The challenge of being a feminist mother is that once you see something, you can’t un-see it. And once you understand how problematic something is, you can’t refuse to act on it. So there’s no opting out because something seems petty or small, because you know that small things are symptomatic of a bigger problem.
Take the other day. I gave my daughter, who is coming up to two, a big cuddle and told her I love her. “I know,” she said, and I laughed. “I’m so beautiful,” she added, and I froze.
Of course, she is beautiful. But I’ve never made much of a point of telling her. One of the first things she learned to describe herself as was “clever” – I made sure of that. I didn’t use the words “pretty”, “beautiful” or “cute” excessively; barely at all, in fact, and usually more likely about the cat than her, to be honest. That was a deliberate attempt to help her focus, from the very start, on something other than her appearance to be proud of. I was even more horrified at the idea that she might end up believing I only love her because she’s beautiful, or love her more for that than for just being herself. I ended up working on creating a new conversation between us around the love we feel for each other that had nothing to do with loving conditionally or being a certain way. Now we simply talk about how we love each other “lots and lots”.
Of course, the language that bothers me is of course the vocabulary of my hang-ups. My childhood weight issues are not her problem, but my lifelong food issues could be if I don’t make a conscious effort to model a better attitude to eating than I had. All her caregivers were briefed: she eats when she’s hungry, she stops when she wants. And she’s grown perfectly well and been nice and healthy all along. But the other day I overheard her tell her dad, as he lifted her, that she was “very heavy”. He quickly responded that she was simply growing up and getting stronger, and it was nice to have yet another bit of confirmation that I’m not the only feminist parent in this household who worries about these things.
There’s nothing wrong with “heavy” as a description – just like there’s nothing wrong with “fat” as a word. But when someone hauls you up and makes a big fuss of your heaviness, as must have happened at some point for her to comment on it, that is surely – in the long term – contributing to the kind of damaging talk that ends up in taking a pejorative swipe at someone’s weight, and obsessing over your own.
We avoid swearing in front of children, or talking about adult subjects, in case they repeat things they’re not ready to understand. And yet those words, while inappropriate, won’t hurt their self-esteem and confidence as they grow older. The words we think of as appropriate, the words of self-disgust and self-hatred we freely use before them… it’s alarming when you stop to think about it, and now that I have I can’t seem to stop. Sometimes I think I’d love to, just to have the bliss of ignorance again, and then I feel guilty (but the guilt that comes with motherhood is a story for another day).
Inevitably, I wonder if I’m missing the bigger picture here or possibly even adding to the potential pitfalls by focussing more on the issues than I have to. But I always come back to the idea that the language of raising a daughter has to change, if the language of being a woman is going to. If we’re going to get rid of the gender-bashing insults, the dreadful, thoughtless, misogynist phrases, the sexist tone of language among adults, we surely have to start by getting kids to focus on better ways to think of themselves, and that begins with how they talk about themselves and how we talk about them.