Wednesday, May 28, 2014

For The Rest of Your Life

My mother patted my hand as we sat in the Park Avenue neurologist's office. I was grateful that such a doctor accepted a senior's less than top-notch health insurance.  My mother and I had found a moment of tranquility in the turbulent storm of dementia: a prettily lit office that looked like a professor's study and lacked any hint of dreary medical paraphernalia.

"Thank you for doing this for me," she said. She was referring to her general sense of being cared for by her child. She didn't know what type of office we were in or why we were there, but over the last two years we've developed a routine of paperwork and offices and hand-patting and and she remembers that I spend a fair amount of time escorting her to doctors and having conversations with them for her.

I checked all the boxes: angina, no, high blood pressure, yes, allergies, no, muscle pain, yes,  tingling of the right toe when the radio goes on and it's the wrong station, yes. We still had lots of time on our hands. We chatted idly. My mother asked about her beautiful granddaughter and then asked what her name was again. An elderly woman with a walker stared at us for the duration of our near hour wait. I didn't know what she was thinking, but I knew she was alone and my mother was accompanied. I strongly suspected it was the companionship that made her stare in fascination.

"A son is a son 'til he gets himself a wife, but a daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life," my mother said, out of nowhere. At first I did what you do when you have a bone to pick with your dementia-addled mother: I smiled and nodded. And then I did what I inevitably do: I let my blood get up and opened my mouth.

"Mom, you don't have a son, how do you know?"
"How do I know what?"
"That a son wouldn't take you to a doctor?"
"Oh, well, it's an expression. But you know, daughters are different. You don't need to have a son to know that. They're made of different stuff."

It's one of those things that sounds like a compliment but is actually a burden. I don't mind the burden part of having a sick parent (well, not most days) but I do mind that girls are expected, assumed and conditioned to bear the brunt of it.

We are made of different stuff, my mother said. She was absolutely right. Girls are "made" differently from how boys are "made." Every time I take my little girl out, I am confronted with how our society makes claims on her body and molds her expectations. Strangers pat her head, stroke her arm. She is never asked for permission. There is no boundary for little girls.* I've started to look carefully at how strangers interact with boys of the same age as my child. I've never once seen someone stroke a boy's arm. A boy seems to be born with boundaries drawn around him in our culture. Meanwhile, people bestow on girls their acceptance, approval and implicit praise with a casual gesture. But the gesture is anything but casual. It's downright violent.  We are taught to accept compliments graciously. But why should a child be asked to perceive a violation of her body as a compliment? Little girls have this demanded of them every single day. And that's how we get to be "made of different stuff."

We are the ones who call home regularly, right? We check in. We make sure everything is all right. We communicate more. Funny how we are also burdened by the notion that we are absolutely impossible when we turn thirteen.

'It's a girl?" People used to ask me when I was pregnant. "Enjoy her until she's a teenager and then good luck! I was glad I had boys when we hit those years!"

A daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life. Except when she's a teenager and then she makes you rue the day you conceived her. She's either the Devil incarnate or a cozy shelter.  She's both. And fully expected to be.

"Few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." Gloria Steinem once said.

A son is a son 'til he gets himself a wife but a daughter's a daughter for the rest of your life. 

A son is in it for the nurturing. And when he grows up, his wife replaces his parents because now he gets his pampering from her, is that it? Isn't a daughter supposed to be in it for the nurturing too? Are girls being trained to give and not receive? What exactly are we teaching our girls?

Nurturing and empathy self perpetuate. I wonder what boys are not getting because of these peculiar beliefs, spoken in sing-song fashion like folk tunes: Daughters are givers and communicators. Sons will find replacements. Daughters are gardeners and are loyal to their plots of land. Sons are flowers who need a fresh rainstorm.

