My daughter said something to me that broke my heart today.
We’d been out all morning at the playground, came back home for lunch and a quick nap, then headed outdoors again. Sonya steered us towards the shops on Boulevard St. Denis. An hour later, Leena wanted to nurse, so we stopped inside Renaud-Bray, a large bookstore that also sells games, toys, and novelty gift items like piggy banks, puzzles, and a teapot shaped like an elephant.
I sat down in the children’s book and toy section so that Sonya could browse while I nursed Leena. Sonya looked at some books and then found a bin of small plastic toys. She pulled out a soldier with a plastic parachute.
“I want to take this home with me,” she said.
“We’re not going to buy a toy today, Sonya,” I said.
She looked disappointed, but she went to put the soldier back in the plastic bin.
Then she came over to sit with me.
And she said:
“Is only for boys Mommy?”
I closed my eyes for a minute, took a deep breath, and tried to think of something to say, but all I could feel was a total, utter, helpless, consuming sadness that my two-and-a-half-year old daughter had asked me this question.
So I bought that toy soldier for Sonya. How could I not?
Later, when I told Drex the story, he had a heart-to-heart with Sonya.
“There is no such thing as a toy for boys or a toy for girls. There are toys that Sonya likes and there are toys that Sonya does not like,” he told her.
She’s lucky, I’m lucky, that he’s such a wonderful father figure, mentor, and role model. He finds the right things to say, to get to the heart of a problem in a simple, direct way that I’m deeply inspired by.
We had a lot of fun with that soldier. Dropping him from our balcony, watching him float down on his parachute. We invited friends over for hot dogs. When it got dark, we came inside for tea, chocolates, and French conversation until the girls’ bedtime. As a last hurrah, Sonya climbed a (borrowed) ladder in the living room and dropped the soldier on two more night missions.
It’s weird, because today, I also got an e-mail from someone who went to college with me. She’d come across my blog and has been following along for a few months. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail taken out of context:
You have a beautiful family and you seem really happy, but I hope you don’t mind my asking why you don’t dress up your girls more often? Are you trying to raise feminists?
(I responded to the e-mail. She okayed me posting her question and my response. Here goes!)
First, let me answer your second question. Yes. I am raising my daughters to be feminists. If you have the time, please read this. I don’t “dress up” Sonya and Leena for different reasons. Here they are.
Let me start with Leena. She’s an avid crawler. She’s most comfortable in simple top-and-pant combos so she can get around. She’s a hard one to dress, because she squirms, rolls, shakes her head, kicks her legs, and bats her arms when you lay her flat on her back. You don’t pin baby to a table for long. In fact, I usually change her pants. Then she crawls around topless for awhile. Then when she’s sitting, inspecting something in her chubby hands, I sneak up behind her and pop the top over her head. While she shakes her head, I use my ninja mom skills to get her arms in the sleeves. Seriously. That’s what I do.
Sonya is very articulate and opinionated. She decides what she’s going to wear, and she prefers clothes that don’t itch, snag, or get in the way of her adventures. She has certain favorites— an Iron Man t-shirt (it’s her favorite superhero because it’s Daddy’s favorite superhero), her Curious George t-shirt (it’s the first movie she ever watched in its entirety), and for when she wants to look fancy, a Harajuku-inspired dress that looks like a long baseball tee with a ruffle attached at the bottom. That’s what she wore to Leena’s birthday party. What she wears is her own self-expression. If it’s going to be a t-shirt over a tutu over blue jeans with her rainboots, so be it. If you’re talking about how she looks beyond her clothes, like her wild, unkempt hair, then let me tell you— she doesn’t like anyone combing it. We made a pact to comb it once in the morning and once in the evening. That’s it. Some nights, she asks me to braid it. She looks cute in braids and pigtails. But if I try to tie back her hair when she doesn’t want it tied back, she’ll just yank out the hair tie and shake out her hair so it can be free.
Am I making a statement by how I dress or don’t dress my daughters? I didn’t really think about it until now. I guess I am.
While I think looks are important, and good looks combined with smarts can get you further in the world than smarts alone, I think that there’s plenty of time for a girl to stop looking sensible and to stop feeling self-confident and to stop believing that people don’t judge you by what’s on the outside.
Little girls, like little boys, should be dressed to be comfortable. There should be no hindrance or restriction of movement imposed by a garment and no fear of getting it dirty, ripped, or stained. I want my girls to know, not just deep down inside, but through their whole being, from the pores of their skin to the core of their soul, that what makes them pretty is their character. Their kindness. Their spirit. Their actions.
But, to answer your first question directly: I don’t “dress up” my girls more often because (1) they won’t let me (2) I won’t force them. I respect them as individuals, even though they are both young children. They are not sparkly confections, gifts to unwrap, or sugar plum fairies from the Nutcracker ballet. They are powerful, fearless, inspiring young girls who will someday be women.
That being said, most days, I’m grateful I have my shit together enough to get (mostly) clean clothes on everyone. And make more time to spend together as a family. By the way, that’s probably a much lengthier answer than what you expected, but I feel really feisty today. Can you tell?
And to conclude this post: My daughters can play with any toys they want (especially now that Sonya has stumbled upon a sure-fire way to get Mommy to buy just about anything) and they can wear whatever they want (as long as it’s “clean and decent”).
Dear Future Sonya and Leena, if you stumble upon this diatribe when you’re in your teens and you’re persuading me to allow you to pierce your eyebrows and get a tattoo… talk to your father. He’ll know just what to say.