As a teenager, I had zero self confidence. Even though I lived in a desert climate, I wore a heavy sweater every day of middle school because I was embarrassed to have breasts. I failed gym classes because changing in the locker room would have been unbearable. I hardly spoke in class unless I was called on, and even then it was in an inaudible stutter.
Most of my classmates didn’t seem to notice me, and if they did, they seemed to think I was odd or even dumb. Despite this, I knew I was much more than I seemed. I was a smart girl who did well in my English classes and who had big plans for my life: I would go to college, travel the world, write stories, and escape the poverty that had been trying to define me my entire life, that had defined too many people in my family already.
Then I got older and things turned out differently than I imagined. I moved out at seventeen to escape an abusive home, but I did so without finishing high school. I began working full time at a job that paid me only enough to rent a room in a small apartment and to buy meager groceries. I knew I would have to finish high school and go to college so, still 17, I took a proficiency exam and enrolled myself at a community college I did well there, but I struggled to balance working so much, going to school full time, paying my bills, and dealing with the emotional repercussions of my unstable childhood.
When I transferred to a university, I soon became overwhelmed by the tuition, the loneliness, and the uncertainty of whether or not I’d be able to succeed in the way I always told myself I must. I sought out counseling, but I eventually had a nervous breakdown and lost all control—the control I had so desperately clung to since childhood. It was the most terrifying time of my life.
I spent over a year recovering from that time, and I had a lot of positive personal growth. But one change was troubling: Instead of saying things like “I want to get an education” and “I want to nurture my talents,” I found myself saying “When I have a daughter, I will give her the education I never had” and “When I have a daughter, she won’t be like me; she’ll be confident.” At some point, I had decided it was too late for me. My chance had passed, and the only thing I could do now was to hope that I didn’t pass my failures onto my future children. I was not even 24 years old.
I had this realization over a year ago, and since then I’ve made it my mission not to wait until I have a child some day to be encouraging and loving, but instead to be encouraging and loving now, to myself. I would treat myself as if I were my own daughter.
There are many ways I am doing this, but here are the five most important things I said I would do for my child, and how I am doing them for myself right now.
1) “When I have a daughter, I will give her the education I never had.”
I envisioned myself reading to my child every night, saving up for her inevitable college education, and encouraging her to do her best in school. So why couldn’t I do this for myself? Well, now I am. I have always loved reading, but when I was depressed I never read simply because I did not have the passion or the energy anymore. But now I try to read everyday. Not only that, but I’ve decided I need to go back to college. I’m applying to universities again this fall, and I’m going to take classes at the community college until I can transfer. Yes, coming from an impoverished family, financial aid will still be a concern, but I’m looking into scholarships and I’m searching for a second job. Just because it won’t be easy, doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
2) “When I have a daughter, I will encourage her to follow her passions.”
My passion has always been writing. I’ll never forget when I was in the seventh grade and our teacher made us all write a poem. I had never written one before and certainly didn’t think much of the one I turned in. But she made me read it in front of the class (shudder), and even this class of seventh graders seemed moved by my poem. I followed that passion through college and had a few poems published. But following my breakdown, I stopped writing. It’s just been in the last couple of months that I’ve started to write again. I’m writing some poetry, but also some creative non-fiction.
3) “When I have a daughter, I will help her be confident and unashamed of her body.”
I did not grow up in a house that was kind toward women at all, and I was taught that I should be ashamed of my body. I felt I was too fat, too ugly, too emotional, too inferior. It took most of my life to heal from this, and I’m still working on it. But now I tell myself that I should be proud to be a woman. A woman’s body is beautiful. We can make and nurture children with it, we can dance and love and kiss with it, we can seduce with it. It is powerful and we should not be ashamed.
4) “When I have a daughter, I will teach her to take care of herself.”
I wanted to teach my daughter how to be healthy physically, emotionally, financially, and in so many other ways. Now I am doing that for myself. I have taught myself how to cook healthy meals. I have taken up running. I carefully monitor my emotional state and surround myself with things that make me happy. I am trying to teach myself money management skills, even if my income is tiny. I am taking care of myself the best I can, and my best is getting better all the time.
5) “When I have a daughter, I will give her a loving family.”
This was perhaps the most important to me. I told myself I would never bring a child into a physically and emotionally abusive home. She would never fear coming home. It was also the hardest to do for myself. I couldn’t change my family. But what I could do is to create my own make-shift family. Now, I live with my kind, loving, supportive boyfriend. We have an active social life that consists of a few close knit friends, all of whom are warm and welcoming to me. I love them as if they were my family. I can talk to them about my problems. I can count on them. I know they won’t judge me, or make me feel bad about myself, or make me afraid. They are the most wonderful family I could have wanted.
Someday when I have my own daughter, I will do all of this for her. But for now, it’s most important that I do these things for me. Besides, the best thing I can give my child someday is a strong and happy mother.
Brooke Pellam is a writer, bookseller, and student living in Southern California. When she isn’t hiding from adult responsibilities behind a book, she can be found eating mint chocolate chip ice cream, shopping online for dresses she can’t afford, and listening to Belle and Sebastian.