Tag Archives: raising girls

Chewbacca’s Senior Portrait

I framed a photo of Chewbacca the Wookiee for MaryAlice's nightstand. The girl loves Chewie.

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My Two-Year-Old: The agony and the … well, just agony

Look at this face:

Now ask yourself, How could this child’s mother ever be moved to write the following on Twitter?:

Based on my 2-year-old’s behavior this evening, if I had to speculate about future career prospects, “Courtney Love” would top the list.
One of the things I admire most about MaryAlice is her, uh, “spirited” temperament. She is a girl, so I give her a wider berth. It’s not because I believe girls are delicate creatures who should be dealt a more forgiving hand, discipline-wise. Rather, it’s because I know her behavior often strays pretty far afield of what people generally accept as “appropriate” for girl-children, and I don’t want to even be perceived as joining the chorus of gender-enforcing “Shhh!“-ers. I’m not saying that’s a rational or “right” choice: only that I have this fairly well-substantiated fear that, if she is told to shut up often enough and by relevant enough stakeholders, she won’t just turn the volume down a notch, she’ll turn it all the way off. (For the record, I don’t discourage my son’s gender-binary-non-conforming behaviors, either. Those simply tend to be less disruptive and inconvenient. Shrug). 
 
In light of all that: truth time. If she was an adult — and possibly even if she wasn’t my kid — I would think she was a total jerkstore.
 
Maybe this feeling of desperation is related to being in the home stretch of the Terrible Twos. Oh, yeah: they exist. They aren’t universal, though. My son, who will be five in December, struggled a little, in the usual “I HAVE BIG EMOTIONS AND LACK THE VOCABULARY TO EXPLAIN THEM” vein. But because he was a colicky nightmare as a newborn, anything that fell short of an eight-hour stretch of ceaseless screaming registered as un-noteworthy.
 
Aside from the occasional a-hole days or weeks, Stuart has only gotten progressively “easier” as he’s aged.  
 
MaryAlice has not.
 
 
Here are some delightful little affectations that have materialized since her second birthday, last September:
    1. Reactions to crises(-of-her-own-perception) are completely unmodulated according to the severity of said crisis. “I DROPPED MY FORK!” hysterics are virtually indistinguishable from what I’d imagine “MY HEAD IS CAUGHT IN A BEAR TRAP!” hysterics would sound like.
    2. When she has a tearful meltdown, she runs into the bathroom to check the mirror and see how sad she looks, then modifies her face for maximum pathos.
    3. Like most toddlers, MaryAlice has a knack for finding and walking around with objects that we’d rather she not have: our phones, expensive-ish electronic doodads, knives … . We have to use the utmost caution when trying to coax her into surrendering the object, and can never, but never, attempt to “wrest” it away. (She has a vise grip). One false move, and our DVD player remote or camera or mezzaluna is hurled  — often at our respective heads.
    4. Whenever we are anywhere in public, and MaryAlice can’t be strapped into a shopping cart or otherwise physically restrained, there is a 50-50 — no, let’s say 80-20 — chance that she will take off running, heedless of (A) her personal safety, or (B) anything (people included) in her path. But, wait! If we chase her, she just does that thing that dogs do, looking over her shoulder at us with a mocking glint in her eye while maintaining the established pace. This has resulted in a full-throttle crashes into  doors, trees, columns, and (literal) brick walls.
    5. Oft-heard fit-of-rage phrases: “Back off!” “Fine! I go home!” “You so damnit!” and, my personal fave, “Stupid hate!”

I can’t emphasize enough how ill-equipped to manage this I am. Actually, scratch that and replace “manage” with “tolerate.”  Logical, natural consequences? Zzzzip! Out the window during a Terrible Twos Fugue State (particularly because I don’t want to be the object of demonstration when it comes to following through on the logical and natural consequences of launching a pair of manicure scissors at my cornea).   The only management, so far as I can figure, involves containment and removal. Like kudzu or zebra mussels or something.

Oh, and P.S.: before you say, “Well, at least you’re a parent who is considerate enough to take their disruptive child out of social settings mid-tantrum,” know that I don’t — not always. When I am in public spaces with the kids and without my partner, there is usually a task at hand that, for whatever reason, couldn’t wait until reinforcements were available. (Family grocery shopping outings that involve four adult hands instead of two are a  comparative cakewalk). If the threat of an “episode” was enough to keep me home, I would never leave the house.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m not totally committed to the retreat-and-surrender approach. I have this bizarre notion that, if children are going to learn how to function as full-fledged members of society, they sorta hafta be in it. Trust me: you aren’t going to want to meet the fragile whelp who has been sequestered in his home, every whim bowed to like that kid in The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life“.

