I’m Teaching My Daughter There’s No Wrong Way to Be a Woman
Our children learn from us so I need to be careful what story I’m telling
Tiny Human’s feet — translucent skin, blue veins, little toes — splash in the water as we shower, “Mama, when I grow up, do I have to shave my legs too?” her eyes follow the razor over the curve of my shin.
I pause, mid-stroke, shifting my gaze, so my eyes meet her matching ones, “No, my little. You can, if you want to, but you don’t have to,” the water rains down on us, slightly too cool for me, but just right for her sensitive skin.
When we’re dry and wrapped in towels, I show her pictures of women with natural body hair.
“So, there’s no wrong way to be a girl?” Her eyes sparkle at me with excitement at the possibilities.
“No, baby, there isn’t,” I fill with pride when I hear her echo my words.
“Girls can have long hair, or short hair, or eyelashes, or shave, or not shave,” She draws out the end of each statement, so it sounds like a song, and turns her palms up at the end for emphasis.
My daughter watches me as I dress, wrapped in a white towel, her damp hair curling at the ends. “I want to be a mama when I get big,” wrinkled fingers touch the lines of motherhood around my navel.
My chest tightens with fear. Does Tiny Human think motherhood is the pinnacle of existence for a woman?
I hear her asking me with each glance and tilt of her head how to be a woman. How does a woman shower? How does a woman dress? How does a woman talk to herself? How does a woman speak to other people? How does a woman walk? She asks me to show her the truth, and she’ll believe whatever I say and learn whatever I show her.
She asks me how to be a woman when she watches me apply eyeshadow and asks me to sweep the gold sparkle across her lids.
“Mama, will we be beautiful with our makeup colors on?” Tiny human squeezes her eyelids shut, anticipating the sweep of my brush.
“I think we’re already beautiful,” A lie and a truth. I believe it about Tiny Human, but not about me quite yet. If I say it, I will learn to believe it. I need her to know she doesn’t need improving, so I need to believe I don’t either. Women love themselves.
She asks me how to be a woman when she wants me to tell her the story of how she came to be. I tell her the story of a mama and a daddy who met and went on a date. I tell her how the mama thought the daddy was funny, and she liked the way his lips looked, so she asked if she could kiss him. Women are decisive and don’t have to wait for someone else to give us what we want.
I tell her how much we wanted her and how doctors had to help us create an Evelyn egg. I show her the picture of the embryo that grew into my little squish long after the doctor transferred it.
I cry when I tell her this story because gratitude burns my eyes more than sorrow these days. Women are grateful, we are human, and we feel.
When she helps me cook and watches me eat, she’s wondering how to fuel her own body.
“Mama, what is your favorite food?”
“I like vegetables the best. And chocolate.” I place a bite of brussel sprout on my tongue, salty, bitterness contrasts with the dates I roasted them with.
“I like broccoli and also ice cream. Our bodies need vegetables, right?” she pops a tree into her bow-shaped mouth.
“Yes, they help us grow and keep us healthy.”
“But treats are okay too; we just have to take care of aaaaall of our bodies,” she sweeps her arms over her head and chews another bite, “Can I have ice cream now?”
Women eat for health as well as pleasure. They don’t deny themselves that which brings them joy.
Tiny Human asks me how to be a woman when she exercises with me.
“Mama, watch my muscles,” her foam weights lifted above her head, ribs poking out of her skinny abdomen.
“You are strong, my love,” I raise my dumbbell in a bicep curl as I lower my legs into a squat.
“Mama, we exercise to take care of our bodies,” she curls in step with me.
“Yes, and we’re lucky we get to move like this,” I dance around between sets, wiggling my hips with joy and humor.
Women exercise because they love their bodies, not because their thighs jiggle too much or they don’t like the way their arms wiggle when they wave. Women move their bodies in joy.
She asks me how to be a woman when she wanders into my writing cave, a closet in the corner of the basement wrapped in tapestries to cover the studs. She asks to sit next to me and type words too. Women have a story to tell.
I set the Chromebook on the little table and let her tap the keys in sync with mine.
“How do you spell love?” she pauses, her fingers hovering above the keys.
“L-O,” I pause, giving her time to find the letters, “V-E.”
“The silent e is there because v doesn’t want to be alone at the end of the world, right, Mama?”
“I know a lot about letters,” her eyes are big, and she nods, enhancing her point.
Women believe in themselves. Women support other women’s goals and are willing to take the time to offer guidance to those a step below us on the ladder.
She asks me how to be a woman when I’m crunching a deadline.
“Why can’t I come into your office today, Mama?
“I’m working hard today, and I need to be alone to do that. It helps my brain work better,” I pull Tiny Human onto my lap for a quick cuddle, my face against her head. Her hair smells like coconut and childhood, “My work is important, and I like to work,” and I mean it.
Women are goal-crushing forces who enforce boundaries.
She asks how to be a woman when we talk about our free-time.
“Can we have Mama and Tiny Human time on Wednesday when Brother goes to ski club?” I ask as I write our family schedule on the whiteboard.
