A couple of weeks ago, I was making photocopies in a school staff room when I overheard some women chatting at the other end of the table. Both at least a decade older than me, they were discussing their mothers, always excellent fodder for women’s conversation. As I pressed buttons on the copier, I listened to the kvetching:
“She won’t eat. I cook all sorts of different stuff and she won’t eat any of it. So then my brother came over and I said to him, ‘Bring this to mom and tell her that you made it’–and, of course, she ate it.”
“My mom’s the same way. I’m over there all the time cooking and cleaning and then my brother comes and changes one light bulb and I hear about how incredible he is for the next month.”
It brought me back to a theme I’ve been mulling for a while. When my husband was in the hospital recovering from surgery late last year, I couldn’t help but notice the dearth of male caretakers in the building–and I’m not talking about staff (that’s another post). I saw older women sitting with their mothers, or walking behind them with wheelchairs as physiotherapists encouraged them to walk; wives with husbands, sisters, daughters: the place was full of women. I took to calling them the Good Daughters; they were there every day, without fail, defining dutiful… they deserved capital letters.
Each time I saw one of these Good Daughters, I felt a complicated mix of emotions. Part of me was impressed by their sense of duty and part of me was suspicious. What was this constant presence costing them? Were they there because they wanted to be or was it a heavy obligation, one they couldn’t find their way out from? I wondered where their brothers were.
The price of pushing back from being a Good Daughter can be steep. My attempts to pull away from the role in order to take care of my own small family were met with rage. The message from the men in my family was clear: auditions are over, this is the only part we have for you. You don’t get to redefine your role: it’s Good Daughter or nothing. The women were mostly silent.
Daughters, in my experience, are the ones who make the family system work; they cook the food, clean the messes, pick up the pieces, and deal with the emotional fallout. I’ve watched these dynamics play out in my own family. I’ve seen my own aunts work tirelessly to support their aging parents, only to have their brothers praised lavishly for the smallest effort. They may grumble about it, but they’re still there cooking dinner or driving to doctor’s appointments. Somebody has to.
All this is why I’ve lived in a state of low-grade panic since the day, six years ago, that I found out I was having a girl. How to raise her without repeating all of the same gender tropes I had grown up with? How to show her that there is another way, when I’m still struggling to find it myself?
When I was 8, I stood in an aunt’s wedding. One of the only things I knew about weddings was that you had to sign a big book. So, being a perfectionist, I practiced my signature… for months. I filled pages of foolscap with neat rows of signatures. Of course, when the wedding actually happened, only the two adult witnesses were invited to sign the registry. I was devastated, as you can see in the photos, and yet I was an adult before I told anyone why I had been so upset. I knew very well at the time that good girls don’t get upset. Good girls suck it up. At 8, I was already a professional at hiding my feelings.
As it turns out, my daughter is different. She is a force, and her anger at any injustice (perceived or real) would knock anyone off balance. Being scolded by a 5-year-old isn’t something you forget. When asked by one grandmother who her favorite grandma was, she answered truthfully: the other one. No polite obfuscating for her. When she’s mad at me (which is often), she screams: “You’re a poo-poo head girl,” or, “You’re a bad mommy.” I never would have dared to say anything like that to my mother, even when I wanted to.
And so while we’re working on teaching our daughter that nasty words are hurtful (even mommies have feelings), and that anger has a place but it isn’t every place, I can’t help but take some secret delight in the way she owns her rage. For me, she’s a new breed of girl altogether, as distant from my own girlhood as bonnets and carriages. Maybe someday I’ll be pushing a walker down a hospital hallway wishing she was more of a Good Daughter but this much I can promise you: Her brother won’t be getting any medals for changing light bulbs… she’ll make sure of that.