I cried when the ultrasound tech told me my first child would be a girl, and they weren’t tears of joy. Maybe it was the hormones, or maybe it was the bitter taste of one too many college women’s studies courses welling up on my tongue. This was supposed to be a moment those classes had prepared me for, but I wasn’t ready. Cartoon bubble letters floated before my eyes and arranged themselves into grim words: “misogyny,” “rape” and “70 cents to the dollar.”
In the decade since, I’ve given birth to three girls. The fear I felt that day has never subsided, even as I’ve turned to countless articles and studies to teach me the best practices for mothering daughters. Along the way I’ve compiled this mental “what not to do” list that I’ve tried—and failed—to follow. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I have.
1. Don’t Quit Your Day Job
I devoted 10 years of my life to full-time care work. It was meaningful and important, and I tried to make my daughters see that, which is why at some point I started using phrases like “full-time care work.” Then last year, Harvard released a study claiming daughters of working moms earn 23 percent more than those of stay-at-home moms (my working mom friends on Facebook shared this article a little too gleefully, I thought). One of my biggest fears as a SAHM was that I was an inadequate working role model and—bingo!—here it was, confirmed in black and white.
Today I work from home while my kids are in school. I converted a nursery into a home office and occasionally hire a sitter while I work. My kids still haven’t noticed. My oldest actually said the other day, “Charlotte’s mom is a stay-at-home mom like you are.” No, no, I reminded her. I work now!
“Huh?” she asked, eyes on her iPad.
“Never mind,” I said.
2. Don’t Tell Her She’s Pretty*
I stopped telling my girls they were pretty in 2011 after reading an article by television pundit Lisa Bloom. In it, she linked this seemingly harmless compliment to a host of depressing statistics, like the fact that 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon everyone was weighing in on the dangers of pretty, from the British women’s minister to countless bloggers to this Verizon ad.
Having grown up in a Southern town amidst big hair and beauty pageants, I saw firsthand that pretty is a slippery slope. It starts with a benign compliment, meanders its way through the Bratz aisle, and ends with an application to Hooters. I get that.
But do little girls have to be so painfully pretty? Have you ever seen a pore on a little girl? No, you have not. They don’t have them. I know because I spend an hour each week teaching first-graders math, and every single girl looks like she was painted by Michelangelo and touched up by Vermeer. But we’re just “not supposed to notice.” Whatever. They’re so pretty I’d harvest their stem cells and inject them into my forehead if I could.
3. *But Never Let on That You Feel Anything Less Than Gorgeous
In 2014, Dove released this touching and much-shared “Legacy” ad. Its message was that moms should speak positively about their bodies, because daughters are not only listening, they’re mirroring our negative judgements onto their own sweet, prepubescent bodies.
I changed how I talk about my body after I saw this ad. Now when my daughter grabs my muffin top and asks why my belly is so jelly, I say, “Daughter, this is the Belt of Motherhood, similar to the black belt in karate. It is an emblem so powerful, no amount of diet or pilates will ever touch it. But you may, because one day you could inherit its majesty.” In short, I lie. All that Dove ad did was turn me into a liar.
4. Don’t Tell Her She’s Bossy
Just when I came to terms with the fact that I’d never lean forward at an angle that suits Sheryl Sandberg, she shamed me again with the “Ban the Bossy” campaign. Dammit, I’d been so busy policing pretty, I’d let bossy sneak through the back door! Now, when my 5-year-old throws her spoon and screams at me to pick the raisins out of her granola, I don’t say, “Hey, watch it there, Little Miss Bossy-Boots!” I say, “Hey, stop being an asshole.” You’re welcome, Sheryl.
5. Don’t Let Her Catch You Being Human
My mother was a stay-at-home mom who placed too much value on appearances. “Were you the prettiest one there?” she still asks when I come home from a party, as if my social life is one big pretty contest. Along with being vain, my mother is loving, generous and beautifully human. When we censor ourselves around our daughters, we run the risk of denying them the complexity of our character. Girls need to know that mothers can be feminists and stay-at-home moms, that they can be bossy and pretty and smart, and that they can practice self-love even when they don’t love their thighs.
So can we relax a bit, moms of daughters? Go ahead and tell your girl she’s pretty—hell, maybe even the prettiest one at the party. Insist that she stop bossing you around. There are profoundly more important things for her to strive for in the workforce than being someone’s boss, after all. Come clean to her that you’re skipping the bread because you can’t fit into your favorite jeans. She’s probably had an ugly thought about her body recently too. It’ll make her feel better to know yours.
Go ahead, break the rules. Just promise that you’ll avoid the Bratz aisle. Because nothing good will ever come of that.