The ducklings arrived, and dear Lord they were so cute. We spotted them at the pond during the first week of June: seven little feathery morsels waddling around on the bank, butter-yellow streaked with gray, totally unconscious of their effect on passersby. I knelt on the grass beside my daughters, and squealed and cooed and practically gobbled them up. I'm such a sucker for babies.
The ducklings milled around, bumping into each other, making scrumptious quacking sounds, until mama duck caught wind of our arrival and marched into the water. Right behind her, in went the ducklings: Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble, ho-hum-hum. Seven little ducklings flopped into the water, and lined up neat as you please, paddling eagerly after her.
You really had to hand it to their mother. Here she goes into the murky water, and she doesn't even glance back to make sure everyone's in line. Can you imagine?
Ducks do this out of pure instinct. Theirs is a species that imprints, forming a strong attachment to the first viable moving object they see. Usually ducks imprint on the mother, but there are cases of ducks imprinting on other species, or even objects like an electric train. Once imprinted, a duckling will follow its mother (or electric train) everywhere.
Here's the thing about imprinting: It's not just about attachment, but identity. Once imprinted, a duckling becomes, in her mind at least, her mother.
A duckling imprinted on a duck thinks she's a duck. But a duckling imprinted on a human thinks she's a human. Moreover, whatever the mama duck does, the duckling figures she can do too. Take a wood duck, whose nest might be located in the arms of an oak tree, 80 feet in the air. Mama duck scoots from the nest the day after hatching—her postpartum period being decidedly easier than either of mine have been—and flaps down to the local pond. Then she calls the kids to breakfast.
Back in the nest, the ducklings, with nubs for wings and fluff for feathers, poise on tiptoe 80 feet in the air like Olympic divers. They hear mama in the water, and see only one way to get down. What kind of crazy do you have to be to leap?
But they do leap.
They'll leap no matter what, and so it is imperative for the mother duck to build her nest above soft ground.
Baby ducks are not the only creatures that imprint, either. There is no greater joy, nor greater terror than the realization that our children imprint on us, their parents. My eldest daughter is at an age where I can see this happening. She cracked me up one day when she called out as we were leaving the house, ''Daddy! Let's kick it, sweetheart!'' Straight out of my mouth, that one. I've seen her tenderly hug and reassure crying friends, and I've heard her concoct elaborate stories to tell us at bedtime. My heart swelled to nearly bursting to see her murmur to her crying baby sister, ''Shhh. Shhh. It's okay; I love you.''
Then one night I heard her remark, quite casually in the bath, ''I'm a bad kid.''
I felt like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over my head. My throat tightened; tears sprang immediately to my eyes.
''No!'' I swatted the idea out of the air. ''You are absolutely not a bad kid! You're a great, fantastic, wonderful, amazing kid!''
''Nope. I'm a bad kid.''
We argued a few more lines until I realized I wasn't making headway. After she went to bed I called a friend and sobbed into the phone. How could I have a two-year-old with low self-esteem? I had never, ever, not once, called her a bad kid. I couldn't have, because I have never once thought that. Who could have put that idea into her head?
It was not until weeks later that I caught myself in a particularly self-disparaging mood. After some infraction like forgetting about dinner or sleeping in on Saturday while their dad got up to change diapers, I called myself ''a bad mom.''
This is the real challenge of parenting for me. It is easy to heap my love and affection on my children. It is easy for me to see all of their wonderful qualities and forgive their shortcomings. I think they are the sun, moon and stars. They are my absolute pride and joy.
But they are imprinting. Their identity will not be purely formed based on how I treat them. It's based on how I treat me. A duck imprinted on a duck thinks she's a duck. My girl, imprinted on someone who calls herself ''bad,'' thought of herself as ''bad.''
Since I started thinking about this I began making a habit of complimenting myself in the mirror. I stand there after I get out of the shower and say something kind, while my daughter's in earshot. I tell myself I look pretty, or that I was proud of the essay I published, or that I was glad of the chance to be a good friend to someone lately.
I do this with the belief that a girl imprinted on a self-described pretty, competent, kind person thinks she is a pretty, competent, kind person.
I will not say this does not feel strange. It does. It even feels a little forced, because the first thoughts I have when I look in the mirror usually center on skin and saddlebags.
But love—even self-love—must start somewhere. If it cannot start with feeling, then it must start with action. So I open my mouth, and I say the words.
Yesterday after my daughter finished dressing (at two-and-a-half, she is of the wonderful ''anything goes'' stage of fashion), she stood in front of the mirror. She threw a handbag over her shoulder, looked herself straight in the eye, and declared, ''I'm pretty.''
Oh, my goodness. It's working.
Here I go jumping off cliffs, and here they come leaping right after me.
It's up to me to make sure they land on soft ground.