From the moment my daughter was born, she had an aura of intimidation. As a first-time mum, I was nervous and unsure of myself but Junior, in all her newborn adorableness, eyeballed me with a look as if to say, you better not f*k this up, mama.
She was calm and strangely rational for a tiny bundle of cute. She would cry only when hungry, settled well, and her independent spirit was undeniable to all who knew and loved her.
We used to joke that she didn’t need us half as much as we needed her. Part of her indomitable personality was that she didn’t smile just for the sake of it. You had to work hard to get that smile and I respected that.
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We have a collection of photos of my daughter giving us what we call the death-stare – a WTF expression that my husband and I found both endlessly amusing and a sign of moxie.
But it is amazing how many people are put out when a sweet little baby doesn’t crack up when they coo at them. ‘Where are your smiles?’ strangers would demand, disappointed – followed usually with a glance over at me to see what kind of monster can’t make her baby smile on demand.
And I would be disappointed for them. It wasn’t that she never grinned – in fact, she has a really beautiful smile, but she reserved it for special occasions, and that made it all the more special. I used to make up a lot of excuses for my sassy little Sally during her first few years of life. ‘She’s just tired,’ I’d offer when the receptionist at the doctor’s office spent a good three minutes peek-a-booing from behind her computer. My daughter, snuggled up in my arms, remained expressionless – a polite but reserved look on her gorgeous little face as she appraised the situation. Nothing.
‘Not in great form, I see’, the public health nurses remarked as she carried out her two-year check-up. 'Sorry, she’s teething’ I fibbed as I packed away the mountain of leaflets they load you up with – knowing full well that my girl was in a great mood today. Even extended family members would chide her over her lack of obvious joy. ‘Tisk, the naughty little girl, won’t give auntie a smile, who’s a grumpy little girl?'
She's tiny and the world is big
So I got tired of feeling like I had to make others feel better about my daughter’s lack of conformity to what cute little babies should do. I didn’t ever feel the need to remark on other people’s babies being weirdly happy or smiling goofily.
'She’s tiny' – I’d say instead, 'and the world is big. It is a lot to take in.' (And maybe you are just not funny, I’d add in my head) As my serious little sweetie grew older, she found things slightly funnier and became more socially aware. By the time she was four, she knew that part of being polite was smiling as a form of communication. It still didn’t come as naturally as it does to others, but her wicked sense of humour and happy nature showed a contentment that was enough for us. In fact, we forgot all about her being such a serious little thing until recently when she was laughing hysterically at something her brother said and we commented on what an infectious laugh she has.
Go on, give us a smile
Now my girl is a kind, sweet and generous seven-year-old. She’s friends with every girl in her class, she is easy company and is probably one of my favourite people in the world. I wasn’t one of her favourite people in the world last month when I brought her for her meningitis vaccination. She was brave but sore and when we waited in the supermarket checkout queue afterwards, a man behind us exchanged some friendly banter. ‘Go on, give us a smile’ he said to my daughter. I felt her bristle beside me – more out of the embarrassment of not knowing what she should do than anything else.
A feeling came over me then, a familiar and helpless feeling of being asked to feel an emotion you didn’t particularly want to, in order to please society…or a person. And that person is usually a man. ‘Cheer up love, it’ll never happen’.
I consider myself a strong woman but I realised then that I was buckling under societal expectations. Be nice. Be polite. Smile. And now my daughter was suddenly entering the same situation, under my watch. I flushed. Naturally, the comment was meant in a caring rather than a controlling way but as well-intended as it was, I felt so protective over my serious little girl and angry that her facial expressions should be used against her, by a stranger, in any way.
A reflection on others
She looked helplessly at me, unsure if she’d offended this stranger. By the time I realised that this was a very pivotal learning moment and I better get it right for my daughter, the man was gone. It made me think of all the times, she’d been made smile for the benefit of others – as if her facial expression was a reflection on them.
To tell someone to smile is invasive. It is a comment on personal circumstances and an expectation that you need to be pleasing in order to please. Later, I asked my daughter if she’d felt uncomfortable and she admitted she just didn’t know what to do or why she was being asked to smile on command.
I explained to her that she should never feel she has to do something to please others, especially if it makes her feel uncomfortable. The pressure to be polite and not to make a scene is deeply ingrained in us from childhood. Tell us to smile makes us feel watched, embarrassed, vulnerable. So the next time you see a grumpy looking baby, think twice before you demand a smile all for yourself.
Image via Unsplash.com
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