Well before I ever knew I was going to be a mother of daughters, I promised myself that I would teach my daughters to be feminists. I would be the type of mother who would tell them they could be the next Madeline Albright or Eleanor Roosevelt or anything they wanted to be. The most important thing being, that they were fully themselves, without inhibitions or worry about being objectified or less than because of their gender. I wanted to model for them and teach them that they could do any job, including one that typically was held by men.
Before I became a mother, I had a list of Do’s and Don’ts for raising a strong, smart daughter.
Don’t buy Barbies, or Brat Dolls, or any other “sexy doll.”
Do read Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, and A is for Abigail.
Don’t buy bikinis until they are 25.
Do buy Legos and other toys typically designed for boys.
Don’t paint the baby’s room pink, or put her in a lot of pink clothing. – Keep it gender neutral.
Make sure she takes a self defense class, so she can protect herself.
No make-up until, like, forever.
I look at these rules I made up back then, now, almost sixteen years later with two adolescent daughters and I realize that some of them were silly and some of them were pretty good pieces of advice. Some of the rules stuck and some of the rules fell by the way side.
Today, in light of the #MeToo movement, and recalling my own stories of sexual harassment, I realize that all of these rules I made up were to protect them from having a #MeToo moment. I thought, maybe I could shield them, and make them so confident and secure that they wouldn’t have to experience the things I did.
If we are going to continue this conversation on sexual harassment and the objectification of women, we need to start with conversations with our boys and girls. I didn’t realize until now, that for me, the fall of my innocence from childhood to adulthood came about when boys started making comments about my body. When I was a girl, I was just a kid, just another kid on the block. All of the kids around my house were boys and we all played Star Wars and Army and football. I would run and build forts and play. It was fun.
And then junior high happened.
And everything changed.
I wanted to be one of two things when I was 14 years old, either a famous ballerina or an actress. I wasn’t picky. I would lie in my bed at night and dream about being on stage. In my dreams, I was amazing. I was also tall and thin and stunning. This why you call them “dreams.”
One summer day, I was walking to theater practice across the junior high foot ball field. There were a group of boys standing in the door way of the school and they saw me walking. They shouted out, “Look at that bitch, with the big butt and no tits.”
At that moment, I prayed that the football field would swallow me up and I would be invisible forever. I was exposed. Right there, in the middle of the football field, with no other person that maybe they were talking about, or referring to. Me. And my body.
I walked to the theater and got on stage and all I could think about in my 14 year old brain, was that sentence and the terrible, shaming truth that it held.
It was at that moment that my innocence, my childhood ended. – I was now a woman and an object to be looked at.
It took a long time to get over that mortifying moment. I never told anyone. Even writing those words almost 30 years later makes me feel vulnerable.
Of course, I wouldn’t even count that moment as my #metoo experience. All of those experiences happened in college and grad school. Each time something happened, rather direct, or overt I tried to counter that experience by protecting myself. I think even becoming a pastor and wearing a long black robe on Sunday mornings is a way of me saying to the world, “Do not look at me!”
Today I am a mother of teenage daughters. I would just like to say for the record, for any parents of teenagers that I counselled back in the day when I wasn’t a mother of teenage daughters, I apologize. Clearly I was clueless and had no idea what I was talking about. – Because being a mother of a teenager is way worse than being a teenager.
You walk up the stairs, and they know you are coming, and they shut the door before you reach their room. Nice. You give them space and then they get angry because you don’t notice their hair. Whatever. You ask them to empty the dishwasher and they roll their eyes and then ask to buy something on Amazon. Are you serious?!
And then you realize that all of your stupid baggage from being 14 is still with you. The friend that abandoned. The boy that broke up. The pressure to succeed. The desire to fit in. And you know, logically, that your life is not their life and you know you have to let them go and fail and succeed on their own accord, but you also know what is coming and you realize you can’t protect them. And then it happens, and you watch your daughter have her fall from innocence.
My daughter had an experience in PE this past semester. Boys were talking about her body and saying inappropriate things. It seems like the comments have stopped out there in the junior high world, but they have not stopped in her head. I watch her move from an innocent little girl, who loved to play and create and imagine, to a self conscience, body aware, teenager. I watch that teenager brain getting it’s exercise as it grows inside her and she feels feelings of anger and strives for self determination. I see her want to stay true to herself and want to fit in at the same time. I see her want to be hugged and left alone at the same time. I see her face the world of social media, and I realize I am parenting in real time, without any prior experience to fall back on. I see her struggle, and I realize I could have probably painted her room pink.
I wonder how we can change the script of coming of age in overly crass society, where boys and girls are exposed to far more sexually explicit activities than I was at their age? Does the fall of innocence and the rise to adulthood, always have to include a moment of shame?
Maybe it does. It may be impossible to get through the first 20 years of your life without someone objectifying you in someway. There is something to be said for learning resiliency and overcoming adversity.
But I hope and pray this movement changes things for our kids. I hope my girls don’t have experiences like I did and I hope my son never finds himself in a situation where he thinks he can talk about a girl’s body like it’s a piece of merchandise.
I don’t have any answers, but parents, I’m with you, man. This is hard. Really, really hard. I don’t have any great perils of wisdom to wrap this up. I am too much in the thick of it myself, to see outside and tell you that everything is going to be alright and that they will get through it and not hate themselves or you. I think the only thing we can do is remind them of the same thing we told them when they were four years old and screamed on the floor, just because their little brains were growing, just as they are now. And that is, “You are safe. You are loved. You are not alone.”
I also find that wine, coffee and chocolate helps.