I once had a plan for how I’d raise my daughters. “I’ll raise them as feminists!” I remember thinking in the first women’s studies class I took in college. And then when I learned my first child would be a girl, I got more specific. I said I’d shun Barbie dolls, princess propaganda and pink and all other societally promoted “feminine” signifiers of “womanhood.” I thought this would be easy because, well, why wouldn’t it?
But anything involving actual humans is not easy. So when I gave birth to humans, things changed. I changed.
I took note of my own evolution as I stood in line at a Disney Store two summers ago. Wrapped on my arms were masses of tulle and sparkles — princess dresses — that the store lady said were on sale for $15. As I stood there, sparkles dripping on my navy shoes, I reminded myself why I was doing this: for my daughters, of course. But more than wanting to make them happy, I realized then that that moment was significant for other reasons. It was my most difficult parenting feat yet — accepting them for who they are even if who they are aches my ego. In doing this, I hoped they would learn to do the same, or accept themselves, be themselves and trust that that is enough.
This whole thing of being and trusting yourself feels so feminist-like. But I don’t remember learning about it in college or in life in general. I never really learned to trust myself. Instead of trusting myself, I think I did everything else. Rather than doing what I really wanted, I did all the things I thought were right and good because they sounded right and good theoretically.
In high school, for instance, what was right and good was dressing like a serious woman even though I was a teenager. So I shopped this smelly thrift store near my house and my mom’s closet for clothes like that — turtleneck sweaters, big-shouldered blazers and, regrettably, these pants I would only call “slacks.” I really wanted to wear bubblegum baby tees and tie-dyed stretch jeans. But I didn’t because I thought that wasn’t serious-looking enough. Now, before I go any further with this story, I want to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with being a teenager and aspiring to look serious via women’s business attire. But there is something wrong when you’re me and think you have to wear those things to seem one way not only to society but also to yourself.
I didn’t know it at first. But I realized over time that I was raising my daughters to be like that. I was raising them to completely ignore what they liked — all the frilly, girlie, “potentially damaging” stuff — and do something else. And that “something else,” inevitably, were all the things I thought I read in studies and did (unhappily) myself.
But when does restricting something completely and expecting healthy attitudes toward that thing ever work?
So eventually, instead of trying to ban the beast of pink and fluff that was metaphorically camping out at our doorstep, and as most experts now recommend, I allowed some of it in (those Disney dresses), gave critical context, provided alternatives and tried to — and eventually did — just relax.
More than getting my daughters to be a version of the girl I think they should be, I’d rather they just be themselves. I stopped wearing my self-important clothing around that time. I started doing this because by relaxing about them, I learned to relax about myself.
Doing what’s right to you, I’ve learned in raising my daughters, is not always what everyone else may think is right. Sometimes it means being different or standing out, and often it’s hard. Sometimes what’s right to you won’t fit into a box you likely have in your head about how you should be. But it’s the right thing to do.
Two years since that day in the Disney Store, and through mostly no intentional credit of my own, my oldest daughter’s favorite color is no longer pink. It’s blue. And princess books are no longer what she checks out at the library. She’s into dinosaurs and action heroes because, in her words, “They’re cool.” And my 4-year-old no longer has plans to become a fairy, princess, butterfly when she grows up. For now she aspires to the very noble job of becoming “the one who wears the mouse costume at Chuck E. Cheese.” And my 2-year-old has just followed suit because, well, she’s 2.
All the things that once kept me up at night worried and feeling like I’d failed as a feminist mother no longer worry me. My daughters have changed, but really, mostly, I’ve changed. They are still themselves, and when I’m not thinking too much about it, so am I.