What Makes You Beautiful: Open Letter to My Daughter
Once upon a time, not that long ago, I was admitted to Baptist Hospital. It was unexpected; I’d gone for a routine morning check-up with my obstetrician. He asked me to go to the hospital to be monitored because I was having contractions (again). Because I was 37 weeks pregnant, by the time I got to the hospital to have the contractions monitored, he’d changed his mind and decided that he wanted to go ahead and induce me that day. It was the brisk, but bright, winter morning of Monday, February 23, 2004 and a beautiful masterpiece was about to be added to the patchwork of my life: you. From the very first moment I saw you, the only word I’ve known to describe you is beautiful. But you’re eleven now and tonight, when you broke down in tears because of a few “beauty bumps” that recently appeared on your forehead and because of the glasses you were given this year, I realized the word “beautiful” alone may not be enough to help you see yourself the way I see you. You sweetly asked, “Mama, what are some things you like about me?” and I knew in my heart that, although I could never count the number of things I love about you because they are as infinite as the stars in the heavens, you needed to know that you are just as precious, just as adored, just as lovely, just as special as you were on that brisk, but bright, morning in February eleven years ago.
Over the last year or so, you’ve wondered a time or two if you’re still as “cute” as smaller children. You’ve felt the tug-of-war that exists in nearly every young girl your age: there’s a part of you that longs to grow-up, go on dates and actively chase those bright dreams of yours while, on other days, you confide in me that you don’t want to be grown-up, adamantly insisting, “I’m not a teenager yet, I’m still a kid.” One foot standing on higher ground, waiting for permission to do things, like drive or date that boy, that you think will bring you fulfillment, while a part of you still wants to be held in my arms and takes delight in the moments when the tickle monster still comes for you. You see how adults cater to younger children, using the special tone of voice reserved for the smallest ones, and you think that, as you grow older, some of your sparkly-ness somehow comes off; you’re afraid that becoming an adolescent instead of a little girl somehow makes you less special. I promise you, Baby Breathe, it does not. No matter what your age you are still Breathe: strong, free, joyful, beautiful Breathe.
You asked me: “Mama, what are some things you like about me?” One of the many things I love about you is how much you love music. One Direction is a music band made up of several boys whose music you like. You had a poster of them in your room, you know their names and singing their songs makes you happy. One of your favorite melodies of theirs is a tune called What Makes You Beautiful. Every time I hear it, memories of when you and I went to one of their concerts dance into my thoughts. It was your first major concert, beyond things like Barney and The Wiggles, and your whole face glowed the entire night, your body vibrating with foot tapping and clapping. You’d throw your arms up in the air above your head and then reach over and grab my neck; at the time of the concert, you were ten-years-old and I picked you up to hold you so that you could see over the heads of the other very excited adolescent girls in the stadium. You radiated beauty that night. It had nothing to do with the One Direction t-shirt you were wearing. It had nothing to do with the fact that you did not yet have glasses. It had nothing to do with the fact that your hair was longer than it is right now (much to your chagrin). The beauty shining forth from you that evening came from something else: it came from the joy inside of you spilling over onto your face and into your eyes. Music has always played a special role in my life: when I’m singing is one of the few times I really let myself relax. Knowing that we share a passion for music, and watching how it lights you up, is one of the many things I adore about you but it is only one of a million.
Scarcely a day goes by that I’m not witness to you being a selfless, wonderful big sister to Alight. When she needs it, you gladly offer help with spelling, give her piggy back rides, go outside to jump on the trampoline with her even when you don’t really want to jump on the trampoline—you even pick her shoes up from where she drops them in the hallway and move them to where they belong. You’ll play whatever she wants to play, go wherever she wants to go and when she forgets something, you happily fetch it for her. When she cries, you cry. You’ll sacrifice until I break in and insist that your own desires be heard.
Selfless sacrifice is noble and it’s a characteristic that’s in shockingly low supply around the world. Culture teaches us to focus on what we want, what we need, what can be done to make our dreams come true but every, single day I watch you nurture the exact opposite of the me-me-me mentality. Instead of focusing on you, you focus on other people. You spent time making a gift to send Maggie, your friend who lives in West Virginia and you get excited when you get an e-mail from her. It’s something that is remarkably special about you, your selfless and brave willingness to put others first. And yet…. Sometimes you get frustrated with me because I won’t give you my opinion and sometimes I won’t allow you to sacrifice. That’s because I don’t want you to ever start to wonder who you are. When the only thing you do is give to other people, you don’t have time to discover what you like and don’t like or make your own opinions about life. Although Alight and others to whom you so bravely offer your heart are important, they are not superior to you. Alight’s wants, my opinions… they are not better than or more important than your own. And I want you to delight in the fact that you can think for yourself and make decisions for yourself; I want you to know the freedom of disagreeing with someone and being able to say so and of marching to the sound of your own drum. So, sometimes, I step in and insist that you take time for yourself. But know this: your selfless attitude and your giving heart are some of the most beautiful things about you. At camp, your friends told you that you were so sweet and Mrs. Felisa said that you were always helping. You even volunteered to clean the hair out of the shower stalls! When I asked you, during a recent Chatter Chat, what you would do with a pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow, your first reply was: “Could I donate it?” People see that in you, Breathe; they see how giving you are, how caring. And it sets you apart; when people hear your name, one of the first things they say is how giving you are. That is beautiful. It has nothing to do with the clothes you wear. It has nothing to do with whether you have an open or closed mouthed smile. It has nothing to do with how tall you are, either. Your thoughtfulness makes those physical attributes become secondary. Your thoughtfulness and selflessness make you beautiful. I am so proud of you for making such a committed and consistent effort to put others first; it is one of the many sparkly things about you I love.
