Cyber bullying, body image distortion, slut shaming, eating disorders, glass ceilings, sexual assault and mean girls—the intense issues that my daughters will face as they grow can seem overwhelming. Yet, for me, as the mother of two daughters, they are not the greatest challenge in raising girls.
The real challenge is allowing them to grow into who they truly are.
As parents we have visions of who our children can be. We tell them all of the time that they can “be anything” and “do anything.” We smile wistfully saying, “I just want my daughter to be happy.” But do we really mean that we want them to be happy with their life choices, or that we want ourselves to be happy with their choices?
Modern society doesn’t make it easy. As parents of daughters we are told that our girls should be smart and strong, but not too smart or too strong. They should be pretty and sweet, but not too cutesy or too “girly.”
I have a male friend who identifies himself as a feminist. One evening he confided how distraught he was over his 4-year-old daughter’s “troubling” behavior of preferring pink dresses and wanting to be a ballerina. He and his wife debated whether or not to give into their daughter’s desires. Was he promoting gender stereotypes?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a female friend recently lamented how unfortunate it was that her daughter simply refused to wear pink anymore after a toddlerhood of being dressed in tutus, ruffles and sequins.
I began to wonder if these girls continue to voice their opposing preferences, would their parents love them less?
I’ve asked myself a similar question many times since my oldest daughter was born 11 years ago. What if my daughters decide upon paths unlike my own? What if they decide there is a better way for them? Would I love them less?
The answer, of course, is that I would not love them less. Yet, how often as parents do we insinuate the opposite? How often when they react in a way different than our own (although not cruel or inappropriate), do we subtly chastise them or interpret their choice as a personal rejection?
I found it easier when they were younger. When I made the mistake of being judgmental I could comfort myself in the solace that they were probably too young to remember and I could still do better the next day. But now as my own childhood memories at their age are still vivid, I cannot console myself with that notion. They will remember and my responses will inform their decisions and perceptions of themselves.
Yes, as a woman and a parent of girls, I am greatly concerned about how to help them navigate what is still often a patriarchal and unjust world. I’ve consciously tried to encourage STEM learning, model a positive body image, and address budding sexuality in a healthy way.
But, here’s the issue: none of that really means anything without giving them unconditional love. Loving them is easy, but the unconditional part is not. It means setting aside many of my own hopes and projections to embrace and encourage their inner being that is uniquely them, regardless of societal or personal expectations.
As a mother it is my job to help my daughters learn right from wrong. The line between good and bad blur, however, when I ask myself if their choice is “bad” or simply different than my own.
The biggest struggle with raising girls is the biggest struggle with raising all children—the need to first grow ourselves into the people we want to be rather than expecting our children to fulfill that role. Our toughest, and maybe most important job, is not to control our daughters, but to love them into who they truly are.