The Problem with Scars

As she climbed out of her carseat, I saw it: the 3-inch-wide scrape on her knee, which, in its redness, still did not go with the outfit she'd carefully put together for herself: a pink striped top and orange skirt made for twirling and curtseying. Why hadn't I noticed it as we were getting dressed? She should have worn pants today. She caught me looking at her and asked me what was wrong. I stopped myself from saying what I was thinking.

Why did I care? She was obviously over the pain that had caused it, saying proudly an hour after it happened that "it only hurts I little 'cause it's healing and I'm brave." It did not bother her enough to make her choose leggings instead of the skirt she announced was "perfect, because I'm a princess today." It caused her so little discomfort that she hadn't even stopped to scratch it like she does bug bites or dry patches. So why was I, the onlooker, feeling so ill at ease?

Walking around, people complimented her smile and mentioned how grown up she looked, but in my head, I heard other voices: "Babae pa naman" ("Especially since she's a girl"). How could I let this happen to her? How could I let her body get this way? Marked up and imperfect. What if the scars don't lighten? How would she wear shorts and short skirts when she's older? How will she be able to show off her legs? They come and offer their prescriptions: this will help, this will heal, this will make her better. I thank them for the gifts, the balms, the suggestions. They work on the dark marks, but some scars don't heal.

I hate that I hate the scars, every mark a mark against me, her mother. "One day she will care," I tell my husband, "And she will blame us." "It doesn't matter," he reassures me. But I know it does. I know because I used to be a magazine editor and I would get letters from 8-year-olds to whom it mattered a lot. "I hate my legs. I can't wear what I want because of my scars. What if people laugh at me?" I know because I am still that teenage girl who sees every mark on my body and feels their weight as if they grew deep beneath the skin.

So what's a mother supposed to do? Tell her not to run? Not to climb? Not to jump from the highest place that's on the edge of where she feels safe? Sometimes the words escape my lips and in my ears they feel wrong: Be careful! Don't run! Sit down! Pretend you are not three and still testing how far you can go without falling. Don’t let go of my hand so I can stop you before you fall.

This battle between protection and respectful parenting has been going on since she could pull herself up to stand. Back then, I wrote, "New day, new boo-boo, and it's okay." So what changed? Perhaps she stopped looking like a baby and started looking like a girl, who would become a woman someday. And I know what it's like to be a woman with scars.

What I wrote then still stands. I want to see her smile as she tests and discovers what her body can do.  I don't want to keep her from adventures. She asked me the other day if girls can be heroes, too. Yes, they can be, but not from the sidelines.

I see her face as she holds on to a stair rail and swings, knees bent, the closest she can get to walking on air; or riding her bike downhill, feet up, the closest she can get to flying; or running as hard as she can, though even then, in her opinion, not fast enough, the closest she can get to winning the race, and I know that it is what she was made to do. She eats her food so she can grow stronger, faster, taller ("to touch the sky"). She is sad about her body's limitations, but she is hopeful in her ability to overcome them. Stronger, faster, healthier—aren't these the qualities we should be working hard for? "Eat this, it'll make your skin glow and your eyes sparkle,"  we told her once. "So I can see when it's dark?" she asked.

How old will she be when she loses that innocence and trades superpowers for superficial cares? How old was I?

That song from The Sound of Music, "Maria"? I've been singing it to her affectionately since she was a baby: "She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee, her dress has got a tear....How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do catch a cloud and pin it down?" The answer, of course is that you don't. The problem is not in the person or thing but in the perception.

What if instead of scars we saw stories? If you see the scars but she is smiling, it means she has not let her falls hold her back or make her fearful. If you see the scars and she is running, it means she was determined enough to get back up. If you see the scars and she is not trying to hide them, it means she has refused to let them define her. 

I can not shield her from every scrape and skinned knee. But I can teach her how to clean the wounds, place a balm and band-aid, and let it be so it can heal properly. I can remind her that scars do not hurt if you don't let them. I can show her that if you don't care about them, they lose their weight, stay skin deep, and eventually fade.

But, to do that, I have to first stop caring about my own. And that is the hardest part.