Monday, February 2, 2015

Girl Culture is Hard

I once believed the greatest gift I could give my children was faith. My faith in them. I thought I could infuse them with confidence and belief in themselves if I gave them one simple message - I believe you can do this. You aren't fragile. You can trust your own judgement.

I still believe that, but it's been harder to give than I would have ever guessed. Or it's been harder to give to one of my children. The one who's a girl.

With my son, it gets easier every day. I don't worry about him unless there's good reason to. I rarely wonder if my fears for him are sound or neurotic, because, since I don't worry excessively, I can honor it when I do.

But my daughter...she's my first born. The one who reminds me so much of myself. I am fiercely, rabidly protective of her. I'm suspicious of everyone. It communicates to her that I have no faith at all. It isn't doing me, her or anyone else any good.

This shouldn't be taken to mean I'm not sufficiently protective of my son. I believe myself to be giving him what he needs, and I'm well aware that a seven-year-old child needs to be protected and advocated for. Don't get the impression I won't kill you (and by you, I mean you, personally). In fact, I'm thinking about hitting you in the head with a baseball bat right now (and by you, I don't so much mean you personally, but more a vague personification of a threat). But I'll only resort to that if I really, really have to.

For the most part, though, I'm confident he'll be okay. I can relax, and allow him to relax. Time and again, I've wished she could have his mom. Because you know how we're all supposed to think we're the worst mother in the world? Well, I'm not. The world would be a better place if I were. Still, there are things I would change if I could, and things I would do differently if I knew how. I could say "If I had it to do over again....," but it would be a lie. I knew I was doing it wrong, but the sad truth is, I was doing the best I could.

They have different personalities, of course, and I could pin some of it on that. Even so, I have to own that a lot of it is me. I take some small comfort in the fact that it's not entirely because she's my girl. I know, because all my friends without daughters have managed to dig up a son with whom to identify too closely.

"If you want to know what's unresolved from your own childhood, have kids." Did I read that somewhere? Or is it an old saying? Or maybe I just made it up, or heard it from a friend? I'm not sure, but truer words have rarely been spoken.

So what's unresolved from my own childhood? School. ADD and all the crap that goes along with it. But most of all, friends and social life.

A few weeks ago, she seemed to be struggling socially. I've learned to bite my tongue when I start overreacting. To a point. I try to be a sounding board, someone to talk to, and a container for her to find her own solutions. I've gotten better, but what I have here seems to be closer to a scab than a scar. It provides some protection, but poke it the wrong way, and it will start bleeding.

For example, one day she was upset because a mean-girl type had been mean.

I've known this girl since she was in kindergarten, although not well. I've watched her grow up. I remembered walking down the hall with her when she was about five, her not yet able to pronounce the letter "r", chattering away to me about her brothers, sisters, and her "fuchoo sister." (Sister-in-law, I believe). None of it meant a damn thing.

"She'll have three kids by the time she's 20," I snapped. Yes, I, 38-year-old mother of two, felt the best defense was to imply a ten-year-old child was a trashy slut. Because that's how I want my daughter to manage conflict. Mean girl? "Trashy slut!" Rude barista? "Trashy slut!" Pulled over for speeding? "Trashy slut!" Telemarketer won't stop calling? "Trashy slut!" Disagree with a college professor about Peru's economic policy? "Trashy slut!"

Around the same time, she had been legitimately named the president of an extracurricular club. She was happy, and perfectly willing and able to do the job, but was considering sharing it with another girl, because the girl was jealous. It had come up at her teacher conference, where her teacher had strongly implied this would be a terrible idea.

I knew she didn't want to share the position, and was under no obligation to do so. Was I right to encourage my daughter to unapologetically be the leader, and not share it just because some other kid was making life difficult? I think so. But the tween girl drama had obviously become far too important to me. One morning, while I drove her to school, I lectured her on how she absolutely must not share her leadership position.

"I know I should stop," I finally confessed to her.

"But you can't," she confirmed. That kid has my number.

When I got home, a friend on Facebook was considering not applying for a job. She wanted the job and was qualified for it. Her skill set was exactly right for it. But she was scared. Scared of putting herself out there and being rejected. Scared of getting her hopes up. Scared, perhaps, that even if she got it, she wouldn't be able to do it.

Oh, hell no. Not on my watch. While I worked on giving her a measured response, I quietly went bananas. Give up something you want, something you might be able to have, something that you perhaps should have? Without even trying? Do that now, and you'll settle for less for the rest of your life!

