Prepare yourself for reading this post. Save it for when you have a free moment. It’s beautiful, moving, funny and some straight-up parenting talk. I can’t express how honoured I am to be sharing this guest post with you today. Without wasting another moment, let me introduce you to the amazing Irene Karras of Misplaced My Sassy.
The Imperfect Art of Raising A Feminist
When my daughter was born, she was bruised and swollen with a nose like Mike Tyson’s from fighting her way through a difficult labour and delivery. She was beautiful and tough and had a gaze that looked right through you, an intense baby that grew into what the experts call a “spirited,” and what in my darkest, most delirious hours I called “certifiable,” toddler. She didn’t have tantrums; she raged against the patriarchy (us, her parents), demanding changes to the oppressive system that kept her from realizing her true potential. This is when my hypocrisy as a feminist parent first surfaced. I wanted to encourage this strong voice at the same time that I wanted to be the exception to it. “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something,” I’d whisper when she’d finally exhaust herself to sleep, “except for me.”
Parenting my daughter for the last 12 years has tested my understanding of myself, revealing the hypocrisy and imperfections inherent in my feminism. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.
That livid little baby has grown into a confident, sassy even, bright young girl on the cusp of the dreaded teen years. She is no longer so angry. She certainly has some age-appropriate attitude, but overall she is quite pleasant, social, kind and eager to please.
She is a nice girl.
This, of course, pleases me in turn, and it’s certainly easier to parent this child, but it also frightens me for her. It’s the nice girls you have to worry about.
How to support her in being a kind and contributing member of society while at the same time encouraging enough anger to fuel her awareness of and commitment to change the little injustices she encounters every day in that society?
How to resolve my pride in her politeness while encouraging her to be vocal when she needs to be, to not be afraid to say NO or YES or whatever else she needs to say to protect herself or to empower herself as the situation warrants?
How to encourage her self-expression while also crushing it? Because though I’ll defend any woman’s right to wear whatever she wants whenever she wants, the rules here are still no make-up outside the house and no boogie shorts outside the gym.
How to encourage sexual self-care and raise an ally in supporting reproductive freedoms in all its forms while limiting her sexual expression FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE?
How to protect her from life’s shit while at the same time educating her about how shitty life can be and equipping her with the tools she’ll at some point need to dig herself out from underneath it?
How to encourage her to seek out diverse experiences when my own circle is so limited in its diversity?
How to raise a feminist when I’m such a hypocrite?
Feminist parents of young daughters often worry about the princess stuff, the gendered toys and the pink brigade. I did, too though I tried very hard not to politicize her play. You want to be a princess? Sure – it’s fun to dress up! But here’s a doctor kit, too. And a truck. For those parents in the throes of that preschool discomfort, let me assure you that it doesn’t last forever. All those little princess friends who used to have tea parties in my basement are now competitive gymnasts and soccer players, honour roll students and thespians. They are mostly wearing jeans and oversized hoodies and sneakers. They are posting selfies to Instagram, but they’re not the sexy selfies we keep hearing about in the media – they are photos of themselves looking pretty to be sure, but just as often looking dorky, going for the laugh. Some girls are mean, but most are “OMG” and “BFF” and “Why are you so Perf?” Yes, some of their mental space is taken up by boys, and junior high hair is a whole thing in itself, but these girls are busy and they are loud and they have for the most part internalized the message that they must be active rather than passive. The princess stage hasn’t lasted forever and it didn’t seem to leave any long term scars. Don’t worry too much about it. That’s my unsolicited advice.
And so I wonder if another dozen or so years from now when she’s fully grown into her womanhood and has already made some great choices and some poor choices, choices that are hers alone to make, whether I’ll look back and realize that I over-thought this, too. Am I worrying too much that I’m not doing enough to radicalize her, to inoculate her against all those roadblocks she’s sure to face? Is the tension I’m feeling between critically dissecting hegemonic cultural norms and maintaining order as a parent my issue alone, the way the princess fear was?
I asked my daughter the other day whether she would call herself a feminist. “Sure,” she said without even looking up from her cell phone. “It just means you want the world to be better for all women and all people generally.”
Then she paused, hit send on her text, and added “I call myself a feminist because we’ve talked so much about it but most of my friends, they don’t have those kinds of talks with their mothers and it’s not like we learn about feminism specifically in school or anything. But I don’t think you can make someone a feminist, anyway. I think they have to, like, figure that out for themselves.” And then she went back to texting. Conversation closed for now.
So, yay me! All the talking is working on some level. But, the girl child has also reminded me of a key truth I had forgotten: ultimately, we all need our own moment of realization, and though I can and do encourage dialogue and recommend books and movies and limit certain media and talk freely about reproductive rights and choices and rape culture and privilege, she’s going to need to have her own “Come to Jesus” moment.
After all, I wasn’t born a feminist either. My feminism came in fits and starts. It wasn’t one moment that radicalized me; it was all those tiny injustices and moments of recognition and identification that added up. It was watching the friend’s eating disorder almost kill her, and wiping the other friend’s tears after her rape, and hearing about the other friend’s attempts to get birth control pills without her parents realizing it, and the gropes by drunk guys in the bar, and the drunk guys getting mad and calling me a bitch because I said No, and the lack of girls who looked like me in the media, and the nice guys whom I said Yes to, and the creepy first boss who made inappropriate comments, and supporting friends coming out to their families, and Tori Amos, and Hole, and The Cosby Show, and Roseanne, and Cindy Lauper, and Sassy Magazine, and Margaret Atwood, and Zora Neale Hurston, and the Montreal Massacre and that first Women’s Studies class in university. All those things and more informed my feminism and led me to search for language to describe my experiences. It’s not a perfect feminism. It is lacking and has vacuums in it and is steeped in a particular time and place and economic class and educational experience. But it strives. It seeks. It reaches.
It understands that our daughters’ feminism may look different than ours.
It accepts that my daughter will have to forge her own path towards it, and that though it may be hard to watch at times, at other times it will be glorious. In any case, it’s necessary.