Girly girl

If you spent your girlhood learning to toughen up, what happens when your daughter is the sensitive type who makes flower stews?

By Mona Gable
January 22, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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| My daughter is crying. It is the final day of kindergarten, Teddy Bear Picnic Day, and 52 children are talking, shrieking, engaged in frantic activity. I know there are 52 children because I just spent the last half hour frantically stuffing hundreds of green, white, red, yellow and orange gummy bears into 52 plastic bags. Now I'm helping eight 5-year-olds of wildly varying ability sort their bags by color and graph the results. So few gummies, so little time, as they say. This is not great fun, but at least I'm not stuck at the Teddy Bear Sandwich Center. That mother has to carve teeny-tiny bears out of white bread and slather them with peanut butter.

My daughter is supposed to be at the Teddy Bear Coloring Center. Instead, she is tugging on my skirt, tears sliding down her tiny freckled nose. She is the only child crying, as usual. I try to swallow my impatience.


"What's wrong?" I ask.

"Cameron won't let me use the red crayon!" she sniffs. Cameron is short and funny, with a face and personality not unlike Dennis the Menace.

"Did you ask him nicely if you could borrow it?" I ask.

"Yes, and he wouldn't give it to me!"


I can see she's not going to let me off easily, so I walk her back to her table to investigate. Sure enough, Cameron is madly scribbling away with a red crayon and as soon as he sees me he begins puffing up his chest, mightily defending himself. He explains that he's not yet done and that "she" tried to grab the crayon away from him, while she screams right back that she did not. The other children at the table look on, perplexed, their stubby crayons poised in mid-air. My head is spinning.

"Use another color," I tell her. "Cameron will give you the red one when he's done, won't you, Cameron?"

Cameron is noncommittal. Then Davis, slight cute Davis with a face the shape of a full moon, looks at my daughter and giggles. That's it. There's no hope for recovery now. She puts her head down on the table and sobs, big heaving sobs.


Instead of feeling empathy for her, feeling angry at the blond in short pants who has driven her to tears, I feel irritated at her. Why is she so damned helpless and thin-skinned? I think harshly. So sensitive? A child who makes flower stews, plays with Polly Pockets and keeps rolly pollies from harm. Sometimes I wish she would just deck someone. Why can't she be more tough, like me?

I was the last of four children. I was also the only girl. These two facts, I believe, shaped my destiny more than anything else. People often assume that because I was the only girl and the youngest, the baby as it were, I was hopelessly spoiled and protected. This always makes me laugh, it being so patently absurd as to make me wonder whether they've spent time around boys at all. Pummeled and ridiculed, yes. Spoiled, no.


Being a girl in our male-dominated household meant having the status of a slave. My brothers were the aggregate boss, a position of which they constantly reminded me. "Seniority rules!" my middle brother, Bill, the particularly mean one, would proclaim, shoving me out of whatever chair I was sitting in and planting himself there with an evil grin.

Females were, in a word, worthless. Giddy, foolish, obsessed with wimpy pursuits like books, cooking and dolls. They were especially dense when it came to appreciating the cosmic value of sports. No matter that this was in the bad old days before Title IX, when about the most strenuous activity girls were encouraged to engage in was paddle tennis, or at best traditional female sports like gymnastics. I was accused of being adopted several times because, among other obvious birth defects, I could not throw a football like my jock brothers.

Still, the worst crime in our middle-class, WASP family was to be sensitive. You could be lazy, you could be a jerk, you could even date a Jew, but if you showed a quivering lip, a tear, any sign of weakness, you were fair game. For a time my brothers could drive me to tears by looking at me. They could make me cry even harder by calling me the "s" word. "Mona iiii-ss sensitive!" they'd chime. Then I'd oblige them, of course, by behaving exactly as they intended. I'd flee to my room in tears, fling myself on the bed, my face burning with a terrible emotion I now recognize as shame.


I knew early on if I was going to fit in my family, feel a sense of belonging and power, I had one option. I was never going to be a boy, but I could act like one. So I did.

I built forts. I skateboarded. I wore shorts under my skirts and competed on the field ruthlessly. I grew tough. As it turned out, I was not half bad at being a boy; I was stocky and coordinated like my brothers, so athletics came naturally to me. In the sixth grade, when I took first place in the girls pentathlon competition for the entire school, I was happy because I won, of course. But the main reason I was happy was because I'd proved myself, shown that I was not just a girl in a training bra and pleated pastel skirts, but something superior.

