The Rhetoric of Motherhood

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

I wouldn’t say it’s the cornerstone of my mothering manifesto, but those eight words have stealthily crept into my parenting approach more than once. I can’t even remember where I got the crazy idea that I could give my three daughters things that have largely exceeded my own grasp, but by all indications they fell for it.

I wish I could say that I’ve been conferring my own abundant stores of hope and self-confidence to my offspring. But for more than 30 years it’s been more like pulling those commodities out of thin air and urging my kids to stand on them. Like billowy cumulus clouds, my words have often been mere phantoms of hope. But time and again my girls have pulled the ripcord of my conjectures and sailed to better places.

It’s the darndest thing.

Technically I haven’t been lying, but you could easily call me a hypocrite. In 2005 I told my youngest daughter that we were going to be okay, even though our family was being ripped apart. I was absolutely terrified about our future. But I told her with as much absolute certainty as I could muster that we weren’t only going to survive, but thrive in the aftermath. As the words were leaving my mouth, I knew that I didn’t believe them myself. But I had to give her an alternative to the panic and fear that surrounded us. It was worth a try, right?

I’ve also used this tactic to convince my daughters that they’re fabulous. When the oldest tipped the scale at nearly ten and a half pounds on the day she arrived, I started praying that her feet wouldn’t grow larger than a size 10. It wasn’t that I wanted her to avoid the scarcity problem while shopping for shoes (though that’s a very real curse.) I didn’t want her to incur the wounds that are often inflicted on “big” girls. I suffered constant humiliation about my size as both a child and a teenager, so I desperately wanted to shield her from that pain.

As if.

When she topped out at six feet tall in high school, it triggered every bit of my own insecurity. But when she agonized over her lumbering stature, I plied her with aphorisms. “It’s a profound gift to be tall,” I’d say. “You are an Amazon queen. There are thousands of women who’d give anything to be your height.” This from the woman who, to this day, feels residual shame when a distracted barista calls her “sir,” or when wide-eyed strangers glance at her feet to see if she has platform shoes on. 

I have come to call this duplicity The Rhetoric of Motherhood. Though most people equate the “r” word with blowing hot air, Aristotle called it “the faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.” If I want to persuade my children to believe in their inherent worth, beauty and power, occasionally the only means I have is to tell them things I wish I believed for myself, in the hope that they’ll buy them.

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And some 30 years later, I’m happy to report that my strategy is working.

I recently came across a famous study co-authored by prominent professor and psychologist Robert Rosenthal, which spawned a phenomenon known today as the “Pygmalion Effect.” (George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalian, was the inspiration for the 1964 musical My Fair Lady.) The purpose of the study was to see if teachers’ expectations could influence student success. Rosenthal administered an IQ test to a group of elementary school students and secretly designated a handful as having a greater capacity for learning (this was all intentionally fabricated.) Rosenthal told the teachers which kids had the supposed advantage, then tested all of the children again at the end of the study. And the result was clear: regardless of IQ, those arbitrarily deemed “smarter” performed much better than the others on the exit test. The teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performance. (You can listen to Rosenthal’s brief explanation of the study here.)

In much the same way, my expectation that my children will rise above things that chronically limit me (i.e. worry, self loathing, doubt) has often given them wings. I know that my kids’ successes in life are due to a myriad of factors; I’m not trying to take all the credit here. But I truly believe that consistently countering their fears and insecurities with an iron-clad belief in their ability to succeed, even though I may be harboring some apprehension that they’ll fail, has influenced two major things: their beliefs about themselves, and their behavior. This is astonishing given the fact that I haven't yet mastered doing that for myself.

It’s often been said that you can’t give away what you don’t have, but in this case I’d argue that it’s totally possible. You just have to be a marginally skilled actor. If I'd decided to hold this "wisdom" until it was coming from a place of personal experience, we'd still be waiting.

I came to motherhood with a longing to give my kids at least a portion of what I needed when I was their age. Like so many others who were raised by broken people, my siblings and I were emotional orphans, left to fend for ourselves when it came to making sense of our own fear and pain. That vacuum is where we formed unsupervised beliefs about ourselves, and our ability to navigate the course of our lives. It’s taken decades to unravel the stories we told ourselves in order to survive, and in many ways we’re still sorting things out. In the meantime, however, I’ve staged a mental coup d’état in the lives of my children, in an effort to help them write a better story. Like the protagonist in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film, Life is Beautiful, we try our best to turn our children’s nightmares into dreams.

But why stop there? 

On more than one occasion I’ve survived an agonizing circumstance or season because my friend Joanna told me I could. Like the time I became a wedding photographer when I was going through a devastating divorce. Every single ceremony reminded me that I’d failed. We’d failed. Having been married 25 years, the sense of loss was overwhelming. I seriously doubted my ability to stay detached enough to avoid sobbing through other peoples’ weddings. 

After I poured my heart out, Joanna paused to signal the gravity of what she was about to say. “You CAN do this,” she told me. “You're a strong, courageous businesswoman, and you have the ability to completely separate what you do for a living from what you’re going through in life.”

I sat there for a moment. I do? I didn’t feel strong or courageous. But somehow I ended up believing in her belief in me. And you know what? Though I still had to work my way through some crushing grief, I was somehow able to disengage enough during that season of my life to keep my bills paid. And never once did I drown in the misery that regularly stalked me. 

In the years that have followed I’ve seen similar scenarios play out in a myriad of ways. Mostly I’ve observed as my children have ignored conventional mores, given the middle finger to fear and trusted the net that I’ve promised would catch them if they’d follow their hearts. But now that they’re soaring, it’s time to come clean: I knowingly promised them nets that I wasn’t sure were there. And they jumped. Mandy left the security of a salaried job and founded a thriving photography business. Anna decided to leave the world of academia, move to Nashville and pursue music. And Amy, who went to grad school while pregnant and working, is now a literature professor. Today they all love what they do.


It doesn’t take much to offer a little support to those who are trying to rewrite their stories. I spent the better part of two years telling my distraught friend that she wasn’t too damaged for romantic love. Over the months I simply tried to be a compassionate mirror in her life, reflecting all of the wonderful things about her that years of abuse and neglect had stolen. All I did was listen to her fear and self-hatred, categorically rejected their validity, and told her she was going to be okay. Though I knew she was a phenomenal woman, I had no idea if she’d be okay or not. But she was. Today she's happily married. I’m not in any way taking credit for that, but I’d like to think that my unshakable belief in her helped a little while she waited for a break in the cocoon. 

I’ve seen the Rhetoric of Motherhood help everyone from my hairdresser to my elderly, ailing father. Sometimes people just need someone else to believe for them and in them, even if there's no good reason to.