She nods, excited, and rushes off to get her notebook to write down the things we will do. Her wavy lines across the page say, “read stories, snuggle on the couch, play Spot-it, do an art project, snuggle in bed, watch a movie.”
Women plan the parts of their lives that are important to them.
Tiny human wonders about womanhood when I shout at her in the morning. We’re late for school again, and I’ve asked her to put shoes on four times. But, she’s excited about a game in her room: carebears are sharing a castle with the dinosaurs.
I tense, “Why aren’t you putting your shoes on? Come on! We’re late! We need to go NOW!” Shame threatens to make me shout more. I close my eyes, I breathe. Being late is not an emergency.
I apologize, “I’m sorry I shouted. I should have handled my frustration better. Next time I’ll count to ten. Can you forgive me?”
Her palm holds my cheek, her touch a velvet whisper, ‘It’s okay, Mama. I make mistakes too. I just still love you so much.”
Women are human; we make mistakes, we apologize, we do better. We are never perfect; we are always becoming the next version of ourselves.
Every time she looks at me, Tiny Human is thinking about a grown-up version of herself, somewhere in the future, wondering who she will be, what she will do, and how she will interact with this world.
I want her to know that she doesn’t need to do anything other than to become who she’s meant to be. But, for her to become, I need her to be strong.
I want her to have dreams and the gumption to chase them with reckless abandon despite what I or anyone else should think. I need her to be brave enough to stand against a world that tries to make her smaller and quieter, and straighter. I need her to yell her truth for everyone to hear. I need her to rally against everything that makes her feel tied down, even if what makes her feel constrained is me. If I want her to be brave, and strong, and resilient, I need to be those things too.
It’s bedtime, though Tiny Human seems far from sleep. She runs at the two speeds of childhood, cheetah, and koala, without a moment of time spent in between. I smile, thankful that she’s still small enough to fit in my arms, the damp of her hair imprinting like a memory against my chin, “What is your favorite part of your body today?”
“Hmmm,” Tiny Human thinks hard, her face scrunched up, a tiny finger tapping her lower lip, “My legs because they help me run cheetah fast!” She pedals her legs in the air to demonstrate their power, “What’s your favorite part of your body today?”
“I’m thankful for my arms today because they let me hug my littles,” I say, and she snuggles her face into the side of my neck.
“Mama, I want babies, but I won’t have a husband,” she says, lifting her head to check that I heard her plan, “I want to take care of my babies all by myself. I can just have a doctor help me have them when I’m ready.”
“Yes, baby girl, you can, if that’s what you want.”
“But, also, I’m going to be a dancer and an artist and a singer and a writer,” the words run together, one dream instead of several.
Tears spring to my eyes. I feel like maybe I’m doing this right. Maybe Tiny Human will stand so firmly in her truth that no box of expectations can hold her.
This knowledge — that I am the one example of womanhood my children will reflect on as they grow — prompted me to unravel the lies that kept me small, afraid, and weak. I didn’t realize they were lies until motherhood peeled the denial from my soul.
I looked at their blue eyes — a perfect reflection of the ones I’d always considered too small and just lopsided enough to be unattractive — and couldn’t imagine hating those little pools of inquisition. I saw the tiny blond hairs shimmering across my daughter’s skin and couldn’t imagine her feeling that she had to remove them.
I heard the emotion in my son’s words and felt how quick to tears his empathetic heart was and realized that I needed to embrace my own capacity to feel. It didn’t make me weak because he wasn’t weak. I saw my children’s legs, muscular, strong, capable, and couldn’t imagine them standing in front of a mirror pinching their inner thighs and wishing them away. Yet, I did those things to myself every day.
I looked in the mirror and hated my nose (too big) and my eyes (too small). I found my thighs disgusting, even as an obsessive exercise habit and a strict diet leaned them out and defined the muscles. I’d lay in bed at night, my hands avoiding my stomach — where the growth of those I cherished most had stretched and contorted my skin until it resembled a tiger’s flank.
I hated the way I cried so quickly and the way I’d lose my temper, but I’d tell my children they were forgivable — perfectly human — for the same. I’d call myself stubborn like it was a curse, but embrace my daughter’s sassy side as proof that she was strong and would grow successful. I told my son that love is love and people can date whoever they want regardless of gender while I stayed firmly shut in the closet.
I was a big giant sack of walking contradictions. I’m reasonably sure I’m the last one who figured it out. I lied to myself about so many things and for so long that I wound up in my mid-thirties, not even remembering who I was and what I was really capable of.
Until I looked at the tiny people I was charged with leading, I didn’t understand that it was impossible to love them while hating parts of myself. I needed to unravel the stories my brain crafted. I didn’t expect to find that those lies that held me back also held rewards that made my life easier.
If I hated my appearance, I could justify hiding my talents. If I wasn’t creative, I could continue in a career I hated, but that was easy and comfortable. If I was straight, I could live in the bubble of heterosexual America and not deal with the difficulty of membership in a marginalized group.
These secondary rewards drove me to numb the voices of truth. I wimped out, gave up on myself, and called it being a woman — until I learned stillness — then it became impossible to silence the truth anymore.