When I was a little girl, I remember looking at the bookshelf and pondering one title in particular: My Mother Myself. I didn’t know what the title meant – and to be honest I don’t think I ever read the book – but the title always resonated with me somehow. I’ve been thinking about that title again I haven’t thought of it for a long time, but as my daughter (who is four) discovers more and more of who she is and what it means to be a girl/woman in our culture, the more and more I’ve begun to fret over what message I am sending her. I identify with my daughter on the deepest, most primal, intuitive level. I understand what makes her tick, what makes her happy, inspired, insecure, scared… they are all the same things that brought on those feelings for me. She is really really really my daughter. I catch my parents staring at her in disbelief at times because she is a carbon copy of me at that age. Albeit a much more confidant, brave, boisterous version, but the similarities can’t be denied!
There is a unique interaction that only exists between a mother and daughter. I understand that I am her single most important role model. I understand that much of what she learns about the issues that come along with being a woman will come from me. THAT IS A LOT OF PRESSURE, PEOPLE!!!!! That is a lot of pressure for a girl like me, a vain girl like me, a woman like me who loves make-up and style and dressing up and pretty things. A woman like me who loves these things but is also a feminist. I have never had much of an issue reconciling my woman-power with my love of girly stuff. I’ve always just figured that I am who I am and being who I am on an honest level is the most important thing I can do for my own happiness and self-confidence. But what do I do with the fact that my girl is obsessed with Barbie (even though all things Barbie have been banned from the house)? What do I do when she wants to wear inappropriate clothing to school? Or make-up? What do I do with her fascination with princesses and marriage and happily ever after? Look, I loved these things, too, and I turned out okay. I still feel the need to explain my opposition. I feel that I need to understand how to explain that girls can be empowered and love dressing up, that these things aren’t mutually exclusive. But Oh My God, how to explain this to a 4-year=old?
How do I instill the importance of education, kindness, smarts, empowerment, over fashion, beauty and princesses? Can I show her a positive image for female empowerment and still wear sky high heels and red lipstick everyday? If I spend half an hour getting ready and then turn around and tell her that beauty isn’t everything and it’s more important to be smart, am I sending a conflicting message?
A few months ago, my girlfriend, who has a daughter the same age as mine, and I caved and allowed the girls to watch some Barbie movies. At first they seemed totally benign, but over the course of a few weeks we both started to notice things. Yucky things, things you don’t want to see in your daughter and would never expect from a 4-year-old. Suddenly my sweet, fiery girl was putting her hands on her hips, giving me sassy talk back, infusing every sentence with a string of “likes” and dismissing me with “whatevers”. Worst of all, one morning she lectured me on why blonde hair was better than brown. You see where this all was going. She was sort of being a nightmare, sort of smacking of a mean girl. So my friend and I pow-wowed and decided to toss the Barbie DVDs and put a ban on the whole blond boobified beeswax. We independently sat our girls down and talked to them about why we didn’t want them to watch the Barbie movies anymore. I was expecting a temper tantrum of the highest order but shockingly, she accepted it all. Now it’s been a few months and we have tons of interesting conversations about what is appropriate for girls her age. Why all hair colors, skin colors, bodies are great. What are good things for girls and what teaches them bad things. She still begs for the big B, but usually ends the sentence with “but my mommy doesn’t like Barbie so I know I can’t watch it”. It’s been kind of amazing!
A turning point for me was a conversation we had in the in the bathroom as I was getting ready to go out. She looked at herself in the mirror and said, “I’m not pretty.” In my rush to get out the door I replied, “Of course you are and being pretty isn’t as important as being smart.” She looked at me and said, “But you care about being pretty. You are happy when people tell you look pretty.” UGH, that was a punch in the gut. It floored me. She was right. I’m really vain. I love a good compliment. I spend a lot of time thinking about an outfit, my make-up, my hair. AHHHH! What do I say? What do I do? Where is my wise, old, good parenting fairy when I need her? I don’t have the great answer yet. This is something I’m deeply struggling with. It struck me then that it won’t work to be anyone but myself as a mom. When I think of myself I know that I am a feminist, I know that I am smart, strong, empowered… but it took me a long time to get there. I want to accelerate this self-confidence in my daughter. I don’t want her to struggle with identity and sense of self as long as I did. But perhaps that is part of growing up. I certainly can’t fight these battles for her, but I can pave the way and be the best mentor and role model that I can be.
I just watched the Gloria Steinem documentary on HBO. In it she said, “I distanced myself from my mother for the fear of becoming her.” I worry and worry about this. On some level we all can relate to this. The bottom line seems to be that while our moms are our biggest female role models, we also have to reject and examine certain parts about them in order to become our own true selves. Also, each generation of women faces new and different challenges. Our mothers were the first generation of the feminist movement. They didn’t have the choices we have or the community we have in each other now. People were only beginning to talk about feminism, women and work, women and motherhood, and many women had to give up their passions, goals, life’s dream in order to stay home with their kids.
We’ve all heard and seen examples of mothers who gave up too much, fell into depression, resented the role of only being a mother, etc. I think about this and how lucky I am to have so many more choices. How lucky I am to be alive at a time in history where men are expected to parent as much as women. How lucky I am to be married to a partner who is an amazing father and shares responsibilities with me 100%. How lucky I am that the notion that women have to be the same as men to be equal to them has virtually disappeared. How lucky I am to know that it’s OK to be smart and girly and vulnerable. This all comes back to raising a daughter for me.
The one thing I do know is that the greatest gift I can give my daughter is for me to be happy, fulfilled, satisfied both as an artist and a mother. This also means being myself 100%. Being “me” means dressing up in my wacky costumes, primping and pruning, but doing it because it is the truest representation of who I am. If I am living my life truly and passionately, I know that she will absorb all these aspects of me as a woman, not just the pretty, fluffy, sparkly bits. I suppose I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest gift of empowerment I can give my daughter is an example of a happy, loving and fulfilled life. That is my hope, anyhow. I’d love to hear all your thoughts on this as I muddle through!
Photo Credit: Jesse Peretz