Middle Boy asked something along the lines of whether I was sorry I’d never had a daughter.
To be completely honest, I’m not sorry at all; in fact, I’m relieved. I don’t think I would have been a good mom to a daughter; I’m afraid I would’ve messed her up with a combination of my own issues and my inability to perform femininity well (largely because I don’t even bother trying). I feel like I don’t really understand many of the women around me, at least not as well as I am supposed to. That’s not to say that I do understand men, but they do seem less opaque, even if they are generally annoying, if that makes any sense.
I worried much more about how I looked and what I wore before I came to the US, or, at least, I was convinced they were important. It was pure hell to find clothes that were long enough (I’m six feet tall). My mom was and still is quite focused on her appearance, both clothes and physical fitness. She is bright and capable in the ultraenergetic entrepreneurial way, with street smarts and perhaps some adult ADHD mixed in. She’d always been quite disdainful of my father’s writing and generally all pursuits of the mind, unless they resulted in money. She’d brag about dad or later about me to her friends, but the appeal of our pursuits was alien to her. She’d never appreciated the things that were important to me and had always found me lacking in the arenas that were important to her. You have no idea how many times in life I heard from her, “If only your legs were longer, like mine; if only your fingernails were nicely shaped, like mine.”
After I left for the US, over the years, I became more dowdy. Actually, I think I released my inner dowdiness that was always there and was finally allowed to flourish away from my very looks-centric ancestral culture (which is quite typical in Europe). After I had a kid, I no longer had long nails or wore bulky rings, because the amount of housework went up; today, I wear only my wedding band. When I started my faculty job, I started gaining weight, mostly due to stress and overwork, and the associated lack of sleep and exercise. These days, my wardrobe is more of a uniform: I wear jeans and have dozens of black tops in various cuts and fabrics (an occasional dark gray or navy blue one, and black slacks when I give talks). I am so grateful for online shopping, because I can finally get the clothes I like in tall sizes, so my pants and sleeves are long enough. I buy a pair of boots every winter, which I wear every day all winter until they fall apart and by then it’s (usually) spring; I get new ones next season (my heart is with Zappos, because I wear women’s size 11 shoes). I have one pair of sandals, which I wear all summer, until they fall apart. I have a pair of black leather shoes for the in-between times (the two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall we get) and more formal occasions, which—you guessed it!—I wear until they fall apart. I wear makeup on the days I teach, and it’s minimal: lipstick, mascara, eye shadow, blush. I have never in my life worn foundation, concealer, or any of the rest of it; thankfully, I’ve always had good skin (probably helped by never wearing full-face makeup).
When I look at the women around me, say, the moms of my kids’ friends, I don’t really fit. On the one hand, you have the stay-at-home or corporate A types. Super fit, super well dressed, everything tightened and polished to perfection. High-maintenance highlights. Brights and pastels in wardrobe. Clothes that require dry-cleaning or ironing. I, my house, and everything I hold dear must seem like a steaming heap of garbage to them. I know these women embody feminine success and I have no idea how I would even instruct my hypothetical daughter to achieve this level of control over her looks and demeanor, which is needed so people would give her the time of day. All the stuff I hold dear and in which I have competence has to do with the inside of my head, which is not what people around me see. They just see a frumpy middle-aged woman and that’s the end of all consideration. At the opposite end from all the polish are all the frumpy people, and I am drawn to them, because I hope at least they won’t think I’m shit on sight… But then I catch myself judging them for the same things that I hate being judged for, because what’s more fun and healthy than pointing seething self-hatred outward?
Middle Boy, a fifth grader, tells me his female friends (already!) get up at 6:30 to take showers and do hair and makeup (!) and choose their clothes before school (which btw starts at 8:30 and no one lives more than a few minutes from school). They start younger and younger.
I don’t like going back to visit my ancestral home, so I simply don’t. I admit that, in great part it’s because everyone there, blunt and rude as they are (again, not uncommon for Europe) immediately comments on how fat and old you’ve become (in the 20 years since they last saw you). My own mother can never go long without commenting on my clothes or shoes, then show me all her favorite recent purchases, and commences to compare herself to me. Yes mom, you are almost seventy and you still look better than me. Happy? It sucks to be the homely spawn of two good-looking people.
So yeah, I’m happy I don’t have daughters whom I would sentence to a lifetime of insecurity and invisibility. But what about fighting the patriarchy, you say? Sure, but whom are we kidding—that’s never been a fair fight. Patriarchy may have been taken down a notch in places, but it’s still very much kicking women’s collective ass. At least I am not directly responsible for another young woman feeling like shit because I transferred my own issues onto her or for not equipping her to succeed in this system because I never knew how to work it myself.
Thanks for taking this navel dive with me, reader. Now, let’s both get out for some air.