I wanted a daughter for a long time. That is, once I finally decided that I actually did want to become a mom, I also decided that future-baby should be a girl. When I gave birth and the midwife announced that the baby was a she, I cried. And not just because I was no longer pregnant and thought this meant I would stop involuntarily peeing every time I sneezed (I didn’t), but because I felt the universe was finally on my side, a completely foreign sensation. I didn’t give much thought to what it would mean to raise a girl, and now I think the universe is laughing at me.
I think, maybe, I am a disappointment to my daughter. Sure, I’m a halfway decent mom. I can be fun for those 18 minutes a day that I am paying attention to her. I think she appreciates my sense of humor, and I know she appreciates my laziness because that often means frozen pizza for dinner. I wasn’t aware, however, that when I was counting on this mother-daughter thing to work out, I was envisioning me being just like my mom, and my daughter being a tiny version of me. When it became obvious that my mom set the bar way too high, and my daughter proved to be so much like her father, I had to reconsider how things were going to work.
While most of my mom friends can look to their mothers for guidance (or in some cases avoidance), my own mother died young. Although I was 21 when it happened, I have never stopped feeling like I need her. I wish my daughter could know her. I wish she could know the feeling of having a grandmother spoil her; my mom would have excelled at this, I’m sure. But mostly I wish she were here so I could ask her, “Am I doing this right? Is this how you grow a girl into a woman?” I have been at this for nine years now, and I still sometimes fear that I may somehow irreparably damage my child.
My difficulty with mothering a daughter is not based on some belief that she should be a certain way because she is a girl. I have never cared much about the rules of gender. My difficulty is in knowing that we clearly express our femininity in very different ways. My daughter hates that I don’t wear makeup, and she hates the “boring” clothes I wear. Her fashion sense leans toward what I like to call the “middle-aged woman at the casino” look: brightly colored leggings and loud tops, the more sequins and sparkles the better. She can’t even begin to understand why I don’t own a pair of high heels.
I actually appreciate our differences, but they do lead to a lot of questions from her: Why don’t you wear lipstick? How come you don’t wear gold jewelry? Why are your legs so hairy? Every time she asks one of these questions, questions that are so obviously rooted in her desire to figure out how she fits in this world, I remember what an enormous responsibility I have been given, and I am left wondering how the hell I ended up in this position. I don’t know what to tell her about makeup or fancy shoes, other than fancy shoes hurt your feet, and if you don’t wear makeup you can sleep in a little longer.
“That’s just the kind of woman I am. You can decide what kind of woman you will be when you grow up.” These are the words I have started saying to her. I haven’t told her that it’s not quite as easy as just making a decision, how first she’ll have to figure out how to ignore all the ways our culture tells her she should be as a woman. I guess part of me is hoping that things will somehow be different for her. What I want is to release a woman into the world who is kind and confident. I don’t care whether she gets her Ph.D. or never finishes high school, so long as she is doing something that brings her joy. Right now I am trying my best to let her simply become whoever she feels she should be.
I recognize that worrying about my daughter’s future outcome is for naught. I know, short of raising a sociopath, there is not really a right way to mother a girl, just like there is not a right way to be a girl. Besides, there is nothing like parenting to remind you that so much of life is not in your control. Case in point, my husband recently decided he wanted out of our marriage, leaving me to deal with the tween and teen years largely on my own. I can’t even fathom how I might someday relate to a 16-year-old girl, whether she came out of my uterus or not.
I believe what I should do, what all mothers should do, is tune out all of the extra noise. There are so many ways we are told how we are messing up, and so few that let us know how incredible we are. I often forget that my instincts have never steered me wrong, and that I want to teach my daughter to trust her instincts, too. In terms of making this mothering thing work, what really matters is my daughter’s voice and my own. I’m going to keep reminding myself of that, hoping that it eventually sticks. Although, if you do happen to have the secret mothering formula, I would love to be let in on it.
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