I’m on a fairly steep learning curve as a first-time father. Having changed fewer than five diapers in my life before a fortnight ago, I’m an increasingly efficient middle-of-the-night cleaner and re-coverer of baby behinds. I consider myself nearly an expert on working with teenagers, but this infant business is new stuff to me. Our beautiful daughter is teaching me a great many things.
Last week, I was changing her “onesie”, and was quite tentative about it, not wanting to bend or pull her little arms too briskly. My mother-in-law, who has been immensely helpful, came to my aid: “She won’t break, Hugo”, she said; “babies are less fragile than you think.” It was a reassuring thing to hear, though I’m still a bit frightened to pull too fiercely on any part of my daughter’s frame.
But my mother-in-law’s words reminded me of an essential feminist point: women don’t break as easily as we imagine. On Friday, I posted a rebuke to the sorry Zoe Lewis op-ed in the London Times which suggested that feminism led women astray with promises of independence, fulfillment, and satisfying relationships all at once. Part of the discourse anti-feminists like Lewis push isn’t just about feminism, however; they also peddle the notion that the bewombed are particularly easy to break. At 36, less than halfway through an normal lifespan for a woman in the Western world, Lewis is convinced that feminism has “ruined her life.” She’s wrong about feminism, of course, but she’s also wrong about something more fundamental: that women are easily ruined “for life” by either their own poor choices or their early capitulation to certain cultural messages.
In a post about how my students responded to Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (a piece that played a small part in one of the many internecine wars to which the feminist blogosphere is lamentably prone), I noted that some of the most enthusiastic responses I received were to the author’s brief but memorable defense of making mistakes. Jessica wrote:
I’ve had more than a couple of embarrassing moments in my life and sexual history, but isn’t that what makes us who we are? Do we really have to be on point and thinking politics all the time? Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff.
I’ve had several excellent class discussions about this section of FFF since.
Thinking about Jessica Valenti’s book and about changing my daughter’s onesies reminds me of an essential truth: we tell a great lie to young women when we issue dire warnings to them about sex, men and other choices if we accompany our warning with the phrase “you might ruin your life.” I often ask the young women whom I teach and with whom I work how often they’ve heard “Don’t do x, or you’ll ruin your life.” Most raise their hands. Far fewer of the young men to whom I pose the same question respond affirmatively. Even now, with almost a decade of the 21st century under our belts, our culture still clings to destructive myths of female fragility. Girls born as recently as the Clinton Administration are taught that adolescence and young adulthood consists of a series of pitfalls to be avoided, and that one false step could mean a lifetime of heartbreak and regret. Do the wrong thing, this discourse suggests, and you’ll end up (for the literary minded) like Dickens’ Miss Havisham (possibly with the same fiery demise.)
Feminists are rightly concerned with protecting women and girls from abuse. We do as much as we can to draw awareness to the near-ubiquity of sexual and commercial exploitation of women around the world. We point out the ongoing reality of sexual harassment in our fields, our offices, and our schools. We also are eager, in general to (oh, over-used word a’ comin’) empower young women to make the best possible choices for their own lives and to pursue their own happiness as they see fit. Most feminists recognize that not every woman wants the same thing; rather than prescribe specific choices (go to this school, wait until this age to get married, have this number of sexual partners of each sex, prioritize this cause) we encourage self-awareness and self-love as a predicate to good decision-making. Whether to embrace a cultural norm or not (like, say, the wearing of a headscarf) is less important a decision than the process by which that decision is made. At least for those of us who are in the liberal (as opposed, say, to the radical) tradition, empowering individual girls to make autonomous choices without regard to external pressures is a very high priority.
I’ve written before, several times, about the Martha Complex: the perfectionism so common in a certain subset of young American women. “Marthas” have a hard time relaxing, because when they do stop their own whirlwind of activity, the anxiety about what they aren’t doing (and what will happen to them if they don’t start doing) begins to overwhelm them.
Last week I realized, while changing my daughter’s darned onesie, how much the discourse of “ruining your life by making one bad decision” contributes to the Martha Complex. I was worried, like many first-time parents, that my infant daughter was more fragile than she in fact is. I was terrified of “breaking her” with one slip of my hand. I needed to see that even tiny babies are remarkably hardy. (This doesn’t mean we should test the limits of that hardiness — they will do so on their own. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back on the hugs, kisses, and loving affection.) In much the same way, we need to recognize that our older daughters are far more resilient than we imagine. Broken hearts heal. Loss and colorful experience do not automatically embitter or alienate. Skinned knees might leave interesting scars, but they do not break the spirit — and neither do passionate love affairs that come to an end. Of course, if we set our daughters up with the expectation that early sexual experience or an unplanned pregnancy will “ruin their lives”, then we can expect that in some cases, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as the myth of male weakness is perpetuated by the culture, so too a myth of female frailty seems to become real for those who are unwilling to consider an alternate possibility.
The peddlers of “purity” and the advocates of abstinence make the case that experience tarnishes, that “mistakes” will “ruin lives” forever. They make this case with far more urgency to young women than to young men, knowing that a great many young women are already programmed to believe that they are so emotionally fragile that they will indeed shatter as the consequence of a single error. Many well-meaning parents buy into this myth, just as I bought into the notion that my little baby girl would break if I wiggled her into her onesie too forcefully. While we ought not to encourage reckless or self-destructive behavior, or buy into the silly myth about the need to “sow oats”, we can send our children, especially our daughters, a message that they are resilient. They have the capacity not only to survive their missteps, but to learn from them and thrive as a consequence.
We humans, male and female alike, are hardy people, both in body and in soul. We do well to treat all living things with care, of course. But a reverence for all that lives and breathes should not turn into a hyper-vigilant anxiety to protect our loved ones from every possible source of discomfort and subsequent growth. I want to protect little Heloise Cerys Raquel from harm, of course; she means the world to me. But I want her to grow up knowing that she has a colossal capacity to survive, to thrive, to grow. And making mistakes is invariably the only reliable way to discover that capacity. She is my precious baby girl, but not my frail one. There is a difference.