“I want to be an nerd,” says my 5-year-old daughter. The word nerd is now a good thing, a trendy thing. It means smart. It means sassy. It means in-touch. That’s not what it used to mean, but that’s the wonderful thing about evolving language. She watches Big Hero 6 on repeat, and the part where Hiro fabricates superhero costumes captivates both her and her sister.
“I want to be someone who build things,” my older daughter says. She’s 7.
“You want to be an engineer,” I tell her.
“YES, AN ENGINEER.”
She repeats this for days, and I burst with pride. The Barbies lie on the floor untouched. She says she doesn’t want to buy a back-to-school dress because then she can’t run as fast. I high-five her.
I’m doing all the right things, I think. I am Every Mother.
I’m at my sister’s house, and I hear my youngest tell her cousin that there are no boy colors or girl colors, that they’re all just colors and she can like green if she wants to.
I brag to my friends: Look at what I’d done here!
The Parenting Gods, though, they’re swift and just. Pride is an emotion you explore with caution, like your toe in the water of a frigid Great Lake.
My 7-year-old has become a Minecraft Kid. She builds castles and roller coasters and deep mines filled with wolves (Why wolves? Why?). She kills animals for food (horrifying but also uncomfortably real). She talks about how to kill certain zombies (“There’s so much about killing here,” laments my husband. “You wouldn’t care if she were a boy,” I counter. We reach an impasse.)
She yells at the “iPad”—her new cheap kids knock-off tablet we got her for her birthday because I read how great Minecraft was for developing problem-solving skills, and competence is my priority.
She yells things like, “Die, zombies!” and I try not to cringe because to cringe would be hypocritical. But these things coming out of my sweet little girl’s mouth seem just so boyish. So hard. So tough. And frankly, she’s so pretty. My own deep-rooted sexism battles my girl-power motherhood. I waffle. But the world is louder than me.
“Run away like the little girl that you are!” she growls at the screen one day.
“Where did you hear that?” I ask her, startled. #Likeagirl means fast, strong, powerful.
She shrugs. “Camp.”
Camp—with 12-year old boys—where girl power hashtags mean nothing.
“Do you think that little girls run away?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “Mom, it’s just an expression.”
All my arrogance has vanished. I’m going nowhere here. I can’t compete with a culture that tells her that girls are less. I can’t yell this loud and be heard. It’s like being in an echo chamber. Parenting doubt spirals down fast.
And yet, and yet.
I can’t shut up either. “Don’t you think little boys run when they are scared sometimes? Don’t you think that little girls stay and fight sometimes?” I push. She ignores me.
Much later, we watch The Sandlot, a movie I loved as a kid, but that is rife with sexism and swear words and maybe too old for my daughters, but who can tell anymore?
Then comes the scene I forgot about, the one that seemed so harmless to me as a kid but cuts like a knife as a mother. “You play ball like a girl!” says Porter, the loud-mouthed, round, freckled kid (my favorite character, despite his misogynistic taunts). The whole crowd gasps; this is the ultimate insult.
I wait and side-eye my girls, holding my breath.
The oldest looks at her younger sister and smirks. “Um, whatever. We’re better than those guys, right?”
“Right!” says my 5-year-old. They clasp hands, their jaws square, eyes narrowed. They look kind of mad, actually.
It’s a cha-cha.