Knowing if I started, I wouldn't be able to control myself, I said very little. My friend applied for the job anyway, because believe it or not, people can actually make good decisions for themselves without my help. I suppose there's even an outside chance that what I wanted her to do wasn't right for her (no freaking way). But as much as I was rooting for her, was there maybe just a little bit of projection going on? Was I looking at her and seeing my daughter? Was I looking at her and seeing myself?

Now, there's nothing I hate more than other people projecting their stuff onto me, so I can only imagine everyone else feels exactly the same way. So why do I subject one of the most important people in the world to me to it on a regular basis (we all know exactly why)?

I don't always do it wrong. When I have a healthy attitude on a particular topic, I'm just fine. Another problem my daughter recently came home with was boys making sexual comments about her clothing and body.

Yes, I remembered, this is when that starts. I remembered hearing similar in fifth grade. I remembered sitting on the floor in seventh grade, a boy shoving my head into the wall with his crotch, and calmly waiting for him to stop and walk away. I remembered thinking, well, I shouldn't have been sitting on the floor.

I told my daughter it was sexual harassment. I emailed her teacher and asked if the kids were being taught this kind of behavior was unacceptable, and often illegal. Better for everyone, I thought, to stop this right here and now.

But I was not upset. I knew these boys knew nothing of sexual harassment, male privilege or the male gaze. I believed if it was all explained to them immediately, they would save themselves and all the women they met in the future a lot of trouble. Although I would have pursued the same action either way, I was happy to know that what was best for my daughter was also, in my estimation, what was best for the boys who had harassed her.

Why? Because they hadn't poked my scab. Junk-in-my-face boy did not traumatize me. He didn't, for one second, have the power. Any lingering scars I have were caused by people worthier, more important, and just plain better than him.

Maybe he kept on going, and is now, in his late 30s, exactly the kind of man you'd expect a boy who assaulted girls in the hallway at school to be. In that case, he probably forgot all about it, just as I would have if I weren't such a chronic rememberer. (Because it was not important to me. Hear that, loser? I have no feelings about you at all!). I'd like to think if he does remember, he cringes. He teaches his son to never, under any circumstances, do any such thing.

That's what I look like when I'm advocating for my child in a healthy, appropriate manner.

The unresolved sadness and grief lies in friendships with people who actually mattered, mostly (but not exclusively) other girls. What I wish I'd known when I was older than my daughter is now, but still young, was that my actions actually mattered. That while everyone makes mistakes, there were consequences that wouldn't be erased when I turned eighteen. Be too quick to say "I'm done with you bitches" now, and you'll be saying it over and over, for the rest of your life, and you just might encourage your daughter to do the same.

But can you tell a child that? Nope. It's too much to saddle them with. They wouldn't be able to do anything with it. I, at least, got to learn the wrong lessons for myself. I haven't given my daughter any such luxury.

What I do know is that, with all the talk about girl bullying, queen bees and wannabes, girls being mean, catty, two-faced, and dishonest, it was rarely - probably never - a conscious decision on anyone's part. What they fail to mention is, all these girls are kids. Kids who have no clue what they're doing. No one ever decided, "I'm going to emotionally scar you for life now." Everyone was just trying to survive. I won't cast myself as a bully or a victim - I did things I regret, and I suspect there are some who regret their behavior toward me. Had I truly been bullied, I'd be telling a different story. But, while I wasn't totally in control of everything that happened, but I wasn't totally helpless, either.

I see my daughter's suspicion. I see the way she expects rejection, and finds reasons to beat other people to the punch. I know exactly where she got it. Or else I don't, it's all in my imagination. Or, more likely, she wasn't born with it, but it's there now.

I didn't think it would be like this. But here we are. You can't give what you don't have. God dammit. Why the fuck can't I give what I don't have?

Luckily, I'm not the only influence in my daughter's life. Earlier this year, she and her class went to camp for a few days. Ms. Bea - the mother of two boys - blonde, serene, a beatific glow surrounding her at all times, had a fine time hanging with the girls for a few days. Because what the hand-wringers never mention is, girl culture is also great fun. We're talking barrel-of-moneys level shit here.

The next week, she came up to me on the playground.

"Your daughter is amazing!" she told me. "The weekend after camp, I saw some friends, and I told them, 'Don't you worry about a thing. These girls are going to save the world.'"

Don't worry about a thing. I think it would have been more powerful if it had come from me. But it wasn't nothing.

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