Misogyny of the Heart

It hit me like a ton of bricks. My daughter is becoming a girl. She’s always eschewed anything stereotypically feminine for that which is “cool” and rugged and associated with being a boy. She declared at four that she was a vegetarian and at seven that she was officially a tomboy. The transition to a developing body, to the social gymnastics of preteens and all the cultural expectations that come from being female have crept up on us.canstockphoto24377829I was surprised at the fear and anger and sadness that washed over me when thinking about the changes and lessons she will experience. While preteen advice is burgeoning with woman-positive messages, I sat glumly thinking about my miserable transitions into adolescence and adulthood. There are my truths and there are the things I want her to believe. The gap between the two feels like a canyon.

She’s acutely aware of the differences, starting her protests early on as a toddler. She refused dresses, canstockphoto14836302asking resentfully why the boys got to go swimming without their shirts and she couldn’t. Girls can’t play football is the taunt from fifth grade boys that recently sent her into a sputtering rage. We talk about it and I puncture her outrage.

“Do you want to play football?”

“No.”

I’ve begun the concession talks. Pick your battles. Fight for what you care about. Start small. In my head I’m wondering if I’m asking her to be small. But I know there is a long road ahead. Many have walked it generations before us, fighting and winning some big battles. For me now, the battles are smaller and with a global awareness, small potatoes.

I have immense gratitude for the monumental changes in the last century and for now being able to have choices. But the feminism I’m living little resembles political theory or the echo chamber of social media or the cover of a glossy women’s magazines. The cacophony of voices telling me what I am and am not supposed to believe about women falls on deaf ears.

canstockphoto15586920I don’t have time for it. I have work to do. I’m raising a child, while trying to find my own way in the world. Roles have shifted so rapidly that I focus on learning and teaching how to be a decent human on this planet. Sometimes she will ask me a question and I flail, because she’s right. There is a lot of injustice out there. Each person must pick and choose whether or not to look past an inequality and continue on their journey or whether ground must be held, banners painted, protests enacted.

Raising a child is an unexpected education. It forces me to examine my beliefs, deeply held prejudices and patterns of behavior. It’s hard work to suss out what your personal truths are and how they impact the growing person who is watching you with keen eyes. How can I help her grow into a happy woman if I hold back, grimly watching and waiting for the other shoe to drop? Waiting for the “because you’re a girl” comment or scenario that makes her less than.

canstockphoto13127372I grew up in a home where I saw that being a woman was not a positive experience. Being a mother was endless drudgery and constant anxiety. Being a wife was the fear of getting hit or not getting enough money to buy groceries or being trapped with no way out. Poverty and domestic violence never stops with the adults.

In the male-dominated workplaces where I’ve worked, from the army to universities to factories, the conversation in relation to gender is always the same. Tiresome. A wink, a touch, a sly aside. I learned to sharpen my tongue and keep my distance and cultivated a twisted sense of humor. Just do your job, asshole and let me do mine. Then I did my job better than anyone else could, just to prove a point.

The gender divisiveness starts well before reaching adulthood, though. You get told early on that you are different from the other and in what ways you are different, squashing the individual inclinations in favor of easy categorization. The minute you tell a human who they are, something valuable is lost. There’s no measuring how much potential has been drained and how much misery this binary narrative has generated.

canstockphoto10311077Maybe that’s what I resent most of all – all this energy that I, having been born and identified as a female, spent trying to fit into that box. It took years of awkward clothes and shoes, disordered eating and self-loathing before it hit me, this isn’t working. It took me years to realize that I didn’t fit, that nobody fits in these little boxes.

Fear drives my anger and I can’t teach my child from this place of anger. I’m scared of what this world will tell my thoughtful, imaginative child about who she is. I have to take hold of my fears, lay them down, reach beyond this narrow space in which I find myself.

She is not me as I am not my mother. Our experiences are reflections of familial evolution and of advancing social awareness. My daughter has a different role model, home environment, and a different experience entirely of womanhood. She has many attributes that insulate her against casual expectations of her gender and has critical thinking skills that can neutralize attempts to devalue her.