(Quick aside: I know the subject of exclusive spaces for adults has been a hot-button issue lately. My thought is, aside from locations that are patently inappropriate for children [a porn store  or … I don’t know. A hookah lounge?], accepted patronage of people of all ages should be generally behavior-specific. You know: “Disruptive individuals may be asked to leave.” This is all very relativistic, of course. The definition of “disruptive” is probably different if you are dining at Chuck E Cheese’s versus, say, The French Laundry . But I do feel that, bad apple horror stories aside, most parents are acutely aware of when their child, and those around their child, have reached the tipping point. A little latitude on the part of the non-child-having public is always much-appreciated as well).

Anyway: tolerance.  My own reserve is all but sapped. Part of me is genuinely worried that turning three won’t cure her, or even be the gateway to recovery. Do I have the mettle to effectively parent a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Thanks, but I think I’ll just lie on the floor while she dances on the empty-shell-that-was-my-self, brandishing that mezzaluna, and yelling “Stupid hate!”  … probably all while naked, too (something I forgot to add to the list of grievances, above. Those cute butt dimples are losing their luster from over-exposure).

Really, then, this post is less a rumination than a cry for help. As someone who works an average of 60 hours a week outside the home, I’m with my daughter for precious little time; and I’d like our interactions to be spent with less open combat on her part, and less ducking and wincing on mine. Any suggestions for making peace with a child who is easy to love, but can be difficult to “like”?

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Pink Apologia

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Is there a more divisive color?
 
I’ve written about the utility and frugality-influenced decision to dress my son in pink clothing as an infant. (And, on the very day I caught wind of the flap surrounding a J Crew ad featuring a five-year-old boy with pink-painted toenails, guess whose toenails were,  indictingly, sporting a Wet ‘n’ Wild shade called Bar-B ).  Based on the feedback I got, it’s pretty clear reasonable people  understand that (A) boys, of any age, wearing pink clothing is not an offense worthy of comment — or an offense, period; and (B) gender performativity and gender aren’t one-to-one correlatives. To say nothing of sexual orientation.
 
However! What is considered defensibly boundary-defying when applied to boys still inspires pushback from some high-minded, unorthodox parents when applied to girls.  I’m talking about parents, usually of a pedantic ilk, who question the implications of various childhood rules and rituals, and talk their way around the acceptance or rejection of these. (See also: “What we concern ourselves with when we aren’t concerned about where our next meal is coming from”). Yeah, I’m talking about parents like me.
 
 A lot of these … whatever … parents have no problem saying, “I would never dress my daughter in pink clothes” or deriving pride from their little girl’s pink-repulsion.  And, I admit, I might have done the same. In fact, this issue probably wouldn’t even be a blip on my indignation radar if not for MaryAlice, my two-and-a-half-year-old (in case you missed it in the slide show):
 

MaryAlice, whose current hair-hue comes courtesy of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink, has a certain appreciation for the color: one that Stuart really doesn’t.  Her mindset hasn’t reached an “I will forsake all  other colors!” plateau. But, when given a choice between a pink object and a non-pink object, it isn’t hard to guess which one she’ll select.

“Why?” doesn’t really matter. We didn’t deluge her with pink from birth or eliminate it from her realm of awareness. In fact, she mostly wore hand-me-downs from Stuart — which, again, meant her wardrobe included pink items but was not exclusively pink.

As a child who has been around other children, most of whom are products of traditionally-inclined  households, since she was eight weeks old, has MaryAlice digested the idea that Girls ♥ Pink? Well, sure, probably. On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?


I think it’s difficult to divorce emblems from their perceived connotations or historical, cultural, or iconographic roots. And it’s less complicated  to put the kibosh on, essentially, an aesthetic preference than it is to “say what you mean” — to quote the eminently quotable Lewis Carrol.  Just like it is less complicated to forbid branded and cross-branded toys and apparel and food and household products than to have a frank, age-appropriate discussion about the detriment of consumerism and insidiousness of advertising. (Believe me, I’ve been there. In the past month, my four-year-old has exclaimed “Trix are for kids!” and questioned, “What does that Cheetos cheetah [shady and beshaded spokestoad Chester Cheetah] want us to do? Should we eat Cheetos all the time?”). Or to put princess-blinkers on our daughters than to celebrate and cultivate the multifarious characteristics that make them special people. (This is also territory I’ve covered before).


Ah, princesses. Without deviating too far off-course — because this topic probably deserves a post unto itself — I want to briefly bring princesses into the discussion, if only because they, and the alleged damage they cause, are often conflated with the color pink, and vice versa.

