A Note To My Children – by Judith Staff
I swear far too freely
But you mustn’t, you know those words are only for adults
I love my phone so much, I sleep with it
But you mustn’t, don’t be a slave to it and let it rule your days
I have a coffee & a handful of Skittles, and call it ‘lunch’
But you mustn’t, snack on your fruit, have the sandwiches, finish your crusts
I secretly re-fold the towels your Dad folds; he never does it right
But you mustn’t, in future accept your partner folds laundry differently. It’s okay.
I workout every single day, even if I’m injured. Even if I’m exhausted.
But you mustn’t, you need to exercise but you need to listen to your body, too
I strive incessantly for perfection, and always feel like I could do better
But you mustn’t, value what you achieve and don’t be afraid to celebrate it
I look in the mirror and speak terribly unkind words
But you mustn’t, love the self you see, seek beauty in your individuality always
I keep my tears under lock and key, your Grandad says “Crying solves nothing”
But you mustn’t, let yourself cry and believe it only strengthens you
I see those around me in different spaces and I want to be where they are
But you mustn’t, we’re all where we are because we own our journeys; own yours
I have written this for you, my gorgeous children
But you don’t listen to me.
And maybe I am talking to myself.
Bookcase — by Judith Staff
Many times a day
My lungs are crying
“I can’t breathe.”
“I CAN’T breathe.”
“I. Can’t. BREATHE.”
Over the clattering
Of my thoughts
In theory, I can.
Oxygen sneaks in
But it’s a drama
I take a breath
Not enough air
Still a deficit
A longer one
But no avail
Because each time
The breath stops
Unable to continue
When it reaches
That same spot
The invisible bookcase is crushing my chest.
“If you spend time in front of the mirror, you’ll be empty-headed all your life!”
A scornful mantra – my mother’s daily warning to me growing up. She truly believed it was impossible to work at looking good without becoming completely thick and self-absorbed, let alone develop any sense of compassion for humanity and make a wider contribution to society, or the planet. Yeah – a tad judgemental, I know.
As a “girly-girl”, the contrast in tastes my mother and I have regarding style, fashion and image could not be starker. Her short hair always un-styled, Scholl wooden sandals beneath unshaven legs, and she’s never owned any make-up. She wears fabrics which never need ironing, practical separates in colours that don’t show the dirt. Whether they match never matters. She doesn’t like jewellery and was in her fifties before she had her ears pierced, when my brother and I booked it for her as a surprise.
Even as a child, I was always “dresses”, never trousers. I love clothes, the more feminine the better. I wore my long hair in ponytails tied with bright ribbons which matched my outfits. Shiny shoes with buckles – if they made a noise when I walked, even better. Elements of style choices favoured by my six-year-old self are still visible in my wardrobe today. My friends know I still love shiny shoes which make a noise when I walk.
Once, my mother bought me brown jeans. Honestly; they had a truck on the back pocket – clearly for boys. And brown, even at its height of popularity in the 70s, was still the colour of shit, right? She made me wear them. Sometimes she bought me clothes which were totally unisex, like the matching saffron-coloured ribbed tops she made my little brother and I wear to a photographer’s to have our photo taken. Gross. Always what she liked, and always the opposite of what I would have chosen.
My Grandad said girls should all have long hair (a typical Irish Catholic patriarch.) That worked perfectly for me – by the age of five, I refused to go near a hairdresser’s, even for a trim. Except my mother never brushed my hair, and I only brushed the top layer. My stepmother would often spend Friday nights gently combing the nastiest tangles out of my long, thick tresses. She had expensive conditioner which smelled gorgeous, and she never pulled. It was she who taught me put on nail polish immaculately, & bought me my first high heels at thirteen.
At junior high, Jennifer B. and I skilfully applied our black eyeliner at 8.30am in the school bathroom. We wiped it off again in the same bathroom at 3.30pm. I devoured the monthly issues of Seventeen magazine which I still have lovingly stashed with pride in my attic for my daughters to howl with laughter over in years to come. Such an iconic symbol of my 1980s teen-hood.
My hair endured countless bottles of Sun-In, mousse and gel. I worshipped my curling iron and could empty a can of Finesse hairspray in less than a week. My mother complained loudly, saying I was always “titivating” – a ridiculous word. I just thought of “tits” whenever she said it, which made me want to laugh. I took no notice, but wished she could understand.
“You need to have values! You’ll just end up selling gold belts and not giving a damn about global injustice!” she would threaten.
But it didn’t scare me.
Running into a boy from school at the corner store without any lipstick on – now THAT scared me.
It is an outrageous notion that women who wear make-up, do their hair, shave, care what their clothes look like and – God forbid – perhaps want to look attractive are all “empty-headed”; I heard her use this term so often, it was branded on my brain. So scornful were her looks and words as she chided me for trying to look good. In truth, I never felt good about how I looked anyway. Constantly grappling with poor body image only made me try harder. I spent all my allowance on Maybelline and Timotei – I mean what thirteen year old girl didn’t want hot, juicy lips, lacquer-coated in cinnamon scented Kissing Potion®, and alluring, ass-length swishy hair, scented like a summer’s meadow full of wildflowers?!
These days, among other things, I am a mother of three children (12, 11 and 9 years old). The youngest two are girls. They have strong views on sexual objectification of women; understand that how they look should never be linked to their self-worth; have been raised to believe that bathroom scales are the devil’s work (hence we don’t have any); and are fully aware that it is not right for little girls to dress like grown-ups.
However, I encourage them to be themselves, and to feel good about how they look. They choose their clothes carefully (and fight over them visciously), they love shoes and bags, spend ages on their hair (learned behaviour which I accept total responsibility for), and stock-pile perfumed body sprays, nail polish and make-up. Both asked to have their ears pierced for their 8th birthdays. They wear my heels around the house and can now apply lipstick with enough accuracy that they don’t look like Ronald McDonald.
As for me, I have 15-20 lipsticks in my bag at any time (addicted), I straighten my hair to go to the gym and buy a new dress whenever I need a pick-me-up. But despite everything I am devoted to my family, passionate about my career and hell-bent on making a difference in the world every day.
…..And I’d like to think I have not turned out “empty-headed”, after all.