Confronting my internal misogynist pessimism is a challenge. I’m a little stuck sometimes trying to see that being a woman is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Some days, I’ll see something or read something and I burn with anger and righteous indignation. Some days, I am so damned lucky to see the world through my daughter’s eyes. Her truth is powerful. She knows who she is and everything else is just noise.

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39 Comments on “Misogyny of the Heart

  1. I have no children so I am certainly not in any position to give you advice. I only know how my parents brought me up and how I have lived — and continue to live — my life. I was always career focussed and my dreams were inconsistent with those of my generation. They all wanted to get married and have kids and they became teachers, secretaries or nurses until they could. I didn’t understand why marriage was necessary in order to live with a man and wanted a career in advertising. My parents encouraged me. They never told me there was something I couldn’t do — just that I’d have to work hard for it and persevere. They gave me confidence, which is the greatest gift of all and sent me on my way to live my own life; and they were always there to cheer me on and comfort me when I was dealt the blows that are inevitable. They made me strong, independent and unafraid to speak my mind and have opinions. I think that is the best any parent can do.

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    • I’ve always believed in going my own way, but I didn’t learn that before running through all the stereotypical options. My daughter may be able to avoid some of the more obvious messages, but wow, I’ve become so acutely aware of what’s out there in the world. Those messages, like advertising, may serve as background noise, but they leave an impression and some of it sticks.

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      • Yes, but she sounds like a strong, bright, level-headed girl and I’m betting she won’t fall for it. None of us can avoid all of it but each disappointment and frustration and road block and mistake comes with a lesson and an opportunity.

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  2. She knows who she is because she hasn’t gotten all the updates yet.

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    • Awww come on Bill – I’m trying to work past my morose pessimism. There’s a lot to contend with out there, but I’m doing the best to give her the tools and the resiliency and the support to be a strong person. What else can we do? It’s a shit storm.

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  3. You see it every day. A depiction as a woman as a prize calf and The Game of Thrones showed that. Even though that is fiction, the message is not. Give away your beautiful sister for benefits. That has to change a woman. If she does anything she is called, “ambitious” while a male is called “resourceful”. Best wishes to you and your family.

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    • There are some pretty tiresome tropes out there. I spend a lot of time mocking and deconstructing them out loud and now she’s the first one to say, “wow, that’s really stupid”. That’s a start – not just accepting messages at face value and learning to mock them mercilessly. Thanks for the kind wishes.

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      • “That’s stupid” has become my favorite Olivia reply to whatever injustice story comes over NPR in the morning when we’re heading to school. It’s a sign of hope. And sometimes it’s our job to turn off the negative messages coming at us & just be. The world may always be a screwed up place, but their world doesn’t have to be.

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        • I always thought she’d get gendered messages from the typical sources of media and advertising, so we comforted ourselves by being careful about what she was exposed to. Now it’s coming from her classmates, relatives and teachers and it blows me away how pervasive and habitual it is. She’s a more confident kid than I ever was, so that gives me a great deal of hope.

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  4. I’d love to write some sage words of wisdom here, but I don’t have any. I suppose the best any parent can hope to do is to raise a good person, and hope for the best.

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    • Being a conscientious parent is a tough gig. Not only do you have to own up to your own flaws, but you have to curate the mess that the world presents. Still, it’s made me a better person and that can only benefit her. Although we’ve now reached the eye-rolling portion of the program. Great, here mom goes again.

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  5. Great insight…My sons are grown up now at 24 and 28…I remember those days of such a heavy responsibility to “DO IT RIGHT” …to raise a great human being…I think if we just teach them the basic laws of humanity “treat others like you would like to be treated”, be honest and open ….and if you asked my sons what my motto for motherhood was they would both say “Balance and Compromise”… and I hold true to that in my own life

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    • I’m afraid of what my motherhood motto will be remembered as. Possibly “Stop leaving a trail behind you!” We do our best as parents to cultivate an environment of integrity, respect and love and I see her carry that out into the world. I believe firmly in leading by example, because she is more likely to remember that, rather than lecture #249.

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  6. Back when I worked on the east side of Saint Paul, I gained an interesting insight while waiting in line at Walgreens. The druggist was instructing a mother how to administer medication. He had to do this through the woman’s teenage daughter, since the mother didn’t speak English.

