A Mother’s Lament

As a mother, I struggle. I look at my daughter – joyful, smart, strong-willed, independent, opinionated – and I am overcome with equal parts love, pride, and fear. I know other parents get it. You care about that kid so much that you want to give them the world… but then you remember what a scary place that world can be.

I struggle with how to teach my daughter to love her body and herself in a healthy manner.

I try to prioritize physical health and strength. I do my best to demonstrate love of my own body with all its stretchmarks, lumps, and bumps, choking back whispers of shame that stem from a world of photoshopped expectations. But there’s a line, right? How do I teach her to prioritize health without leaning on the language that has propped up those expectations for years?

I dream of a life for her where she feels empowered to own her own sexuality when the time comes, but I don’t want her to hide behind it instead of engaging in emotional connection. I’ve seen the damage associated with placing a high premium on sexual “purity,” and I’ve seen the self-inflicted pain of turning off feelings in the name of sexual expression for principle’s sake. How do I encourage her to embrace her sexuality in the face of headwinds that will push her to put up walls around her feelings for one extreme reason or another?

I want her to view her body as her own without caveat, but I know I need to teach her about the dangers that too often lurk behind a corner or a friendly face and their callous dismissal of that truth. How do I help keep her safe while refusing to plant the seeds of cultural victim blaming?

I worry that I’m teaching her the wrong things without saying a word. Does she notice the time I spend each morning, carefully cultivating the appearance required to precariously balance between professional, frumpy, bitchy, and woman? Is she learning to hold herself to the same standards?

I’m a single mother, and she doesn’t meet the men in my life. I promised myself a long time ago that my personal decisions would not impact her stability, and that she would never view having a man in her life as essential to being “complete.” But is the lack of healthy relationship modeling going to haunt her later?

I look at the statistics and the news reports and the lack of news reports and the bullshit legislation and the jaw dropping court decisions, and I am terrified by the trends that dehumanize my gender to the point that our organs are commodities subject to the regulation of men (and some women) who don’t understand how they work. I am heart-broken and tired. How do I help her to understand why these rights are important, the magnitude of the work that’s been done by those who came before us, and the challenges that are rising ahead of us when these feelings are the last thing I want for her and I don’t have the answers?

I see her fascinated by science, reveling in math, reading voraciously, and am buoyed by her love of learning. How do I encourage her to take pride in her mind and go after whatever her dreams may be, while preparing her for the discrimination and harassment she will face as she makes her way?

I hope to see her grow into a young woman who is unafraid to express herself. I don’t want her to dress or act in a certain way because it’s what’s expected by the world around her, but knowing how the world reacts to such audacious agency, I feel compelled to keep her safe from the cruelty. How can I possibly teach her not to run from herself when I know first hand the kind of pain that comes with running head first into a wall of public opinion?

But I don’t want to raise a self-centered daughter, either. I want her to understand what’s happening in the world around her, and be driven to make it a better place.

As the white mother to a white daughter, I don’t even know where to begin explaining the state of race relations in this country. I want her to understand the bloody sins of our past, the structural discrimination they generated, the state of inequity today, the extent to which we’ve turned a blind eye to the poisoned fruits of our stubborn refusal to acknowledge white privilege. I recently had to correct her when she came home proclaiming Columbus a hero. How in the hell do I undo the continuous whitewashing of American history our schools are designed to reinforce without getting her in trouble with standardized teachers, tests, and administrators?

As the straight mother to a daughter who has yet to express or really explore gender or sexuality (outside of her proclivity for playing the role of badass princess in “Let’s Pretend”), I want her to feel safe to define herself as she sees fit. She’s grown up with a cadre of gay and lesbian “aunts and uncles” from my circle of friends; she doesn’t see a different from their love and hetero love, and I’m grateful for that. But even with the legal system and public sentiment swaying in the direction of equality, there’s still a long road in front of us before people who are not straight and cis have equal footing. How do I send her out to walk her own path and be an ally for those she loves with such hateful battles raging on either side of her?

As someone who manages bipolar disorder on a daily basis, I know the strife and stigma associated with mental illness, and I work hard to break down the assumptions our culture broadcasts about those with diagnoses and not. I am pretty open about my illness with those in my life, though we don’t make a big deal out of it at our house. Mommy takes medication; I don’t hide that. When she asks questions, she’ll get answers. But how do I teach her to understand and empathize with the struggles someone with a mental illness faces when these battles are often buried under the burdens of privacy and shame? Given that she is statistically much more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder at some point, how do I steel her for the antiquated notions about mental health that still prevail as the norm? Hell, before we even get there, how do I prepare a little girl on the autism spectrum to filter the bile that an ignorant society spits out?

As an admittedly privileged mother to a surely privileged daughter, I stand unsure of how to explain privilege and its ramifications. I’ve known poverty, known gender related harassment and discrimination, and mental illness stigma, but I’m not arrogant enough to say I understand the experiences of those who reside at different points in the privilege spectrum, nor can I dismiss that my present circumstances require ongoing reflection to combat inherited privilege. I do my best to listen and learn and use my voice to make a difference when possible, but I am fallible, and sometimes I’m just as much a part of the problem as those I’m trying to reach. I struggle with how to advocate without assuming to speak for a group or hijacking the narrative. How do I teach her to be an ally when I’m not even sure what I’m doing?

As someone who has experienced one of the many possible intersections on the privilege spectrum, I’ve grown to understand that the infinite combinations of personal history and inherent traits create a complex network of unique experiences, all of which provide the context necessary to understand and combat the inequity present in the world around us. The experience of a wealthy or middle-class white woman is not the same as the experience of an impoverished white woman, nor is it the same as that of a black woman, or a Chinese immigrant woman, or a Latino male, or a Muslim practitioner, or a gay indigenous person… the list goes on. Navigating these distinctive experiences to better appreciate and address the culture they combine to create isn’t a simple task, particularly with a cacophony of privileged voices in the background demanding a linear explanation for the chaos they’re a part of sustaining. How do I show her how to see the world in prismatic fashion when black and white are still the trendy colors du jour?

As a mother, I struggle, and I will continue to struggle. None of these questions have easy answers, but one thing is clear: I have to continue to seek them out, because, if we want a less scary world for our kids, it is up to today’s parents to make sure we raise our children to be good, self-aware, socially conscientious people. I love my daughter, and I will gladly wade through the uncertainty and stress and mess of it all because I believe in her… and I know all of our futures depend on her and her peers setting right what we’ve done so wrong for too long.

But for today, I will find strength in her smile and her laugh and her 437,298.5 questions an hour, and find hope in the twinkle of her eye that says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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