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Sugar & Spice
Why I don’t just want to raise a daughter to be everything nice. By Hilary Masell Oswald
I’m waiting for the guy at the Whole Foods fish counter to finish scooping up shrimp for a woman with twin girls who look to be about eight years old. I’m daydreaming, absently watching her kids play in the simple ways children have of entertaining themselves in otherwise boring situations, when she catches my eye and smiles. I smile back.
Nodding at my protruding belly, she asks, “When are you due?”
“Is this your first?”
“Do you know what you’re having?”
It begins. Again. I brace myself.
“Girls are tough,” she whispers loudly and raises an eyebrow, like she’s letting me in on a real conspiracy, ushering me into a club of condemned parents. “They’re just so much more complicated than boys.”
I shrug and hear myself fake a chuckle. “Well, we can’t return her now.” That’s awful. I cringe and try again, “We’re just hoping for a healthy baby?” I wonder why that sounds like a question. The woman nods as if she knew I would say that. She saunters by me and pats my back. “Good luck!”
I could ignore her, except she’s not the first to offer her perspective on daughter rearing. Over the past four months, no fewer than a dozen people—men and women—have said things that make me feel like I have won the baby-growing consolation prize:
“Well, just remember: She’ll hate you from the time she’s 13 until she’s 21.” (Great. Something else to worry about when I’m wide-awake at 3 a.m.)
“Oh, good! Girls have the cutest clothes.” (I suggested we just get a doll, but my husband wanted a real human being.)
“What does your husband say?” (About what?)
They tell me that girls are emotionally wild and exhausting, too needy or too aloof. They assume my husband would like a boy someday and suggest we could try again, as if we had failed to get it right the first time. In every single instance, I reply politely. I smile and nod, shrug and grin. I’m a first-time mom. What do I know? Maybe I am gestating the next Lindsay Lohan.
Later, as I lie on the couch trying to decide if my ankles are swollen or just, you know, muscular, I think about these conversations. Denver’s typically easygoing personality, its live-and-let-live mentality, makes these conversations especially puzzling. We live in a land where pot is legal and where the guy in charge is a geologist turned brewpub owner turned politician. Within the first few weeks I lived here, I witnessed an especially prickly political conversation that ended when one guy simply said to the other, “Want to go for a bike ride?”
So in this place where people impugn almost nothing—except a full-price lift ticket—why do some of us feel so comfortable making rash indictments of women? I lug this question with me for weeks, foisting it on whoever will listen. I’m obsessed. My husband hugs me, assures me he is thrilled with a daughter. My mom-friends wave their hands in dismissal, pointing out that people say crazy things to pregnant women. (True.) Everyone tells me when the baby is born, I’ll forget all about it. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to forget. These conversations have awakened something inside me that is both disorienting and powerful, even if I can’t articulate what it is.
One night weeks later, as I’m watching my husband assemble the crib, I dredge up the topic again: “What is it about girls that makes people say such things? And without a hint of hesitation?” I ask. My husband is quiet for a minute. “I don’t know,” he says gently. “But the biggest mystery for me is why you let them get away with it. You’re not exactly shy.” He is a master of euphemism.
His words are a swift kick to my psyche. He’s right: I’m a journalist. I talk to people for a living. I ask them questions their own mothers wouldn’t ask. I think back to grad school in Chicago, where I wrote about the federal court for a news service. Many days I ran through the courthouse, chasing down defense attorneys representing city officials who had been accused of fraud and racketeering. Once I even followed a lawyer into a cab, desperate for a quote. (I got it.) So he’s right: I’m not timid, and more to the point, I think of myself as confident, with enough chutzpah to speak up in the face of injustice or just plain ridiculousness.
It’s only then I realize the question I should have been asking is much more personal: Why didn’t I stand up for my daughter? For myself? For the women I know and love? I wonder what kept me from rolling my eyes, sighing loudly, and saying, “You’ve clearly been watching too much Mad Men.”