    The mother, a Hmong woman, wore the traditional long skirt, sensible shoes and embroidered vest of her homeland. The daughter pecked at her iPhone while translating.

    The daughter’s Midwestern accent was pitch perfect, complete with the snark that you don’t learn in English-as-a-second-language class.

    So where did the daughter pick up her perfect English? Short answer, her peers. I’ll bet she picked up her values, her taste in fashion and cultural attitudes from the same place. So what did she pick up from her parents? Nothing that I could see.

    We love to think that we can influence our kids and guide them through life – but the most powerful influence we have is to influence who our kids hang with.

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    • I think that’s the phase we’re coming up on. I believe that parental influence begins to drop off as the peers take on more importance. We’re in the tricky phase of helping her navigate social situations, which can be brutal. On the positive side, she’s getting involved in activities that have her hanging with smart, focused kids. Most of these things, like being in orchestra and the honors courses, will keep her on track with a lot of the same kids until she graduates. Plus, her mother is a nosy pain-in-the-ass and insists on talking to other parents, to her friends and to her teachers, much to her chagrin.

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  7. As the mother to a daughter, I have struggled with similar thoughts and feelings, also. I was a tomboy who to this day bristles at being told I can’t do something because I’m a “girl”. It’s a tough line to walk. But, as she grows you can have open discussions about what it is to be female in this world. I like how you’ve focused on being human. Great start, and I wish I could tell you how to continue, but just can’t. Keep doing what you’re doing, keep the lines of communication open and that’s it. Good luck! 🙂

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    • I’m fortunate that I personally no longer get challenged on what I choose to do. On occasion, I have to call other people out for assumptive thinking. It’s tiring to constantly have to talk about the messages that hit her from all directions. And someday, I hope that if she ever decides to have children, she won’t have to have the same conversations with them. Still, I love talking to her because kids have a way of boiling down layered and complex messages to simple truths and all you can do is nod your head in agreement.

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  8. I’m very fortunate that I was never told I couldn’t do something “because I’m a girl.” I’m saddened and shocked to hear this happens. However it also makes me sad when boys are told they can’t follow their passions “because they are boys.” (I’m thinking of a little boy I know who wasn’t allowed to pursue his interest in figure skating, but was pushed into hockey or another boy who wasn’t confident enough to join the knitting group at his school because it was for girls or a boy who couldn’t do a book report on his favourite book because it was “for girls” and he worried he’d be teased…) I think we’ll have achieved true freedom and equality when typically feminine pursuits are regarded as highly as the “cool” masculine activities, and all children (both girls and boys) are encouraged to follow their own path.

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    • In this country, while it is less likely to be said out loud, the attitudes about capabilities, or lack of, are still thriving. I think, too, it’s easier now for girls to do what they want, but we still haven’t escaped expectations about how we’re supposed to appear. For boys, the battle to be whoever they are is tougher and the appearance issues are starting to be capitalized on as well (witness the burgeoning industry of men’s hygiene products). While legally, many issues have been addressed, these rigid boundaries based on gender are attitudes that will require generations to blur and eradicate. All we can do is start where we are.

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  9. Reblogged this on You are exactly where you need to be. and commented:
    “The minute you tell a human who they are, something valuable is lost”

    I’ve always hated being put in the box, but I’ve never thought of it as losing something. But she’s right- the box starts so open and big and with fuzzy edges. Eventually the box gets smaller and more rigid, more defined. Until you don’t fit anymore.