Peggy Orenstein has been getting a good amount of press for her latest offering, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the actual book in its entirety, but have seen it excerpted widely. Here is a quote from the afore-linked NPR interview: 

Orenstein says very young children don’t yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can’t go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they’re definitely girls.

But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. “Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they’re allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.

“When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit … and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross.”

I understand why archetypal fairytale princesses make people squeamish. They are demure; delicate; in need of “rescuing”; objectified; valued only for their beauty. Their chief goal is to be desired, and subsequently obtained, by a prince. 

This is not a revelation.

I will point out, though, that (A) the whole trope has been revised significantly (if imperfectly) in many cinematic and literary interpretations of the past several decades; and (B) I don’t think princesses’ appeal, for young children, is even rooted in those classic traits. From observing my own children, who are pretty typical, I’m all-but-certain that they are mesmerized by the pageantry, the sparkle, the ostentatiousness : l’art pour l’art. Pink figures prominently into this schema — and tulle and glitter and cupcake-like embellishments. All of these things are value-neutral in a vacuum.

For example, Stuart and MaryAlice call Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz a “princess.” Does her lack of monarchical lineage contradict this assumption? Or her disinterest in princes/men, her ability to act independently, and her role as a font of guiding wisdom in the story? Of course not! She’s a “princess” because she’s got an absurdly impractical dress that looks like it’s made from cotton candy, a disco-mitre crown, and travels in an incandescent, fuchsia bubble. Just like, in their minds, I’d be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope. (Thankfully, few people over the age of eight or so could be similarly fooled).


Here’s the thing I don’t get: why the princesses — and pink — are being singled out, as supposedly hyper-gendered signifiers, for lambasting. Why should girls be steered toward so-called “crossover” interests (more on that in a bit), and boys, by and large, left to their paradigm?

To try to respond to my own confusion from Orenstein’s perspective: she  may be castigating them because she’s built a career on writing about social challenges foisted upon girls. Plus, she has a little girl. It’s an immediate concern for her.

Nonetheless, some of her quotes and conclusions give me pause:

 I wanted [my daughter] to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely — that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit — her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls) — and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox … My daughter had transcended typecasting.

Then, of course,  disappointment sets in when, under the influence of her Princess Svengali classmates, Orenstein’s daughter takes up the pink-loving torch:

As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. … [F]or her third birthday [she] begged for a ‘real princess dress’ with matching plastic high heels.

Shame. Failure. Bad feminist mommy.

So many of these feelings that one needs to write an entire book to expiate them? That’s a bit of a reach on my part.

It isn’t too farfetched to say that Orenstein  is not alone — not by a longshot —  in stamping implicitly or explicitly boy-aligned toys, colors, interests, even behaviors and emotions, with gold-star status, and declaring them honorarily “gender neutral,” while taking their girl-aligned counterparts to task. 

As  the proverbial “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” are given nods of approval from every direction, boys are still the clear default target demographic, and girls a mere afterthought. Orenstein herself bemoans Thomas the Tank Engine’s tokenistic treatment of female characters:

I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made Lady, its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars … ).

Dressing in pinstriped overalls to emulate a conductor on Thomas  might be “transcend[ing] the stereotype”; but is it a victory for girls? And, critically, is it better than an infrastructure  that deliberately places girls’ existence at its center? After all, even in the most abhorrent, outmoded fairy tales in which princely acceptance is regarded as the ultimate goal, and physical beauty is viewed as paramount, those princes are just kind of set-dressing, plot devices. Heck, they usually don’t even have memorable names!

So, regardless of intention, this reactionary favoring of “boy stuff”  makes boys the litmus test. Again. Still.


I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us — especially women — continue to unwittingly devalue, and even demonize, the traditionally “feminine” because we are trying to shield the young girls in our lives from the imperatives that we, ourselves, may have struggled with. We wanted a Transformer and got a Barbie instead. Science and Math were seen as masculine subjects in school, so we were encouraged to make our mark in English and Art. We babysat, while our brothers had paper routes. There was internal  dissonance  if we followed the mandates to a T and  external tut-tutting if we didn’t.

This, I absolutely agree, is unhealthy for girls, and unhealthy for boys.

But not because newspaper-hurling is a worthier pursuit than babysitting. Or because excelling at English or Art has no merit. And neither Barbie nor Transformers are the ideal role models for children of any sex or gender. (Can I note, though,  that Barbie and the Magic of PegasusBarbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and Barbie of Swan Lake meet Bechdel/Wallace standards? Anything from the Transformers franchise of films: uh-uh).  


