The Common Good

How Not to Raise a Daughter

The author's daughter. Photo by Brandon Hook
The author's daughter. Photo by Brandon Hook

I became a mom for the first time in November. Insert here all of the cliché observances about life-changing experiences and never knowing love before and having a better understanding of God and whatnot. Of course, they’re all true, but so are most clichés.

There are also things no one tells you, instead using above clichés to paper over the less desirable realities of parenthood. No one told me about that feeling — the feeling that the word “overwhelming” doesn’t even begin to describe. No one told me that feeling that makes you weep inconsolably and go off the rails at the thought of leaving the house is actually what it means to love your child. That size of love is truly overwhelming.

While I was pregnant, I tried really hard to avoid all of the parenting books — how to raise well-behaved children, the countless “methods” for getting your child to sleep, how to master breastfeeding (“the most natural thing in the world!” ugh, wrong) — in favor of being a “go-with-the-flow” type parent. In fact, the only book I really read and still lives in a stack by my nightstand is The Sh!t No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby’s First Year.

And being the future mother of a girl, I had grand ideas about “protecting” her from human-made gender norms. I ordered the “Forget Princess; Call Me President” onesie. I shunned head-to-toe pink (for about a week). I created a collage wall in her nursery of black-and-white photos of all of the badass women in her family she has to look up to.

And then this week I caught myself doing something that has the potential to harm my daughter more than being drenched in pink and purple for the next 18 years ever could.

On Mondays, my husband takes the wee one to work with him and usually brings her by my office sometime in the afternoon for a visit and a meal. ( Side note: I realize how privileged I am for at least three huge benefits apparent in the previous sentence.)

This particular Monday, I grabbed my daughter and propped her up on my lap in my office chair for her usual feeding. At a little over 3 months old, she has started using her hands and arms with more control, and, heart-meltingly so, now grabs onto my arm, thumb, clavicle, whatever she can get a hold of. This time, it was my waist. Now, having given birth three months ago, my immediate and unconscious reaction to anyone getting near my mushy middle is to quickly straighten up and suck it in, pretending that extra bit of skin, beautifully referred to as a “muffin top,” does not exist.

That is how not to raise a daughter.

It took me a split second to catch myself, look down at chubby cheeks in my lap, and let out a heavy sigh, hoping that she never has to feel her mom jump like that again as she grasps for what can only come from the touch and smell of the woman who birthed her.

She didn’t know me those extra pounds ago. She only knows mom as the arms that hold her at 3 a.m., the chest she snuggles in trying to get to sleep, the voice that greets her with good morning songs, and, maybe, the slight muffin top that she can grab onto while she eats — happy to have my warmth after a morning of bottles from dad.

I want my daughter to know she isn’t limited by anything, least of all her gender. Give her a strong name. Show her what it means to follow your passion. Provide an example of a woman in the workforce. Surround her with other strong and loving women. Love her father and show her what a healthy marriage looks like. Teach empathy, justice, love.

And somehow amid all of that planning, unconscious self-consciousness crept in.

It’s human; well, it’s woman. But it shouldn’t be. And my prayer is that it won’t be for her.

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor and Director of Online Media for Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi.

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