As a mom of three boys, I’m often asked if I ever wanted to have a girl. I’m never sure what to answer. If I say yes, it feels like I’m somehow not happy with the kids I have. If I say no, I’d be lying a little. Part of me has always wondered what it would be like to have a girl.
Other times, when I tell people I have three boys, I get the vague sense that they pity me a bit. As if my life isn’t quite complete if I don’t have a daughter, a little girl whose pigtails I can braid. Perhaps to make me feel better, other people have said things like, “Well, at least you don’t have three girls—girls are trouble!” and “Well, they say there’s a special place in heaven for moms of boys!” (Really?) Our next-door neighbors also have three boys, though theirs have graduated and grown, their parents now empty-nesters. Linda, the mom, once told me that the good thing about boys is that they always love their mamas. I always wonder, do girls not love their mamas, too?
Maybe it’s the nature of mother-daughter relationships that explains these reactions. I may not have a daughter, but I understand the intensity—the love-hate relationship—between mothers and daughters. Just the other day, I was conferring with a student who had written about her relationship with her own mother, and I knew she understood that intensity, too. In fact, over the years, I’ve read many such essays. It’s like all daughters belong to the same club. Our mothers know us in ways that no one else can, and maybe it’s this knowledge—this knowing-in-the-bones what it means to be a girl, to be a woman—that ultimately divides us. We want to be ourselves, separate and untouched by our mothers’ influence, but we also know-in-our-bones how much our mothers do know us, even as we accuse them of not understanding us at all.
So maybe I am missing something in not having a daughter. I can’t be sure. But if I did, I know that there would be things I’d tell her that I wouldn’t necessarily tell my boys, or at least not in the same way.
I’d tell her how she needs to be strong and brave, but also careful and vigilant. I’d tell her all the things that my own mother told me—that she needs to be independent and work hard and never depend on a man (or anyone else) to take care of her. I’d tell her that her schooling should come first, that being popular is temporary but being generous and kind and loving are eternal. I’d tell her that she should never doubt her self-worth, because there’s nothing—no clique, no cause, no relationship—that’s worth compromising her integrity. I’d remind her, in Anna Quindlen’s words, to put down the burden of the world’s expectations: “Imitation is redundant. Yourself is what’s wanted.”
It’s not that I wouldn’t tell my boys all of these things—I would, and I have. But as many women know, it’s still very much a man’s world, and she and her girlfriends need to understand what that means even at the same time they work to change it.
So I’d also tell her to be careful who she trusts—to love generously but to protect herself from those who would mistake that generosity for weakness. I’d tell her that I remember what it was like to be young and foolish and insecure and afraid. And that because I remember, I can be there for her to listen but not judge, to understand but not fix. I’d give her “the talk” that I think all mothers must give their daughters: I’d tell her to watch her back when she turns corners, to look over her shoulder in dark parking lots, to steel herself against those who would do her harm. I’d tell her that she should never be made to feel like she asked for anything she didn’t want, that the word no is as powerful as the word yes. I’d tell her to walk always with a friend, to have a Plan B, C, D, and E—and that I want to be part of one of those plans.
I’d tell her all these things—if I had a daughter.
But I don’t have a daughter. And because I don’t, I’ll tell my boys. And I’ll tell them these things not just for themselves, but for and on behalf of the women they may come to know, befriend, and love. I’ll raise them to be feminists, because as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, we should all be feminists. I’ll point out—as I already have—how power and privilege have given them advantages and others, disadvantages. I’ll insist that if you’re not challenging the system, you’re perpetuating it—that real power is shared power. I’ll urge them to ignore voices that stifle, the voices that tell them what it means to be a man because being a real man means being yourself—that “Imitation is redundant. Yourself is what’s wanted.”
And I’ll tell them these things because they need to understand what it means to live responsibly in what’s still very much a man’s world—so that they can work to change it.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.