 The way to counteract gendered pigeonholing is not to give a figurative cookie to girls who say their favorite color is blue and roll our eyes at the “false consciousness” of girls who say their favorite color is pink. As I said earlier, challenging though it may be, we need to divest these empty symbols — pink, princesses, frippery — of their connotative power. It’s adults who enthroned them, and adults who need to topple the regime. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tastemakers don’t care about this in the least … or , even more discouragingly, are so convinced of the importance of upholding gender codification that a kindergarten-aged boy wearing pink nail polish makes international news.

It does, then, need to be an individual effort. If your daughter is offered a pink balloon without being asked what color she would prefer — something that offended Orenstein — you ask her what color she would like, thereby giving her permission to state her selection with impunity. Shopping with your child for his or her friend’s birthday gift? Don’t simply stick to the “boy aisle” or “girl aisle” as a matter of course. And, importantly, when confronted with a transparently objectionable message, point it out for what it is and tell your child why it bothers you.

Arguably the hardest part of all this is avoiding the temptation to get sucked into an “either/or” fallacy. You don’t “win,” as a parent,  if your daughter loves construction machinery and karate, and “lose” if she favors butterflies and cheerleading. There is an undeniable desire, especially among those of us whose tastes run in a countercultural vein, to have kids with an enviable coolness quotient.  But, in the end, their lives are their own, and their likes and dislikes will probably follow a very circuitous path before cementing. Just like ours did.

Your daughter can still win, though: provided she knows you support her ability to make choices, and demonstrate this by giving her the latitude to do so. Even if she is wearing a tutu, brandishing a fairy wand, and twirling, twirling …

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Dear MaryAlice, You Were a Surprise.

The Feminist Breeder, who just gave birth to her own daughter this morning (congratulations, Gina!), recently launched a “Letter to My Daughter” guest post series. It ran on her blog from March through April.

I intended to respond to TFB’s call for submissions with my own piece a couple months ago, but couldn’t synthesize my thoughts quickly enough to keep up with the horde. So, assuming there isn’t anything proprietary about the concept, I’m offering up my “letter” here, instead.

– Amanda

 


 

There were congratulations. But, mostly, I remember stunned silences, cautious questions testing the water: “How do you feel about … this?”

All their unchecked enthusiasm had been spent on your brother, who was born a little more than a year before we learned that you – or some incipient, translucent-skinned version of you – existed.

Stuart’s arrival narrative seemed to have been plucked from the Middle-American Domesticity Playbook. The main players, then, were your father and me:  a two-years-married couple living in a cozy, shabby, one-bedroom apartment, wishing for a baby. And when we had one, people were happy for us. We were happy for us.

We could still live, cozily and shabbily, in the one-bedroom apartment with your brother; it was still a “romantic” kind of hand-to-mouth existence. But when we bought an abandoned house on the cheap and spent our evenings and weekends renovating, baby chewing his fist on a yoga mat while we made the neglected lath-and-plaster walls persimmon and cocoa and robin’s egg blue – well, people were even happier for us. We were “growing the nest,” “building sweat equity.”  Everything was delicately balanced. But we were doing it the Right Way, the careful, considered way that didn’t raise eyebrows or make waves.  A small, young family, teeming with optimism and determination, snug and insular like the Three Bears from a fairytale. 

That would make you Goldilocks, I guess. You ate the porridge. You upended the chairs. You rumpled the covers on the family bed.

Except, you weren’t, and you didn’t.


I took a positive pregnancy test on Valentine’s Day, 2008, after, in the depths of winter, I started feeling familiarly nauseous.

“Do you think you could be …?” your father laughed, nervously.

It was a funny thought. Gallows humor, I remarked, wryly, in retrospect. I hadn’t had a period in nearly two years, and, remembering how we had tried and tried for months to conceive your brother, charting temperatures, trying to divine the subtlest signs and symptoms — pregnancy struck me as the least likely explanation for my sudden food aversions, my sensitivity to certain smells, and my bone-deep exhaustion.

Yet there, on the test, were two Valentine-pink lines.

As we started sharing the news, some weeks later, we responded to those stunned silences and cautious questions with, “It was a ‘surprise’!”

That was our diplomatic slant, side-stepping the awkward details. “Surprise,” we thought, conjured up birthday parties and Easter eggs and errant five-dollar bills found in the lint trap. Good things.

Still, we heard a lot of replies cautioning, “Don’t ever tell the baby that.”

They meant we shouldn’t tell you that you were unplanned, and, by extension, “an accident.” Or, even worse, “a mistake.”

