Boy no do that!

How my 2-year-old nabbed a career pincher.

By Laurie Wagner

Published August 18, 1997 11:37AM (EDT)

my father-in-law is a pincher. He pinches his wife, his nieces, assorted
lady friends and me. Been pinching me for years. Never on the
butt, always on the arm or on the waist. He'll come up from behind and
take a big thumbful of whatever I've got there and just tweak it.
It's not an easy pinch. It hurts and reeks of something
this side of sexual, with a twist of anger thrown in. But in the nine
years I've known him, I've never said one word, not one ouch or one quit
it. I just grimace and squirm away.

I'll spare you the story about being raised a nice girl. We all were.
Taught to laugh things off, brush someone away without offending them,
walk past the catcalls and endure the poking. Nice girls know how to do
that, enduring the intrusion while remaining beautiful and desirable at
the same time. It's an art really, and the more you're able to integrate
it into the way things are, the less sensitive you'll be to the
intrusion. Even to the point of not recognizing it -- even if it is a fierce
pinch to the flesh that rides your middle. And although I'd grown
plenty in 37 years and learned to take care of myself and tell
the truth more often than not, I still couldn't get myself to tell this fine,
Christ-loving man to stop pinching me. I didn't want to hurt his
feelings because I knew it was a pinch in the name of some kind of love, which
I felt obligated to for some creepy reason.

Little did I know that my liberation from pinching wouldn't come
in the form of the latest self-help book or from a flame-throwing feminist
guru charging me $300 for a weekend of shouting. No, liberation came from
my 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, loving scoundrel that she is.

I'd always hoped that if I had a daughter she'd be strong and
forthright and I'd be able to show her how to take care of herself in the world.
She wouldn't take shit from other people, she'd feel entitled to speak
her mind and she wouldn't let anyone touch her without permission. I wanted
her to have the self-esteem that I lacked.

But I realized early on in Ruby's life that I was doing a pretty poor job
of showing her the way. The first time I noticed the gap between what I wanted for her
and what I was actually teaching her was when she was 4 months old
and I brought her to my exercise class. The baby sitter there seemed competent
enough; the other mothers seemed to think so. Still, I'd pick Ruby up after the
sweaty hour was over only to find unsteady toddlers running around with
sharp pencils, hopping and flopping around my innocent babe, who lay
peacefully in her portable car seat, binky plugged in her mouth. I was
horrified and sure that some harm would come to Ruby, but I couldn't
bring myself to say anything to the baby sitter because I was embarrassed
that I would seem, well, neurotic.

Even later, when I saw the baby sitter plant a few full-on mouth kisses to
my daughter, I concealed my shock but said nothing. Aside from the fact
that she smoked and didn't wash before handling the kids, you never kiss
little babies on the mouth. Still, I never said a word because I
simply couldn't manage to say, "Uh, please don't kiss my kid." I went
home from the class night after night and tormented myself.

So when my in-laws visited last week I had already endured at least
three pinches from my father-in-law and I wasn't even close to erupting.
My anger lay too low to the surface. I only sensed a dull, sick feeling
for my father-in-law. And counted the days until their departure.

It was an overcast morning and we were getting ready to go visit the U.S.
something or other, a ship once owned by Elvis that my father-in-law was
pretty excited about. Ruby was naked and in my mother-in-law's arms when
Grandpa came saddling over to give her a tweak on the butt. I saw it.
Then I heard Ruby yell with all her 2-year-old might, "Boy no do that!
My butt! My body! Boy no do that!" I just froze. I could not believe what
I had just heard my kid say. I mean, it slipped out of her mouth like honey,
like it was just the most natural thing in the world. I just stood there in awe of this
person I'd brought into the world, amazed and grateful that even
after watching her own mother stuff it, that she still had the edge on,
that she instinctively knew how to take care of herself. I woke right

Later that day at the park I told her that what she'd said to Grandpa
was really cool and she looked at me in confusion like, "What's the big
deal mom?" then ran off to the swings.

Several days later, and after much buoying by friends, I asked my
father-in-law to come into my office for a talk. I asked him if
he realized that he pinches people, and he said he did. "Well, I don't
like it," I said. "I never have. It hurts and I've never known how to
tell you."

"Gee, I'm sorry," he said uncomfortably. "I always thought it
was a kind of sweet thing, you know, friendly. I never meant any harm."

I went on to explain that as women we grow up taking all sorts of sweet,
well-meaning things from men that are meant to flatter us, but that
actually demean us. I said that pinching was no longer acceptable for me
or for Ruby, and that he wasn't allowed to touch her butt either. "I
want her to grow up knowing that no one is allowed to touch her unless
she gives them permission," I explained. My father-in-law didn't seem
to grasp the full impact of what I was saying. He'd been pinching women
for years and was a very traditional kind of guy. You know, "I pinch, you cook,
I make the money, you make the bed." But he did say that he'd stop pinching us and
to brick him if he ever did it again.

It was Ruby who made it all possible. I know I have things
to teach her about the world and how we ought to live in it, but instead
of assuming that I've got all the answers, I want to pay more attention
to what she instinctively seems to know. I want to yell more too, and scream
"Ouch!" if someone pinches me. I want to be able to tell friends that I feel
hurt or angry if they've said or done something that didn't feel right to me.
I want to stop worrying about other people's feelings and take better
care of my own. Growing up I was told that was a selfish way to be, but as
I can see in Ruby, there is a kind of clarity and liberation in having the
courage to trust yourself and speak your truth in the moment. You can always
be forgiven if you've tread too hard, but it's much harder to forgive yourself for
remaining silent.

Laurie Wagner

Laurie Wagner lives in the Bay Area and teaches a class on the personal essay at

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