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.I 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, asking 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?”
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.
I 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.
I 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.
Maybe 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.