I also love how healthy you are: you will only drink water and you eagerly look forward to helping me bake homemade bread or homemade cheese. This week, you made a loaf of homemade bread nearly completely by yourself: you mixed the ingredients, you even spent ten minutes kneading the dough. I took a picture of you doing that because of the happiness that was on your face. You’ve always loved gooey things: from playdoh to the green goop at the Dollar Tree to squishing bread dough, you enjoy playing with goo. It makes me happy that you do. When you were small, you loved playing in mud. You’d happily make mud pies, squishing it between your fingers and jumping in its puddles. You’d smear it on your arms and on your face. I didn’t see mess, I saw freedom. I didn’t see mess, I saw beauty because it would light up your eyes. Today, nature is still one of your favorite places. You’d still jump in the mud puddles and every time we visit the lake, you plop yourself down in the sand and play in it, squishing it through your hands. Equally so, you love dancing in the rain. Some of my favorite photos and videos are of you and Alight skipping around outside, soaked to the bone. They are some of my favorites because it’s in these moments of childhood exploration that your heart still lights up. It is beautiful to watch you play in the sand or knead the bread or run through the rain. It is beautiful to watch you let go of every worry you have in order to truly soak in every moment. You’re only eleven years old and yet you’ve discovered the secret to life: taking the time to treasure the golden moments as you are presented them. When people see that in you, they can’t help but smile, they can’t help but be stunned at how beautiful you are.
Your faith is yet another thing that makes Breathe Breathe and is something else I love and admire about you. Every night, we say prayers together and then you inevitably whisper another prayer to yourself. You pick up the Bible and read it on your own accord, without any urging from me. You love going to church and you work so very hard to memorize and learn things. You inspire me to want to learn more. One of the sweetest things you’ve kept up with is the prayer journal: I love reading the prayers you’ve written God. When you were younger, you signed all of your prayers, “Your Little Princess Breathe.” And what a beautiful princess you still are! I remember when it was weighing on your heart to talk to your friend whose family does not believe in God; when you had the opportunity for a playdate, you talked to her about church. Your faith in God is precious. It’s not only something that can give you strength and comfort when you are hurting or scared, it’s also something that other people see and admire about you. Just like the song we still sing regularly, you are a light that’s shining for Jesus and what a beautiful thing that is. You are a miracle. Not because you have blonde hair and shining blue eyes, not because of anything physical at all. You are a miracle because God created you. You are a miracle because of the impact you’ve made on my life and on Alight’s life and on everyone who loves you. You are His little miracle. And it does not matter how old you are, or how old you will become. It does not matter if the adults around you take a lot of time with you or none at all. It does not matter what anyone else does, says or thinks. Did you know that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “mirus” which means “wonderful?” How perfectly that describes you! Over time, it was shortened to “mirari” which, in Latin, means “to wonder.” I do often stare at you when you are asleep, in wonder, thinking about how lucky I am to have you in my life and how utterly profoundly your birth changed my life. You are a miracle in every meaning of the word. And miracles are always, always beautiful.
For Christmas this year, you got two dresses. One of them is a gorgeous shade of blue and came complete with a white cardigan. When you put it on, the first thing you did was twirl around. Your face lit up when you saw how it flies around you. The other was the dress in your size that the American Girl doll Mary Ellen wears. You put it on and happily exclaimed, “I’m an American Girl, Mama!” You feel beautiful in new clothes. You feel beautiful in dresses and pantyhose and with your naturally curly hair straightened every morning. You put makeup on with an unbelievable skill that, quite frankly, I envy. And while I’m thankful for every moment you twirl around, for every second that you see yourself for a moment as the princess I know you are, the truth is that none of that is what makes you beautiful. What makes you beautiful is that there is no one else like you in all the Earth. What makes you beautiful is that you have a huge heart that loves selflessly and faithfully. What makes you beautiful is that you believe in the kindness of people. What makes you beautiful is how you see the world through a childlike lens, a lens that colors everything with a tint of wonder and possibility.