No one profits from this belief system. My own mother is a feminist. She was an athletic debater, a great supporter of my academic and artistic endeavors, a nurturer of my cultural awareness. But she also taught me that much of my power might come from my looks or sex appeal. This is what her mother taught her. I could derive power from these things. When she spoke of being vulnerable because someone found you attractive, it was never a man who was a threat, but a woman who might be envious. She carried my grandmother's pathological fear of other women because we can't help but cling to what our parents give us: be it advice or beliefs.

We know now that the greatest threat to women's physical and emotional safety is, in fact, men. When when when is it time to address institutional, cultural, deep-rooted pathological ways of raising boys and girls? How about now?

I don't have a son. But I have been nanny to a few in my time and they are all  every bit as sweet and cuddly and in need of empathy as girls are. I heard a father call out to his daughter in Central Park the other day: "That's not how I taught you to throw!" I can only presume she was "throwing like a girl." I can only presume that he thought he was raising her like a son and therefore undoing the sexism in our culture, or at least protecting her from it.

My grandfather had a daughter, my mother. When she was three, she announced that she wanted to walk around the block by herself. He agreed and then hid behind every tree and bush all the way around. He wanted her to feel invincible. By example, he also taught her empathy. In 1943 a gay man asked him on a dinner date. He accepted the invitation, so he could explain that he was flattered but was not romantically interested in men. My mother knew the story from a young age.

"We've begun to raise daughters more like sons...but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." 

My grandfather raised his daughter as a person.

I don't have a son, but I do have a husband. I have not a shadow of a doubt that were his parents to need him to escort them to doctors, to clean their apartments, to check in on them and call every night because dementia made them lonely, he would do it. Thanks, mother-in-law and father-in-law. I guess you, too, had the courage to raise him as a person.

My grandfather and my mother in 1942.
* I don't let strangers touch my daughter. Sometimes it happens in a flash, especially living in a crowded city. If that flash occurs before I can stop it, I never fail to admonish that person for his or her grotesque faux-pas and I often point out that undoubtedly he or she would not take kindly to someone touching him or her without warning, or at all, for that matter. I want my daughter to witness this exchange. I am polite but firm. Sometimes the admonishment is met with disdain born of embarrassment, other times it is met with a look of dawning realization. I love those moments. Another dent in the armor of the patriarchy that holds social progress hostage. Another moment when my child sees that a woman can stand up for herself and her mother is not afraid. We live by example.


  1. I certainly don't let random people touch my kid because she's 'beautiful' (or for any other reason, for that matter.) She's only asked to say "thank you" if she's given a sticker that she wanted/chose. The good news is, on my end, that I perceive this culture to be changing for the better, with relevant conversations about these topics that used to be taken for granted. My brother was once referred to as a wussy because he knew to make lunch and vacuum - by a girl. I was so upset that I spent half an hour explaining to her why she should be grateful men like that exist (or boys; this was back in high school). While this is obviously still a huge issue, I do think we've come to realize that these gender divides are stifling and problematic in general.

    1. If people reach out and touch my daughter I always ask them not to, and that they should ask themselves how they would feel about being touched by a stranger. I invariably get a look as if to say "what a bitch." #YesAllWomen" It's a battle. I tell my daughter routinely to tell people that it is not okay to touch her. I explain that they think it is okay because they have been told the wrong thing and we have to help them understand the right way to treat people. She seems to enjoy telling people the right way to behave. :)

    2. I also see my daughter flinch and seem stunned by this act of touching -- it is innate to humans to expect boundaries. I see a bit of her self-determination robbed every time someone does this, which is why we talk about it EVERY time and I remind her again that is the other person who was not taught how to treat others with respect and it has nothing to do with her.

  2. First, your grandfather was a boss, I tell you. What a great man.

    Definitely, the culture is changing in some ways--my husband is more of a woman than I am, in fact--but everything you observe here is so valid, so worthy of thought, so important to communicate to all our children. I'm a big fan of your writing.

    1. Thank you so much, Jocelyn! Those "friendly" pats from strangers are worth consideration. It's awfully hard to explain to people that what they perceive as affection or approval is unwelcome.


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