My sister, Jessica, sent my daughter Ava a set of paints for her 5th Birthday. She called to make sure the gift arrived.
“Did Ava paint me a picture yet?” she asked.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t that great,” I explained. “I’ll wait until she does a good one.”
“I mean, she mixed the paints all together and made a big, brown blob . . .”
My sister is a painter. My husband, Ray, is a comic artist and teaches at an art college. His mother is an artist and his dad has his PhD in Industrial Arts, which I think translates to “wood art” or something. The point is, I’m a Type-A, stay-inside-the-lines kind of girl surrounded by freethinkers. Color mixers. Messy, creative types who let glue dry on their hands and then peel it off in fascination. My husband’s co-workers come to our house and draw perfectly rendered everythings for my daughter–alligator, Batgirl, Notre Dame Cathedral. So she’s growing up believing that everyone can draw. Everyone, that is, except me.
One day, she asked me to draw her a picture of Wonder Woman.
“That is not good,” she announced, her eyebrows furrowed in judgment.
I considered the picture. Wonder Woman’s stick arms grew out of her neck and her torso was disproportionately long compared to her hamster-sized legs. Next time I’ll opt for drawing the invisible jet.
It’s not that I can’t draw, my skills just never evolved past the third grade. I can make a mean rainbow bookended by two puffy clouds. I’ll include a smiling sun in the upper right-hand corner, one flower with five petals and a leaf, and I finish it all off with two “M”-shaped birds coasting in the distance. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But you can only get away with the rainbow schtick for so long.
“Can you draw something else?” Ava asked.
“Yeah,” I said, all insulted. “I can draw three birds. Or make my sun angry.” Such range.
My single greatest artistic moment occurred when I was 7. The local grocery store held a Halloween coloring contest. My sister colored her ghosts plaid, and polka-dotted the pumpkins. I interpreted the picture more literally: my ghosts where white, my pumpkins a solid orange. I meticulously stayed inside the lines. My efforts did not go unnoticed. I won the contest–the first and last time I’d ever out-art my sister- and that moment reinforced what I already believed in my heart: if you follow the rules and stay in the lines, you win.
I’ve applied this thinking my entire life, succeeding in conventional ways. In school, I followed the trends, played sports and earned good grades. Subsequently, I was well liked and had an easy go of it. My sister, on the other hand, did her own thing. She struggled in most subjects, didn’t pander to the popular kids, and shied away from competition. She felt out of place and misunderstood. If only she had stayed inside the lines.
When Jessica finally broke her silence on the phone that evening, she asked, “Didn’t you say that Ava was having some anxiety issues lately?”
“And you don’t think you’ve put any unnecessary pressure on her that may make her feel anxious?”
I could see where this was going. And my sister was right. Staying inside the lines, opting for coloring books over blank paper, and always keeping baby wipes on hand to tend to dirty fingers or spilled paint, worked for me. But it’s not for everyone. And it may not be for my daughter. There I was, forcing her into my Type-A mould because I assumed that’s where she would feel most secure. In the process, I was making her insecure.
It’s hard to let your child grow into her own person, especially when that person is different than you–or anything other than what you know. Had my sister stayed inside the lines, she might’ve had an easier time in school, but she wouldn’t have turned into the creative, sensitive, loving and expressive girl she is. She wouldn’t be the sister I love with all my heart. I doubt she would trade that for anything either.
That night, I retrieved Ava’s brown blob from the garbage and displayed it on the fridge. She was pleased. She went back to her art table and painted the most impressive picture of her guinea pig. It blew my mind. It surpassed my rainbow and “M” birds. It was beyond brilliant. It was beyond my imagination–but not hers.