The truth is, I didn’t want to be rude. By being polite and demure, I was saying, “No, look! You’re wrong! We’re lovely, we girls.” Somewhere in my definition of womanhood is a code of manners and a desire for approval, a wish never to be out of bounds. Internally, I want to indict these people as small-minded bigots, and yet I’m clearly guilty of the same thoughts: Girls should be pleasant. Girls should be polite. Girls should be sweet. And above all else, girls ought to be nice, right?
The problem is our collective definition of nice: When it comes to girls and women, nice too often means timid, soft-spoken, discreet, overly courteous, reticent, and pleasing. We expect—and teach—our mothers, sisters, and daughters to be completely unobjectionable to others, so we grow up believing that being liked is the ultimate triumph. In short, being nice has long meant being a doormat.
My thoughts shift. I begin to worry less about stretch marks and whether or not I should’ve registered for a wipe warmer. Instead, I start imagining my daughter not as a baby, but as a girl who will grow into a woman. And I begin to think about what I want her to know about being a part of the “nicer” sex—namely, that she does not have to be so darn nice.
I do not pretend to know exactly how I will teach my daughter all I believe she needs to know to be a woman who is both bold and tender, fierce and gentle. But I think it begins with me remembering that I will be the first woman she knows and the most important teacher she’ll have. What do I wish for her to learn from me?
My hopes come pouring out.
I want her to be unflinchingly compassionate, even if that means she must endure the sting of being disliked. As a child, I want her to insist on fairness on the playground and tenderness for the awkward kid in fourth grade who smells a little like kitty litter. Do you remember him? I do, and to this day I wish I had shared my lunch with him or invited him to my birthday party. By the time she’s an adult, I want her to have learned that sometimes sacrificing social standing or turning down a promotion or taking an unpopular stance is worth it for the earnest pursuit of maintaining one’s integrity.
I want her to take risks, some of which may require a level of audacity that will not fit into anyone’s definition of genteel. For a lot of my life, I’ve been too enchanted by the warm-fuzzy of an accolade—and so I’ve stuck to the things I know I do well. But many of my life’s greatest joys have come from my boldest decisions, from the times I pushed away the comforts of something familiar, told my naysayers to bugger off, and jumped (OK, sometimes I tiptoed) into a realm that felt foreign and scary. I don’t want her to be able to count those times on one hand. If she asks what I think about doing something seemingly crazy (not hitch-hiking-to-Vegas crazy, of course), I’m determined to give her the liberty to be daring.
I want her to recognize beauty in herself, especially because girls don’t often hear that boldness and honesty are all that attractive in women. I hope she identifies the futile pursuit of prettiness, with its convoluted rules and layers of lipgloss, as a waste of time and instead feels beautiful because she’s pursuing life on her terms. And maybe giving her the knowledge that beauty is not something elusive, owned exclusively by a few genetically gifted women, will mean she’ll be able to be nicer to herself; that she’ll be able to hush the dogged voice that’s inside each of us and is so adept at reducing our marvelous bodies to a collection of flaws. And yes, I’ll tell her she’s beautiful. Because she will be.
I want her to acknowledge and verbalize her feelings, even if she thinks they might rankle someone else. When someone in her life rolls his eyes at her fervor or belittles her heartbreak or tramples on her ideas, I don’t want her to close her eyes and shut her mouth. I’ve swallowed hurt or pretended I’m not disappointed because of the nagging ache not to burden or confront others. Perhaps telling her about my sadness or frustration on occasion will help her see that girls don’t always have to be happy or satisfied (or pretend to be). And may she read this essay in 13 years and be perplexed about why her mom would’ve ever bothered to please an offensive lady at a fish counter.
There’s more, of course. I want her to feel free to be silly and messy and rowdy and loud if she wants to be. I want her to be able to solve her own problems, even when I could fix them easily. Most of all, I want her to know that she’s never too difficult or too complicated to be loved.
So those strangers were right: Raising a daughter is challenging, but not for the reasons they think. Being my daughter’s mom is hard work because by her existence, she begs me to be bolder and more thoughtful about my life and hers. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the niceness in the world.