People watching is one of my favourite things to do on the train, especially on the way home, when I’m too tired to read. Mostly it’s just idle nosiness, but every so often I see someone who leaves a lasting impression on me.
Tonight a young woman sat opposite me, and next to her was a baby in a car seat. The baby was facing away from me, so all I could see was a tiny pink boot. The mother was quite young, maybe a year or two younger than me, and she was beautiful. She had a heart-shaped face, fair hair tied in a messy bun, and a lovely smile. Her outfit was well put-together, and her choice of clothes and accessories clearly marked her out as a “girly girl”. She wasn’t super skinny, but she also didn’t look like someone who had recently given birth. An engagement ring twinkled on her left hand.
She sat opposite me for nearly an hour. A couple of times her baby started to cry, and she rocked the car seat and made faces at her until she stopped. Being incurably broody, I was hoping she would take the baby out of the car seat and hold her, so I could sneak a peek!
What I found really touching about all this is the way she looked at her daughter. She was clearly completely besotted. I know it’s not exactly noteworthy for people to adore their children, but I have honestly never seen a parent look at their child like that. She was just radiating love and tenderness.
When the train pulled into my station, I stood up to leave. As I moved towards the doors, I couldn’t resist turning round to have a look at the baby.
She couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old, with long eyelashes, a tiny rosebud mouth, and a few wisps of hair. And a large, bright red birthmark across her cheek.
My first reaction was shock, followed quickly by pity. This child will live in a world where people, and especially women, are judged first and foremost on their appearance. She will grow up accustomed to strangers’ stares and children’s unkind taunts. When she gets older, she will have more reason than most teenage girls to be insecure about her looks. She may find it hard to believe that she is beautiful.
And yet, something tells me that her mother is going to do an amazing job of teaching her to love herself as she is.
Mothers aren’t always so accepting of their daughters’ physical imperfections. My mum is five foot two, with small feet and thick, straight hair. My feet were bigger than hers by the time I was nine, and I overtook her height-wise by the time I was eleven. She often commented on how tall I was and how much bigger my feet were than hers. She bought my school uniform in a ridiculously enormous size, telling me I would “grow into it” before the year was out. I prayed I wouldn’t. She attacked my naturally curly hair with a hair brush at every opportunity, turning it into a frizzy mess.
Thankfully, my feet stopped growing when I was eleven and the rest of me stopped growing when I was twelve. I am now a perfectly average size. (And I eventually figured out what to do with my hair, although that came much later, after years of trial and error.) But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being tall, awkward and gangly, and my fear that I would never stop growing, eventually turning into some grotesque giant-woman, towering over everyone else. And my mum’s comments did nothing for my self-esteem.
But I can’t judge my mum too harshly. She has needed glasses since she was a very young child. She can’t wear contacts, so her glasses should be a permanent fixture. Except, she avoids wearing them whenever possible. She simply refuses to wear them unless she is working or driving. And she won’t wear them on a chain round her neck, so she inevitably loses them and someone in the family has to go and search the house for them, because she can’t see to look. Unfortunately, I inherited her eyesight. I know exactly what she can and can’t see, because I need almost the same prescription. I know that she literally cannot see anything except blurred colours, and so not wearing her glasses is complete madness. But the last time she made me go looking for them, and I asked her, in an exasperated tone, why she didn’t just wear them, she said she remembered her mother crying for weeks when she got her first pair of glasses, and taking her to another optician for a second, and then a third opinion. From the very beginning, she was made to feel by her mother that wearing glasses made her look ugly, which is why she still can’t bear to wear them, fifty years later.
Mothers, however well-intentioned they may be, can often be a daughter’s worst enemy when it comes to her self-esteem.
That’s why I can’t forget that woman’s face as she gazed at her baby, glowing with love and pride. Her baby is unlucky to have a birthmark like that, but incredibly lucky to have such a mother. If all children were loved as much as that, I think the world would be a happier place.