I know there are a lot of reasons to be afraid to have children – boys or girls – these days, and at pretty much every other time in history.
I also know that I was born into a great amount of privilege as a white woman. Because my husband is also white, any children I give birth to will inherit that privilege. They will not experience the same world their peers of color will experience. And yet, when and if I have a second child, I am scared to have a daughter.
I’m scared, in part, because the world has not been kind to women, as Margaret Atwood so richly and articulately explained in the New York Times. But it’s not the parts over which I have less control that frighten me the most, not the ever-looming patriarchy or the mean girls (whose meanness is, I fear, propagated by the patriarchy) or the threat of rape or the fear of reporting a rape, though all of this haunts me as I imagine a future second child.
What I’m more scared of is what effect I will have on my daughter, what tangled, unresolved hang-ups, biases, and cruelty I might bring to the raising of a girl – whether consciously or thoughtlessly. I’m scared of all the ways I am unfit to be a mother of a daughter.
I grew up with only a sister, no brothers, and so having a son, as I did three years ago, felt exciting, if totally foreign. I didn’t worry about bringing any emotional baggage to my role as a mother, which was perhaps simplistic and callous of me. The unknown of boyhood felt fresh and new and disconnected from my own struggles with self-esteem and my body. Raising a son seemed far more navigable than the trickiness of female adolescence, which I knew too well.
While I’ve come to understand that it’s more complex than that – that being a person is hard, boy or girl – I do still worry less about all the ways I must be ruining my son. Perhaps that’s gender bias right there. (Perhaps?? Uh, of course it is!) Perhaps that bias has allowed me over the past three years to detach from my self-doubt and adopt a kind of parental swagger that I worry I would not have with a daughter. It’s the possibility of getting in my own way that freaks me out.
Is there time before I have another kid, a female kid, for me to undo my gender bias and be the unencumbered and capable parent I so want to be? Or does being a woman in a world that is not easy on women make that really, really difficult?
I’ve never not wanted to be a girl. But I have felt, since early in elementary school, that being a girl was rife with roadblocks and so many reminders of what you lacked, be it confidence, breasts, strength, coolness, a boyfriend, whatever. I remember failing my lifeguard test because I couldn’t lift the brick from the bottom of the pool. Other girls did it, but I remember feeling so terribly feminine, so failingly feminine that day.
I also remember when my fourth grade male teacher suggested I start wearing a training bra. He was a nice person, very polite, and I’m sure he just wanted me to avoid any unwanted attention. But I’d gotten his attention. It was unpleasant and embarrassing, the having of breasts, the necessity of covering them up.
I remember getting my period at the state fair and having to learn to use tampons early so I wouldn’t have to miss swim practice. I remember taking a three-hour Greyhound bus to Manhattan and reading about the Spartan diets of a handful of very thin New York women with shiny hair and tight pants in an issue of “Harper’s Bazaar” and not thinking, what a bunch of idiots, but thinking, instead, okay, I’ll give that a shot.
All those hazy anecdotes aside, I have been lucky. I have parents who never once told me I looked anything but beautiful. I survived an eating disorder. I had nice, nerdy friends in high school, the kind who allowed me not to sink into my unshakable shyness. Despite and because of my anxieties and insecurities, I like my life and who I’ve grown up to be. But those anxieties and insecurities that surfaced in adolescence still persist and must be talked into submission sometimes – more often than I’d like.
I wish what I’m writing here lead to some kind of answer or resolve...that I’ve figured out that having a daughter might actually not be terrifying, might actually be wonderful, might actually be something I can manage and not entirely screw up and maybe even be good at. But I don’t feel that way yet. I just feel scared.
All I can do is hope that being aware of my fear and my history is some kind of step toward better equipping a daughter to handle being a girl in the world today.
I can also hope I have another son.