The Humbling Hardship of Womanhood

by Leah Springer
Originally Published: 

“She wept when they gave birth to daughters, knowing that to be born a woman meant a life of humble hardship.” -Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Bullshit, I think to myself, every time I read the above passage. There’s nothing humble about being a woman. Women are fierce and strong and powerful and can do anything men can do. My parents raised my sister and me to believe this truth, and we married men who believe this truth, and there’s nothing harder or more humbling about being a woman than a man. Maybe in the past; maybe in turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn, but not in my lifetime. There’s nothing to fear, having daughters, today.

And yet.

When the ultrasound tech said “it’s a girl” and I said out loud “I KNEW it!” and my husband and I smiled at each other with joy in our eyes, a very quiet voice in my head said to a very small part of the quietest corner of my heart, “oh.” And that oh bore all of the weight of the universe, contained in the knowledge that I was going to have another girl, and no matter how far we’ve come in equality and feminism and fairness, this girl, this some-day woman, is still going to be born female, and we’ll have not just one but two daughters, and this knowledge puts a heavy weight on my heart.

The honest to God truth is, we live in a world full of men who hate women; of men who think that women are theirs to possess and own and do with what they please, and yes, this happens in America too. We live in a country where my daughter and her sister are going to be faced with an onslaught of messaging about their looks and their bodies and their weight that can lead even the most confident girls down a path of at best self-doubt and at worst self-harm. We live in a city that is better than most in terms of equality and equity, but where there is still overt sexism allowed, all the time, even here.

A good friend of mine shared a quote that states from the day your baby is born a piece of your heart lives outside of your body forever. And now there will be another one – another girl – another daughter – and a part of me thinks, well, if my husband and I and do our job well enough then maybe our girls will band together to create a protective shell around themselves so that all the messaging out there will deflect off of them and they’ll grow into adulthood unscathed, and meet the right kind of partners, and have babies of their own and if those babies are girls then maybe, just maybe, they’ll carry a little less worry than I do.

And yet.

I walk down the toy aisles at Target and I can’t understand why the girl toys are all pink and the boy toys are all blue. I resisted telling people the gender the first time around because I was wary of the pink clothes, the “Daddy’s Little Princess,” the “Math is Hard,” the multitude of dolls. I automatically respond with “and smart and strong” when a stranger tells me how beautiful my daughter is. She is beautiful, without a doubt. She is so beautiful that sometimes looking at her makes my breath catch in my throat. I so want her to know that she’s beautiful, to instill in her the confidence to look all those negative messages out there about women and girls in the face and, like her mama does, call bullshit. I just don’t want her to believe that her beauty is where her value lies; and I fear her growing up to believe that her beauty overshadows, or should overshadow, her other qualities.

So, there will be two. And my husband and I, and our friends and our families, will try our very best to create safety nets for our girls, to instill in them the belief that they can do anything, be anything; that there are no limits as long as they are willing to work hard enough. We’ll read to them stories about strong girls and amazing women and tell them cool things about math and science and engineering. We’ll let them play with dolls and trucks and draw and paint and cook and climb trees and learn about whatever they are interested in. We’ll tell them that they can love whomever they love as long as that person treats them with respect and kindness. We’ll let them know that the only types of princesses we expect them to be are warrior princesses. We’ll tell them they’re beautiful and smart and strong every day. We’ll try our hardest to pick them up when they fall; to cast away the shadows of self-doubt and insecurity and hurt, and if we try really, really hard, maybe they’ll grow up believing in themselves; believing that women are equal; calling bullshit on all the media and the misogyny and the messaging because they know what’s what.

And yet.

My heart. A piece of it lives outside of me now, and in five months another piece of it is going to leave my body, and I worry. I worry for my girls. I worry for my daughters. I worry for the women they’ll be, some day. My heart aches and I’m burdened with the weight of it – this humbling hardship of womanhood.

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