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  10. Oh my, I want to give you a big hug. I could write a dissertation but will keep it as brief as possible. You know you are entering a mine field. Almost Iowa is 100% right about peer pressure. The only weapon against it is a sense of self assurance and the confidence to not feel the need to fit in. This is a tall order. Some personalities are more easily influenced than others and then there is self control. Your daughter seems very self-aware now, I hope that continues. I don’t have words of wisdom, only my own experiences to offer in reference. When my daughter hit the teen years I went through hell. Solutions were non-existent. I read a book by Mary Pipher called “Reviving Ophelia”, it is dated now as it was published in 1994 and social media has taken things to a whole new level. It was a book of case studies. I didn’t retain a lot from the book, except for one quote which was actually from Diderot, who proclaimed to his love interest Sophie, that “You all die at 15”. That struck a chord with me. It is the time when many women in previous eras were already married and bearing children. I remembered that for me it was the time my creativity died when I sold out to the big bad man’s world. Women do have many options today they never had, but there are so many mixed messages. I suspect my daughter didn’t know how to deal with all these messages. At the time I don’t know how I managed to keep her out of jail. I prevailed with my daughter though it took many years. She is now a confident self-assured woman and productive member of society. She has no desire to have children. I think this would all be a moot point if we didn’t have birth control. In that case biology does become destiny. In many ways it still is, but at least now we have the choice. A friend once quoted to me that “we have been liberated from one role to two” (if we choose to have children). That is still true. It sounds like you both have a good grip on the situation. I wish for you and your daughter that you survive the tribulations and become stronger together and thrive.

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    • One of the fortunate things about my daughter is that she grew accustomed to being called a boy and being told she was in the wrong restroom. Third grade, she came home in tears, because on the first day of school, no one would believe she was a girl. So many situations have arisen and we talk about them and discuss what bothers her and what she’d like to do about it.
      I’d like to believe it makes her a tad more resistant to peer pressure, but if there’s anything I’ve learned, life will always surprise me. I’ve read the books and the Pipher book demoralized me, but it certainly raised my awareness.
      I just think there’s something wrong when I feel such a weight, when this is a wonderful, exciting time in her life on so many levels. I have to find a balance of taking what’s in front of me with a huge dose of awareness and interest. And also recognizing that much of this journey is hers alone.

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      • Your relationship with your daughter will be the foundation of her success, and it sounds very healthy so you will both do well. If I Iearned anything from the Pipher book it is that the answers cannot be found in a book. Everyone is a “case study” in their own way. We just have to navigate with our wits, instincts, and unconditional love.

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  11. Reblogged this on maney smiles back and commented:
    Just awesome.
    “It took me years to realize that I didn’t fit, that nobody fits in these little boxes.”
    “She knows who she is and everything else is just noise.”

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  12. Every day, every year, I have dreams that mine will be the last generation to think of differences (sex, sexual orientation, skin color, age, nationality, social views, religion, political stripe, etc, etc, etc) as having inherent positive or negative values that in turn make us worthwhile or not as people. And I know that those dreams will never, ever come true; as people, we *are* inherently judgmental. It angers and saddens and frightens me.

    But I do remember that humanity has lasted a pretty long time somehow, in spite of this massive flaw. That people still show compassion and love and respect for each other, at times. And that, as slow and incremental as any change has been, there *are* things that are different for my generation than the ones before it and even a few that are improved for people hardly a decade or two younger than me. I have hope.

    And I certainly won’t stop dreaming.

    Your daughter, and your watchful care for her, give me hope and feed my dreams as much as anything can.

    K

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    • I am hopeful about a better day, because despite all the curmudgeonly complaining about youngsters that one hears, I’ve met some thoughtful and intelligent young adults who amaze me. I have to admit, even as adult, I have so much farther to go in terms of learning civil discourse with people who disagree with me, but some of these kids are miles ahead on the ability to see people and not just their superficial attributes.
      You’re right about human nature, but I also think it’s interesting to realize that for most of history, small groups or tribes or families required that need to fight and defend against others. It seems that from an evolutionary perspective, when so many of us live back to back with diverse communities, it seems like our brains haven’t caught up with the fact that the mentality of us and them is destructive to the group as a whole. I’m not sure what my point is – just some rambling thoughts I’ve been having!

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  13. I really have nothing to add to all the thoughtful, informed comments here. Except, I guess, how much I admire you for staring your own demons in the face.

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  14. I have no problem identifying with everything you said above. I may not have the same exact circumstances, but fear and confusion battle inside me over who I am relative to who society or expectation says I should be. And to me, this is the epitome of feminism–having the right to define who you are as a woman without any undue pressure to be anything else.

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  15. Very thoughtful article. Truly painful in differentiating male child and female child.

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