I was a bundle of nerves entering the hospital in the pre-dawn dark with my husband by my side. I physically trembled because I knew that birth would change me. But what I didn't know — what I couldn't know — was just how much it would change me. Three years later, I have this delightful and oh-so-strong-willed girl bounding around our home. She's zesty and caring and beyond what I could have imagined. My suspicions on her birthday were correct: I had no idea what I was in for. Being a mom to my daughter — this unique little dynamo — has transformed me from the inside out. She inspires me to be more caring, more patient, and more of a feminist. Has raising a daughter done this to you? Read on to discover some ways she's shaped me — and ways I'm hoping to encourage her in return.
-Invest in a healthy lifestyle. Not to lose weight or look a certain way. I once heard that focus on dieting prevents women from attending to more important things. Isn't that the truth? I have never felt my life enriched by diving into a diet or attempting to significantly alter my natural size. While I think investing in health to promote quality of life is spectacular, I'm trying to reprogram my brain to be more positive about food and body issues and less legalistic and punitive. As a woman with a healthy BMI, I have a twisted history with dieting, disordered eating, and over-exercising. I'm now trying to focus on health to feel better and to care for myself the way I would care for a loved one. The way I would want my daughter to care for herself. I hope that modeling this radical type of self-care will set her on a more body-positive course.
-Respond to her ideas and interests before the way she looks. I once read a stellar article that asserted most of us don't know how to initially engage with young girls beyond addressing their looks. As a former preschool teacher, I experienced this firsthand, as it came naturally to chat with girls about their bows and glittery shoes. However, pointing first to appearances illustrates that this is the most important part of a person. No one (I hope) would say the most important part of being female is maintaing an appearance. I try to be enthusiastic about my daughter's many ideas and interests, because she has plenty of them! She hears from many strangers that she's super cute, so she can hear from us that's she's first and foremost a wonderful person.
-Let her challenge the norm (and learn to challenge the norm myself). My daughter recently cried when I refused to shave her legs. After the tears were dried, she wanted to know why some people shave. The truth is, I don't want my daughter to think people need to shave. This should be a matter of personal preference, and I don't believe women or people in general should be judged by their adherence to societal norms. Isn't being kind and courageous more important than shaved legs or armpits? Shouldn't we, as a culture, praise bravery or perseverance more than coiffed hair and a face full of makeup? Even if our society praises meeting cultural expectations, maybe I can, in small ways, demonstrate passion for character over exterior. I want it to start with me. Maybe my daughter will be encouraged to see the value of her character above her looks too.
-Accept her interests as they are, not what they are expected to be. My daughter likes pretending to discover dinosaur bones and learning how things function. She also likes to soothe her babies and dance. There's no right or wrong way to be a little human — or a little girl. Well-meaning adults (myself included) can praise certain activities and interests for girls and boys over others. We want girls who do ballet but not martial arts. Boys who play sports. But why? I don't want her to think she needs to be a paleontologist or that I will be disappointed if she decides to stay at home with her child (as I have). Whatever she does or doesn't do, I want her to know that I am for her and will be her advocate regardless of her pursuits. I hope that in being 100% for her, she will be the most free to plan her future unhindered.
-Label with care. Dramatic. Sensitive. These are labels that have clung to me my whole life. But I likely heard these because I was a girl with a lot of ideas and passion. The power of words is lasting. Let's make them positive ones! I try to be careful to describe and respond to her as a person first, not as a female. No one wants to be pegged or perceived negatively when they are just learning to be themselves. We all want people to see and call out the best in us. As I rediscover my own personality, I hope she'll grow to value herself and others for who they are.
Above all, I don't believe feminism needs to be a narrow issue. It's a loaded term, and for many it has some very specific associations. To me, feminism is a passionate belief in equality and value of all people. It's a view of people first as people and not as defined by gender identity. No matter the sex or gender of your child, you can raise them to be people-positive. The day I entered the hospital and received a baby on my chest was the most transformative event of my life. Every day with this bold girl encourages and changes me, and I hope to encourage her to be her true self. I hope she knows she is already lovely and lovable. Strong and capable. She doesn't need to shave, conform, or diminish to be acceptable. She already is.