Friday, February 28, 2014

Raising a Feminist

Katie was lying in bed next to me, talking. I was still half-asleep, so I didn't quite catch all she was saying. Something about a monochord or something, and Grandma Carleton, and how excited she was for Grandma to teach her how to play it.

"Do you mean an autoharp?" I asked, my brain still fuzzy. I know Grandma was recently teaching Katie's cousins how to play the autoharp, so that made sense to me. I had never heard of a monochord, but then again I'm not musical and I was still half-asleep, so who knows.

"No, it's another instrument that has blahblahblahblahblahblahblah," Katie explained. My half-awake side was only able to stay focused long enough for the first part of the sentence before my half-asleep side took over again.

"Mom!" Katie said.

"Huh?" I opened my eyes again. "What?"

"Did you hear what I said?" Katie asked, loudly. One of these days I need to teach this kid how to make coffee so when she's fully awake like this I can tell her to scram and go put the coffee on for her old mom.

"Probably not, Hon, I'm trying to sleep," I said.

"It's almost time to get up. The alarm will go off in seven minutes," Katie said, looking over my shoulder at the clock.

"So let me have seven more minutes to sleep," I mumbled.

"OK," Katie sighed.

"If you're so awake, why don't you get up and start getting ready for school?" I asked.

"No, I wanna talk to you, Mom," Katie rolled over to her side, facing me, and draped her arm over my waist, lightly tracing my back with her fingers.

That woke me up. How could I pass up such sweetness? The tender moments are growing rarer with each passing day. Fewer kisses. ("Mom, you were just gone from the living room for two minutes. You don't have to kiss me every time you pass by me!") Fewer snuggles on my lap as soon as she gets home from school. ("OK, but just for a minute. I want to play video games.") She no longer holds my hand as we're walking home from school together. ("I'm not a baby, Mom!") I have to soak up every opportunity for coddling that my pre-tween allows.

Something happened last month when Katie turned 7 1/2. That extra half has made her more sassy and independent, less dependent on our constant care. Which is normal, I know. It's good. It means we're all doing a good job--Will, Katie, and me. Kids are supposed to grow up. It's just hard. Childhood seems to last so long when you're the child, but when you're the parent, you blink and they're leaving for college.

"OK, talk to me," I said, rubbing the sleep crud out of my eyes.

"I said I think Grandma likes it when I come over there so we can do girly stuff," Katie said.

Katie has been fascinated with gender roles since she began kindergarten and realized not everyone in the world is so fanatically gender-neutral as her parents. Will and I have made an effort to correct her whenever she repeats the sexist things she hears out in the real world:

Katie: "Pink is a girl color."
Will: "Colors are not assigned a gender. Colors are inanimate objects. They don't get to be boys or girls."
Katie: "But usually just girls like pink."
Me: "I don't really like pink that much. I mean, I like all colors to some degree, but pink is far from my favorite color."
Will: "I like pink. I've got lots of pink on most of my tie-dyes."
Katie: "But most of the kids at school say pink is a girl color."
Becky: "Well, I guess they just haven't learned yet that anybody can like pink. You don't have to believe everything everyone says. Sometimes people are wrong."
Katie: "Well, what if you're wrong?"
Me: "Good job, kiddo! I think you've got it."

She didn't really get it back when she was five. We had to have the conversations over and over. But now that she's seven--seven-and-a-half! she would correct me, sternly--she's been fully indoctrinated by Will's and my "think-for-yourself" propaganda. Which is a really tricky thing to learn. My parents are telling me to think for myself, that sometimes people are wrong, but maybe they're wrong, so now what do I do?

I hope our parenting doesn't throw our child into existential crisis, but instead, keeps her mind-wheels nicely greased and churning.

So far it seems to be. We talk about gender issues all the time, and we use terms such as "girly," understanding what the word means (usually pink or pastel, frilly, glittery, beautiful, feathery, clean...) without necessarily agreeing with those connotations of the word.

So when Katie said to my slowly-waking-up self that she thinks Grandma likes to do girly stuff with her, I didn't bother her with a lecture.

"Yeah, Grandma loves to spend time with you. You're her first granddaughter. She never had any daughters, just daddy and his brother. So you're someone special to her. Finally, a GIRL, she must have thought," I said. Katie laughed and shrugged her shoulders shyly like she'd never before thought of that honor.

"You know, Grandma had a girl's name all picked out and ready for daddy before he was even born. I think she was secretly hoping for a girl since she'd already had a boy," I smiled.

"What was Daddy's name if he was a girl baby instead of a boy?" Katie asked, her eyes bright and big like this was VERY interesting news.

"Celeste," I said.

"Celeste," Katie repeated.

"Which is funny because it sounds like celestial and when I was pregnant with you I wanted to name you Stella, which is like the stars," I said.

"I know. And Daddy said no, but you both liked the name Katherine," Katie beamed as she finished my story, like she was proud of herself for remembering this bit of her pre-birth history.

"And we wanted to just call you Kate, because it sounds presidential--Kate Carleton--don't you just want to vote for her?" I said.

"Yeah," Katie said, dreamily, like she was picturing herself sitting behind that big desk in the oval office.

"But then you had to go and get your own opinion on the matter when you turned four and asked if we'd instead call you Katie," I said with mock-annoyance in my voice as I smiled.

"Yeah, I like to be Katie," she said.

"I'm glad you like your name, Punk," I said.

"My name is not Punk," Katie said with mock-annoyance in her voice.

"It is too. It's what I've called you since you were a little four-month old baby dressed up in a pumpkin Halloween costume. Daddy said, our little punkin and from there it evolved into Punk," I explained.

Katie smiled for a minute, and then she asked, "Mom, what was your name if you were a boy?"

