“And then Cinderella realized she was much too young to get married and went to college instead.”
That’s the ending I remember. My mother began the practice of changing fairy tale endings before I was old enough to realize it, and then continued the practice with my younger sister. By the time she came along I had seen the Disney movies enough times to know that the princess always got married, but I parroted the bit about college to Katy, six years my junior, none the less. It had become ingrained.
Many little girls imagine themselves as princesses destined for a fairy tale ending. Thanks to my mother, my sister and I were just princesses that were going to go to college. And we most definitely didn’t need to get married unless we wanted, and even then not until we were 30 or possibly older.
In fact, in my collegiate years I considered myself so independent and self-reliant that when I fell in love with my now husband my senior year of undergrad, I had a very difficult time accepting it. Surely I was too young to feel so strongly. My heart was telling me one thing and my brain (in my mother’s voice) was telling me another. I was so adamant that I didn’t need a prince to save me that it only took me another six years to finally agree to marry that man.
None of that is to say that I didn’t pine after the boys growing up.
I was never an overly popular kid. I was painfully shy and suffered terrible stranger anxiety most of my childhood. I was so obsessed with not wanting anyone to dislike me that I could hardly find the courage to allow anyone to know me. But in the 5th grade, I got my first boyfriend.
His name was Matthew. He really wanted to go out with my friend Ashley, but when she turned him down I happily accepted a secondary invitation. I remember running up to my mom after school and eagerly informing her I finally had a boyfriend. She responded with a mask of mirrored excitement, but I can only imagine her internal mockery of a 10 year old with a boyfriend. I invited him to Cracker Barrel for my 11th birthday dinner. (My mom is the type of mom who let her daughter choose Cracker Barrel for the locale of her 11th birthday because that’s what I wanted.) It was a big deal for me to have a boy at my party. But then we moved and I never spoke to Matthew again. I guess technically we’re still together because we never broke up that I can remember.
I didn’t date again until college, but I had crushes all throughout middle and high school. Massive crushes, the kinds of crushes that keep you up at night with an aching heart and a head full of fantasy love stores. But I was too shy to act and none of my interests ever acted for me, probably because I was too afraid to ever speak to them. I cried to my mom about being undesirable. I feared being ugly, or worse, being found annoying by my peers (still a terrible fear to this day). My mother told me it was because I was “intimidating” to boys, the mantra every nerdy, brainy, dorky girl hears for years, knowing full well it isn’t true. I think it was because I had made myself invisible, and didn’t know how to reappear.
Looking back, I don’t think my mom could ever truly relate to my need for approval and my anxious desire to be wanted. She probably wasn’t expecting such an anxious first child. She couldn’t understand why I cared so much about what others thought, especially why I cried about no boys liking me. Hadn’t she raised me to be independent? Hadn’t she tried to teach me the lesson again and again that I didn’t need anyone else to tell me my self-worth? My mom has always been the kind of woman who loves herself and doesn’t need approval from others to feel valuable and worthy. It’s that natural charisma that is so attractive on her. But I had to go and take after my dad who, like me, thrives on external approval. “Like me! Like me!”
My mom is the type of mom who always let her kids dress themselves and make their own meals. We were making our own breakfasts and packing our own lunches at a very early age. When we were bored, she would tell us to go play outside and leave her alone so she could keep reading her book. She would let my brother disappear for the day, not really knowing where he was but assuming he was out getting some vitamin D somewhere and not worrying too much about it. When we came home from school with troubles she would listen and then say, “You can work it out,” and then leave us to figure it out. She was never a helicopter mom in any sense of the word.
Growing up I always thought her nonchalance was because she had other things on her mind, or she just didn’t care as much as other moms seemed to. She was always doing laundry, or at the kitchen table paying bills, or reading a good book, waving us away with a hand and an assurance that if there wasn’t blood, whatever we were crying about was not important enough to warrant her attention. I do not mean to say we didn’t feel loved. We knew she loved us more than her own life, and she made sure to tell us so. Looking back now I see how she was purposefully fostering this strong sense of independence in us. We learned early on how to take care of ourselves.
So when I finally got to college and started recognizing my self-worth, entering into relationships full of confidence, I began to see more and more of my mother in myself. And it pleased me exceedingly. I think I was more prepared for life on my own than many of my peers at that point. I could balance a check book and make a budget and live within my means because I had to; Mom wasn’t the kind of mom to give me an allowance after I’d left the house. Nothing was wrong with me after all. I wasn’t broken, I was beautiful and strong and had been all along, just like my mother had tried to tell me over and over again. I gained a new respect for my mom when I went to college. It couldn’t have been easy to deal with an anxiety riddled adolescent girl so concerned with what everyone else thought of her all the time. But she just kept loving me and sure enough I flourished. Maybe a little late, but better late than never.
And now I have a daughter of my own to consider. She’s just 3 months old and there’s no telling what kind of personality she might have. I hope she’s outgoing and extroverted and full of zest for life like her father, but she might be more like me; shy and fearful and imaginative and artistic and worried about being well liked. In which case I hope I can remember to take the lessons my mother taught me and give them to her. I’ll hug her close, tell her she’ll be just fine, even if she can’t believe it yet, and always remember to change the endings to all the fairy tales.
-Shelby Lucas Slowey
Shelby is a United Methodist elder living and working in Nashville, Tennessee. Much to her surprise, she is married to her own Prince Charming and they have one human daughter and four fur-babies. Shelby is looking forward to raising her daughter in the company of some super strong and bad-ass female role models, and hopes to instill in her a sense of her innate strength and power as together we continue to smash the patriarchy.