The thought makes me heart-hurt.

You see, even though I’m not a fatalist — far from it — I believe that you were meant for our family, that, in the end, we needed you. I, especially, needed you.


Stuart was first, was my only point of reference for having a child. So comparisons are hard to avoid. Please don’t mistake that for meaning he is the gold standard, though. You are each other’s complements and foils, and were since the day you came home (your brother, unable to pronounce your name, simply calling you “Bébé” with an inscrutable French lilt).  

And do you want to know a secret? I enjoyed your babyhood more. Because I was more comfortable the second go-‘round, sure. But also because, while Stuart wrested himself away from kisses and howled inconsolably for hours and ineffectually pummeled the air with his angry little fists, you were a serene-faced observer: my little piece of luggage. I guiltily sent Stuart to daycare most weekdays while I was on maternity leave from work, and you and I would make a nest of pillows on the couch. You nursed and burrowed into my body, and I tucked you under my chin and we both slept the sweetest sleep.

That is one way you helped me. You gave me some absolution for the times I had cried along with Stuart; for burning out the motor on a blow dryer when its steady, white noise roar was all that would calm him; even for blearily letting him tumble off of the nursing pillow after dragging myself from bed for the twentieth feeding of that interminable stretch of brightening and darkening hours that everyone else flippantly called “a day.” (We were both shocked into alertness. And, again, we cried, together). You showed me that I wasn’t the source of this, that I wasn’t to blame for being anxious or unproven.

A doctor on his rounds when I was discharging from the hospital after Stuart was born told me, in a failed attempt to reassure, “Not everyone is a natural mother.” At the time, I thought that my ineptness was so transparent; I was so unmistakably a lost cause.

You showed me that what the doctor should have said is, “No one is a natural mother.” Maybe some play the part more convincingly: more fluidly, with fewer false starts. “Nature” – inherency – neglects the two-sidedness, the give and take of burgeoning relationships, though. The parent has the advantage in terms of years logged on Earth; the baby is putty-like, primal.  But, nonetheless, both have to stumble into the dance, negotiating the rhythms of each other’s personality. Stuart and I flailed and staggered for weeks, months before we reached that accord. The moment you and I locked eyes, it seemed were gracefully in step.


Now? You are two-and-a-half and a firecracker. You take off running, head down, hurtling forward and not stopping for anything. You pretend our cats are babies that you are defending from werewolves on the prowl. (You extend your arm and mime “shooting” them. “Do you have a wand?” I ask. “No,” you reply, “A gun.”). Combing is not on your agenda, so we keep your hair short and disheveled. You love unsentimental Children in Trouble movies; Spirited Away and Coraline are your favorites. The parents are ineffectual and the girls are impudent and brave. I probe your preference for deeper meaning – because that’s what I do.

 I want to keep you this way: so fully yourself, and unafraid. You might grow your hair long, and wash the slick of raspberry jam from your chin, and start thinking that spelt cereal and black coffee is a more judicious breakfast choice than “chocolate waffles and marshmallows.” Those things don’t matter. It’s that real kernel of you-ness I want to preserve: the one so easily stifled in girls.

And, yes, your being a girl is the fulcrum, here.  For years, I have read about the fragility of girls’ identities – or, to reframe, the unrelenting assault our society wages on them. Studies and anecdota, all commenting, grimly, on the waxing and forced waning of girls’ sense of autonomy.  Not to mention that I was a little girl once, too. It only seems real and menacing now that I have a coltish, feisty girlchild of my own, though: threatened, yet blissfully unaware.

It is, I think, is your greatest gift to me. Just your existence has made me un-lazy about redressing all of this mess – doing it, of course, by making sure you know how extraordinary you are … but also by striving to model self-acceptance. That isn’t something that comes easily for me at all. Nonetheless, being your mother is making me realize that if I value the individual beauty of other women and girls, if I want their intellect and ideas to be treated with deference, if I believe their passions are worthy of being pursued, if I know that their emotions are legitimate, I need to believe the same standard applies to me, too. Whether I like it or not, I am your Adult Woman Archetype. Every off-handed swipe at my own competence and worth has the potential to register as a hairline crack in your sense of self. So, simply, I am learning to be kinder to myself: for you and because of you.


That is why I am going to flout those warnings and say it, plainly. MaryAlice, you were a surprise.

You were a surprise better than a birthday party or Easter egg or five-dollar bill.  You upset complacent balances that needed upsetting; but you also threaded your confidence around the weaker stalks of my own and made us both more resilient.

Keep the surprises coming.

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