"Wesley Glen," I said. I remember asking my mom what she was going to name me if I had been a boy, right about when I was Katie's age, it must be a thing kids do.

At that time, Mom said, "Wesley Glen. Wesley because I liked the name and Glen after your father. Your father cried when I told him you were a girl. He wanted a son to carry on his name."

"Wesley Glen?" Katie brought me back to my present mind. She said it like this was the weirdest name she'd ever heard.

"Yeah." I joked, "Good thing I was born a girl, right?"

"Yeah," Katie giggled.

Without thinking, I blurted out, "My dad sure didn't think so. He cried when he heard I wasn't a boy."

Katie grew silent. I looked over at her and she had tears in her eyes.

"Oh, it's OK, Punk. I've known this for a long time. It doesn't hurt my feelings as much anymore. I forget sometimes that you don't know everything about me already," I smiled, wishing I hadn't brought it up. Katie is so sensitive to other people's pain. I don't want my pain to rub off on her.

Katie's still too young to take in too many stories of my childhood trauma. I won't keep it a secret her whole life, but I try not to burden her too soon with sad stories of my young life. I'll tell her more when she's older and can understand that it's possible to think Grandpa Glen was sometimes a jerk to Mommy, but sometimes he wasn't, and he's her daddy and she doesn't like him very much, but sometimes she does, and no matter what, she always loves him. That's too much to take in when you're only seven. Correction: Seven-and-a-half!

"Why did your daddy cry when you weren't a boy?" Katie asked, biting her lip.

"Oh, I don't know, Punk. People were different back then. My dad grew up in an era when fathers were sometimes more proud to have a son than a daughter," I tried to play it off like it was history. I didn't mention that people across the world sometimes abort their fetuses due to their genitals alone.

"Why did fathers want a son and not a daughter?" Katie's eyes were big. This was all news to her.

"Not all fathers. Some fathers loved their daughters. My mom's dad adored her and took really good care of her," I reasoned.

"What's adore?" Katie asked.

She's too young for this conversation, I worried. "Adored is like love to the ultimate. Like you're goo-goo ga-ga over someone. Like they can do no wrong and you'll always love them no matter what," I explained.

"Ooooh. Like how Daddy adores me?" Katie said.

"Yes!" I was so happy to hear she thinks so, because it's true. I started to get out of bed, ready to end this conversation and start the day.

"But why didn't your father adore you?" Katie asked, her brows furrowed.

"Oh. I dunno. My dad had a hard life before I was born. He never had any sons." I didn't tell her that my dad and his first wife had but one daughter because of the difference in the RH factor of their blood. It caused them to have two stillbirths--one of them a boy--and one baby who died a few days after she was born. I'll tell her this some day, but I'm not ready to talk to my baby about dead babies and how uncontrollably sad the world can be sometimes.

"He wanted a son," I continued. "To carry on his name or some such shit. People are weird. I long ago accepted that I will never be my father's ideal child."

"What's ideal," Katie asked.

"Oh. Perfect. Fantasy. What you want most of all but not what you get," I explained.

"Did Daddy cry when I was not born a boy?" Katie asked.

"Oh, God, no!" I exclaimed. I scooched over to her and gave her a big hug. "Not at all. He was so happy when you were born. We didn't care if you were a boy or a girl. We were both just so thrilled to have YOU."

My seven-and-a-half year old nuzzled her face into my bosom and breathed deeply, hugging me tight around the big mama waist I never shed after she was born.

"In fact," I suddenly remembered, "We already knew you were going to be a girl before you were born."

Katie lifted her head and crinkled her nose in disbelief. "How'd you know?"

"I had a sonogram," I explained.

"What's a sonogram?" Katie asked.

"It's this wand they rub over your belly and it sends waves of information to a machine that shows the inside of your uterus where the baby is floating around in its sac," I said.

"Oooooh," Katie said.

"And they can see enough of you inside there that they could tell you had a vulva instead of a penis," I continued.

Katie giggled. "But it was OK that the doctor saw my yoni because she's a doctor," Katie said, seriously, as if she were giving me advice.

"Yes. That's right. So yeah, we knew you were a girl before you even were born," I said.

"What did Daddy say when you could see I was a girl?" Katie asked.

"I actually remember exactly what he said, because it was so remarkable and it made me love him even more than I thought possible," I kissed Katie's forehead and got up from bed. It was time to get back to the current day and get this kiddo to school on time.

"Daddy said: I'm glad it's a girl. She'll have you to raise her to be a feminist."

"What's a feminist," Katie asked.

"Someone who thinks women should have equal rights as men. That we should be the bosses of ourselves," I reached out for Katie's hands to pull her from bed. Here she was the one awake before me and now I'm the one trying to get her up and at 'em.

"It used to be," I continued talking as I led her by the hand to the bathroom, giving her a little shove through the door, "that women were only allowed to stay at home and cook and clean and take care of the children. They couldn't work wherever they wanted to work."

"Well cooking and cleaning and taking care of your children is work," Katie argued.

"You said it, Sista!" we high-fived. "But not every woman is meant to do that job. Some women want to do other jobs. Like be a scientist," I wiggled my eyebrows at Katie, who has reminded us at least once a day since we went to Mad Science Night at the community center last October, that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.

"Now get ready for school so you can learn to be a scientist," I nagged.

"Mom," Katie held the door before I could shut it. "One more thing?"

"What?" I smiled.

"I'm glad you had a girl so you could raise me to be a feminist," she said, her face bright and alive and ready for what the day brings.

I wanted to argue that I'd raise any child of mine, regardless of gender, to be a feminist, but we'd never make it to school on time if we started that discussion.