The result of all this sex-role imitating is that I felt better, stronger and more competent, less vulnerable to my brothers' taunts and insults. They could even criticize my muscular calves and I wouldn't crack, wouldn't break down like some sleep-deprived torture victim. I might scream that they were assholes, but that was acceptable -- that was anger. My sensitive side still lurked underneath, but now it was more of a low-key hum than a deafening roar. My emotions were under control.


Having grown up with boys, when it came time for me to have a child, I wanted desperately to have a girl. Someone like me on the surface, but perhaps different under the skin. I never gave much thought as to what kind of girl she might be. Shy, outgoing, difficult, artistic, funny, smart -- I honestly thought it didn't matter. I would treasure her no matter who she was, I was certain, and give her the emotional support and validation I never had. It was hopelessly banal, but I saw having a daughter as a chance to redeem the past. I can see now that I was fooling myself. I not only cared about my daughter's emotional make-up, I cared deeply about it.

When my daughter was born, I felt like the little girl on Christmas morning who tears open the pretty paper to at last find the present she's always wanted. Blessed, thrilled, grateful beyond words. I loved her madly, instantly. "You finally got the girl you wanted," my childhood friend Theresa said knowingly.

It didn't take long to figure out the person my daughter was. Wise, inquisitive, nurturing and feminine. A girly girl who loved jewelry, dresses, Barbies and all things pink. A child who would break her cookie in two, then hold out the bigger piece to you in her small hand. Perhaps the quality that struck me most was how self-reliant and independent she was. By the time she was crawling, pulling herself up on the bookshelves in the family room, you could leave her with some blocks, a few squeaky toys and board books, and she'd play by herself for hours. By the time she was 2, she could speak only a handful of words, but she would pick out her clothes and try to wiggle them on. And not stripes mixed with prints, mind you, or clashing colors, but outfits that actually matched! After producing an earlier male child who showed no interest in personal hygiene, much less fashion, this was a revelation.

But I was also observing something else about my daughter. She was as delicate as a baby bird. She not only cried, but she cried easily and a lot. If you spoke with the slightest edge in your voice, she cried. If she fell down or got a scratch, she cried. If she woke up in the middle of the night and found herself alone, which she invariably was since we declined to invite our kids to sleep in our bed, she cried until you picked her up and even then she was often inconsolable. I spent the early morning hours of my 40th birthday driving her around on the Glendale and Ventura freeways because she was sobbing, keeping everyone awake. Thank God she had a brother who adored her and was sweet with her, or she might not have lived to see preschool.


Needless to say, all this crying was a bit wearying. At first I assumed it bothered me simply because of the noise, or the need to so often bandage her fragile spirit. But gradually I realized my irritation was due to something deeper and more upsetting: a reluctance to accept that she was like me, the little girl who once got so easily hurt. When I realized this my eyes filled with tears.

Almost 6, she is most prone now to being wounded by her peers. A few weeks ago, she attended her first slumber party. When I arrived to pick her up, she was playing a board game with three other girls and broke down in frustration when her friend Lucia unwittingly went ahead of her. "It was my turn! It was my turn!" she wailed, hitting her knees with her fists. "Not again!" muttered one little girl -- in an all-too-familiar tone -- as she glanced at my daughter.

The truth is I can't bear to see my daughter going through childhood as I did, suffering from too gentle and loving a heart. The world has precious little space for people like her, and I worry I will not be able to be the patient, wise mother she needs. "Kate loves to be responsible and to be helpful," wrote my daughter's insightful kindergarten teacher in her report card. "I've enjoyed watching her grow and mature. Keep encouraging her to keep her head up high."

But my daughter has no choice about who she is. And thankfully, neither do I. One afternoon a few months back we were over at her grandparents' house. My quiet father-in-law, who's 78, was sitting on the couch watching an NBA playoff game between the Bulls and the Jazz. He has diabetes, and my husband made a remark that his father wasn't feeling particularly well that day. The next minute my daughter got up from her chair and snuggled up next to him, placing her hand protectively on his knee. "Who do you want to win, Papa?" she asked. I have rarely seen a grown man look happier.


I know I still have a long way to go. But she has softened me too, broken through my hard outer shell. Over time, we've evolved a bedtime ritual that goes something like this. After bath and a story, we talk for a few moments, then she takes my face in her hands. "I always wanted to have a mother like you," she says, her large blue eyes gazing into mine. Then it's my turn.

"I always wanted to have a daughter like you," I say.

Mona Gable

Mona Gable is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and various magazines. She lives in Los Angeles.

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