never responded with gratitude. Instead, she had such faith in her gift that she acknowledged their compliments as pure truth: “I know.”
She knew she could sing, so like a sparrow in springtime, she did. It was that simple. She sang in the car, in the shower, in the garage (where the acoustics are fantastic), everything from Beyonce to The Beatles.
But these glowing moments are growing increasingly rarer. She’s 13 now, and things are changing fast: her body, her attitude, her tastes, her opinions, and, tragically, her self-esteem.
When she was 10, she begged to enter our small town’s summertime pageant. I cringed at the request, not because I didn’t believe in her, but because I wanted to protect her. Adolescence is a time of comparison, of measuring yourself against your peers, and I was in no hurry for her to experience that. But her excitement won out, and her talent was too good not to share, so I let her compete. She sang “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman, but the competition was fierce, and she did not place.
She took it hard.
Despite the hugs and flower bouquets, despite our reassurances that we were still proud of her, that our love did not hinge upon a victory, she was heartbroken. In her mind, she’d equated not winning with failure, so in melodramatic preteen fashion, she swore off singing forever. I thought it was just something she’d said in the heat of the moment, but she meant it, and three years later, it is still rare to hear her sing. If she does, it’s quieter now, more timid and self-aware, and she’s quick to break off when she notices anyone listening.
This morning, though, she belted out the chorus of Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” to the glazed donut she was eating. It was dramatic and theatrical—she really likes donuts—but it sounded beautiful, so I told her so.
“I miss hearing you sing,” I said, watching her devour the object of her affection. “You have a beautiful voice.”
She shook her head, lowered her eyes, made a face. “I’m done with singing,” she said. “I put myself out there once and no one liked it, so . . .” she shrugged.
She put herself out there once.
Jaded and cynical at 13.
Oh, my sweet child—how did your self-esteem become such a fragile thing?
Her singing is just as beautiful as ever—that has not changed. She is not any less talented because she didn’t win the crown. The only thing that’s changed is her perception of her talent.
The irony is that I recognize the tragedy of self-doubt in my daughter because I struggle with it daily—jaded and cynical, still, at 38.
How is she supposed to learn resilience from me when I’ve barely cultivated my own?
I know this brand of crippling self-doubt—it has touched so many aspects of my life, and I have let it extinguish the flames of my self-worth, my talent, my body image. Too long have I fretted, flint in hand, wanting to reignite those flames within me but terrified to be seen, not wanting to draw too much attention to my own weaknesses, lest I be found wanting. I have spent too much time hiding in the darkness, fearing the judgment of others. It has been paralyzing.
I do not want this for my daughter.
I do not want it for myself, either.
There is a reciprocal beauty in the uninhibited, self-forgetting expression of talents—we are meant to enjoy using them, and others are meant to be blessed by witnessing them. It’s an incredibly inspiring cycle. When we allow the shadow of self-doubt to eclipse this light, the cycle is broken, and we’re all cast into darkness. This is as true for her as it is for me.
I wish I could restore her innocence, her pure faith in the gifts she has been given.
I wish I could restore her self-forgetting nature, her songbird-like tendency to exercise her talents as naturally as birds do their instincts.
But I can’t do that.
The next best thing I can do now is teach her resilience.
Which means modeling resilience.
I have not been good at this.
This, I have found, is the hardest thing about being a parent: We’re often blind to our own hypocrisy. We see things in our children we want to fix without realizing that we aren’t modeling the very changes we expect. I haven’t let my daughter see me face rejection because I’ve been too ashamed. I believe in her talents, but I doubt my own.
I was doing her no favors as a role model.
But today, I saw an opportunity to do better. I took her sticky hands in mine and made a confession, “I feel the same way about writing that you do about singing. I know, deep down, that I am a good writer. I believe it is a talent that has been given to me, and I love doing it. I’ve written a book, but it’s been rejected by so many agents and publishers.”
It was an extremely vulnerable moment, confessing something so personal, so shameful. I’ve long believed that my failure was too painful to share, so I’ve always shed my tears silently. “I put myself out there, and no one liked it,” I said, echoing her words. I was fighting tears and losing. “I know how you feel. But do you think I should give up?”
She vehemently shook her head. “No. You can’t give up, mom.” Her hands were tight around mine—fervent, insistent.
Interesting, that shift in perspective: I could see the tragedy in her, but not in myself, and I knew the same was true for her.
“You can’t give up, either. Rejection is hard, but that doesn’t make us any less talented. We can’t stop using our talents. If I stop writing, all those people who might be blessed by my words won’t be. If you stop singing, all those people who might be blessed by your songs won’t be. If we stop, we’ll miss out on so much happiness, for ourselves and others. I love writing too much to let some rejection letters stop me. I know how much you love singing, so I don’t want you to give up, either. Promise me this: we’ll both keep using our talents. We’ll both let our lights shine.”
“I want you to help me with this,” I said, “because I doubt myself, just like you. So, if you see me doubting myself, please encourage me. And I’ll do the same for you. Promise?”
She curled her sticky pinky around mine, “Promise.”
I could not help but smile through my tears.
Then I took her into my arms, and I sang the chorus of that same Lizzo song back to her, the words truer today than ever before, “I’m cryin’ cuz I love you.”