Human beings aren’t all that different; in fact, we are all searching for acceptance. Some of us search harder than others but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all want to be liked and we all want to feel as though we fit in. I never felt as though I really belonged anywhere. I wasn’t one of the nerds in school, but I wasn’t one of the punk rock kids, either. My body was more like a robot than a dancer’s; I lacked grace and flexibility (I broke my wrist on skates and I wasn’t even skating. When I took ballet class—-although I loved ballet, I felt like an overgrown, clumsy clown in a class of Swan Lake prima donnas). Athletics of any kind scared me to death. I was convinced that the only thing I could do right was academics and writing books. I looked at the girls around me, the girls who seemed to always be laughing and were surrounded by armies of friends. I thought they had everything figured out. I thought, somehow, they knew more about life than I did. And I looked at adults and thought to myself that, one day, when I turned a magical age, things would just fall into place for me. Overnight, just by getting to be a certain age, I thought wisdom and grace and beauty and confidence—all of the things I found attractive in other people—would fall into my head like magic and I would suddenly get it. I thought the people around me were beautiful and that that was why they were popular. But I was wrong. The girls I thought of as beautiful and together—-they each struggled with their own personal problems about which I knew nothing. The adults I admired and looked up to were full of secrets, not magical knowledge. The truth is, adults aren’t equipped with anything mysterious. We are often stumbling along life’s path, too, unsure about whether or not we are making the right choices. And, just as you’re afraid that some of your sparkly-ness might be slipping off just because you’re turning one year older, we adults sometimes feel as though we’ve lost all of our sparkly-ness. But, honey, the truth is… just because we feel something does not make it true.
I wish that I could protect you from ever feeling the slightest bit of insecurity. I wish I could protect you from feeling as though other girls are prettier or smarter or more anything than you. I wish I could give you all the confidence in the world, to have as yours for all eternity. But one of the truest gifts God gave us is the journey of life. It’s like our daily adventures—like not following the path at the park, but cutting through the woods just to see what’s out there. We might get out of breath, like you did when walking up that enormous hill at camp. We might fall and scrape our knees. But then we find a log onto which we can walk; we find a caterpillar unfurling from his cocoon. We see a family of deer grazing. And, sometimes, our adventures lead us to the most amazing of discoveries: an experience to write about, to share, to claim as ours. When added together, all of the experiences we have…. They fill the fabric of lives with a patchwork of memories, both good and bad, that shape our thoughts, our hearts and our dreams. There are pieces of Breathe that have yet to be discovered. There are parts of your story that haven’t been written yet, parts of your character that haven’t been revealed yet. To find those, you have to walk onto the unpaved paths of life, fall down a few times and learn to stand back up. You may have scratches and, though it breaks my heart to admit it, you may get a few deep heart-scars along the way, too. But nothing will ever take the sparkly-ness off of you, nothing will ever make you less special or less amazing or less of a miracle than you were the morning you were born. Furthermore, there aren’t many things I can promise you about the future, but I can promise that I will be with you, ready to celebrate your victories with you and hold you when you are hurt. You won’t ever be alone. And if you can remember that life is a gift, a beautiful gift, and that every day has sparkly diamonds waiting for you to grasp, then you will find your path to your dreams.
Don’t let your self-worth or your confidence be stolen by a society filled with stumbling adults who are afraid their sparklyness has faded. They are merely trying to replace what they think they’ve lost with diets, the chasing of more money, the changing of their hair colors or other material things. They won’t find happiness or fulfillment with any of that. What makes you beautiful is that you still find time for lemonade stands, for playing in the rain, for staring at bugs, for twirling around in an American Girl dress: you still take time to enjoy the little things in life. Time is made up of those little moments. We spend most of our lives working, eating, sleeping, talking…. The big events, the ones we think define life, are really but seconds out of a lifetime. Hold on to seeing the miracle of a butterfly, the sweetness of playing “Mrs. Humperdinker” or just resting. Some of the sweetest moments for me are when I get a text from you, even though you’re just in the next room, that is full of emojis. I love that about you—that you want to talk with me and to share with me. I love our Chatter Chat time and listening to the stories you write, too. I treasure these little memories just as much as I treasure the memory of how, as a baby, you’d wiggle with excitement and stare in wonder at any light. I treasure the moments spent with you now just as much as I treasure the memory of having played Elephant in the Jungle or Human Obstacle Course when you a toddler. And I eagerly look forward to the little moment memories we’ll create in the coming years.
Eleven years have come and gone since that bright, brisk Monday morning in February. I’ve grown and changed. And I’ve become happier because of you. With every beat of my heart, with every breath I breathe, with everything I have in me… I marvel at you, I like you and I love you deeply. And you are truly, miraculously beautiful.
I love you,