What Makes Me Feel Beautiful
Kathryn Harrison: Spending Time With My KidsThe first time it happens, we’re out walking: my little boy holding my left hand, his older sister on my right, and the baby, six weeks old, asleep in her Snugli. We’re still at the stage when my taking a shower seems like an accomplishment. I haven’t lost all the weight I gained while pregnant; it’s been months since I had my hair highlighted to preserve the conceit that I remain as blond as I was at 16; I look like I’m getting as little sleep as I am; and I am wearing a nursing bra―a contraption that, inexplicably, department stores categorize as lingerie. In short: not a glamorous moment.
Still, I feel―for the first time in my life―really, truly, I-don’t-need-anyone-to-tell-me-so, drop-dead beautiful. It has taken three children to deliver me to this state, this symmetry of boy on my left, girl on my right, and baby on my breast. Ridiculous, but as we navigate the sidewalk I feel radiant, as if I were wearing a dress encrusted with precious stones, reflecting the sun’s light. Wasn’t I supposed to feel this way on the day I married my children’s father? Photographs suggest I made an attractive bride, but I was so overwhelmed by the momentousness of the occasion that all I felt was scared, not at all sure I was equal to the promises I was about to make.
Perhaps it’s all the fairy tales I’ve been reading with the older children. The princess is always beautiful; she anticipates the arrival of her prince and their union―the point of which is to make a prince or princess of their own. Fecundity is her power.
Of course, many forms of power confer beauty. Amelia Earhart must have felt as luminous as any heavenly body, winging her way over the vast Atlantic. And Venus Williams, clocking in with a serve of 129 miles per hour: Is anyone more majestic? Most people would probably cite one of my other achievements before motherhood: I write; I teach; I’m a good wife, a generous friend. Each of these pursuits is gratifying. None of them makes me feel beautiful.
My mother was 18 when I was born, an event she associated with stretch marks, varicose veins, and the encumbrance of a baby she didn’t want―not with beauty, not at all. What little power she’d had rested, she believed, in being desirable to a man, and I had stolen that from her. Tired, careworn, perspiring under the Snugli straps, I wouldn’t expect to feel even presentable. But the consciousness of walking forward into life flanked by children is transforming; it is for someone like me, for whom motherhood has redeemed an unhappy past. Before children, I used to move down the street like someone who hoped no one would recognize her. Now, walking by reflective shop windows, I don’t think to check how I look. I already know.
From this moment on, I never feel more beautiful than when I am with my children. Perhaps we’ve just emerged from the car, rumpled, cross, covered with dog hair―every mile spent together on the road undoes a minute of primping. New York to Philadelphia to visit the cousins: I might as well have skipped the shower, the mascara, the hairbrush. Still, when we walk through the door, I’m smiling from something cosmetics can’t deliver. It’s the consciousness of my good fortune.
My husband took pictures of me holding our first child; we were in a garden. It was March 1990, and the light had the tender quality of early spring, pulling forth pale green buds. I’m not looking at the camera; the baby has all my attention. Wow, I thought, when I saw those pictures―what a lovely face that woman has. It took 10 years, two more babies, and many more rolls of film before I understood: That’s me. That’s what I look like. I don’t always beam at my children―what mother does?―but when I do, I’m beautiful.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of 12 books, including While They Slept, Envy, Exposure, and Poison. Her daughter Julie (seen here) is nine.
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