A few weeks ago, I was cozying up with our seven-year-old on the couch and without warning she blurted out, “I really wish women could propose to men.”
“They can! They do! And women propose to other women. And some people decide to simply be in love and not get married at all.” I sharply responded, my feet firmly planted on my soapbox. But as the words left my mouth, I was already in a well of shame. How does she not know this is possible? And why at her age is she focused on proposals? What an antiquated custom for my modern daughter to be pondering on a Saturday afternoon. While I would love to blame Fuller House, I scolded myself. Bad feminist mom!
As I emerged from my spiral, I decided to use this cringe-worthy moment as a way to dive into it with her. “What brought this up for you?”
“Well, I don’t want to wait around for someone to propose to me. I just want to do it myself.”
Phew. All is not lost. She’s questioning a custom I thought was law growing up and actively participated in as part of my own rite of passage.
It reminds me of how far I’ve come in the past 15 years—and also brings to light the nuanced approach to parenting one must take when the landmines that live within our own muscle memory are reinforced by all of the media and messages around us.
It’s why—in our home—we talk about bodies being strong and healthy and capable of impressive swimming and soccer feats.
It’s why I am always kind and positive about my own body in front of the girls which has offered a wonderful side-benefit of taking in those messages and believing them. In the process, I have healed years of body shame passed down by multiple generations of the women in my family.
It’s why I held my tongue in criticizing women not wearing makeup on the red carpet when watching the Academy Awards with my daughters. My gut instinct was to go there. The years of beauty programming and messaging are in me at a cellular level, but my girls are helping me notice the hypocrisy in those moments.
It’s why my husband does most of the cooking and I handle the finances—even though I initially handed over all financial responsibility to him when we got married. I wanted somebody to save me from dealing with something this hard, something our culture deems out of my realm and I finally realized that I was that person.
It’s why I don’t tell my girls, “You can be anything you want to be.” as I was told. That was not true then and it is not a foregone conclusion now. I tweak the message to acknowledge our reality. “I hope you can be anything you want to be, and we will fight together to bring down the barriers and the customs that diminish our power—and the biases even we ourselves have accepted as truth—to improve your odds.”
I’m learning that in order to be the feminist parent I want to be, I must have compassion for myself as I challenge the biases I carry with me. I can model my questioning for my daughters who will also inevitably internalize many of the biases of our culture. My hope for them is that they will also have the confidence to challenge gender norms and what’s possible for us—while our culture makes incremental shifts toward a bigger change.