Help! My daughter's a girly girl

She wears pink sparkles and angel wings, and I worry she's learning the wrong lessons about womanhood

Published March 21, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

I have what you call a girly girl. Her name is Julia. She's 4 and a half and hasn't worn pants in nearly two years. She has more lip gloss than Lady Gaga. She doesn't see anything contradictory about wearing a party dress to bed or demanding that I be John Smith from "Pocahontas" while I breastfeed her baby sister. "You can still do the booby," she says diplomatically, and instead of fighting about it, I usually just give up.

"I've given up" is something I've found myself saying a lot these past couple of years. "Anything pink!" I say when someone asks what she might like for her birthday or Christmas. "I've given up!" Often it is another mother of a girl doing the asking, and we have a good laugh. I know I'm not alone in this.

But lately when I say those words, I feel a tightness in my chest. I look at Julia, my sweet Julia, in her sparkly shoes and her tiara, and I feel that I am failing her somehow. Her father and I separated three months ago. Camelot we are not.

I often ask myself how I got here. I have never considered myself feminine in any typical way. I get my hair cut once a year. I equate shopping for clothes with a trip to the dentist. Before I had Julia, certainly, I would never have imagined that I would essentially live in the Disney palace, forced by my daughter to talk in "a handsome voice" and mostly about getting married or mopping the kitchen. "Cinderella loves tidying up!" she frequently proclaims. Unfortunately, her passion in this category rarely extends to her room.

Partly, of course, it is apathy. When the fatigue of everyday life sets in, every mother picks her battles. In my case, Julia absolutely has to brush her teeth, but do I care if she wears her shiny pink polka dot dress to school three days in a row, particularly when she's woken up at 2 a.m. to ask me this? Honestly? Not so much.

And yet there was a time, a time before Julia, a time I can barely remember now, when I don't think I would have given in so easily. The day her father and I found out I was pregnant, we walked to a nearby baby store and picked out a pair of pale blue booties and a yellow giraffe, stuffed and quizzical looking. I had a strong feeling I was having a girl, but still I wanted something neutral. I didn't want the world to define her; I wanted her to define her world.

I didn't understand then just how challenging this would be, not only vis-à-vis my daughter, but vis-à-vis me. Like many other women, when I got pregnant I was determined to establish a reasonable balance between my work life and my family. My goal while Julia was small was to take care of her as well as write my first book. This equilibrium sounded good in theory — and in e-mails to my friends — but in truth I had a hard time actually doing it, actually ensuring that I had both a child and my own life. I believed in balance on paper but never felt truly entitled to it. Julia was over a year old before I got a babysitter, and then only for a few hours a week. Somehow I got it into my head that no one could take care of her like me, so I worked mostly during her naps, which most days was about as productive as serving coffee during an earthquake.

In the meantime, my marriage suffered. I didn't anticipate the envy and loneliness I would feel as I watched my husband go to work, to colleagues and a paycheck. We had been together 10 years before we had children, and they had been lived as equals. Suddenly, this was no longer the case. Suddenly, we had very little time together, and most of it was spent talking about his work and life. My future, my career plans and goals, felt sidelined by fatigue and logistics. The "flexibility" I coveted suddenly meant I was picking up all the slack and getting very little respect in return. Before long, it seemed whenever I raised a qualm or demanded help, he would say, "But I have a job!" I'd get upset in return, of course, but my voice always seemed to fall flat. Mostly I'll never forget how degraded those words made me feel, nor how I stood there just praying that Julia wasn't old enough to understand them.

When I think about why this happened — how I unraveled, how I let myself go — the answer feels almost too obvious to utter. But the truth is, I have never not felt that someone wasn't looking at me, judging me, and this was particularly so as a new mother. Until then, I had somehow done a fair job of protecting myself, keeping others at bay, but with Julia came an increasing inability to distinguish what I wanted from what others expected of me as a woman and a mother. "This is the best time of your life," I heard. "She needs you the most now," they said. It wasn't that I inherently disagreed with those things, but I did spend entirely too much time worrying about how others viewed me and my choices, instead of focusing on what would make me happy, or even what would work best for my family. In a sense, I have always lived life as if I were a character in a movie — perhaps every woman does. One of the strongest memories I have of being pregnant is not how it felt to be poked from the inside by my little girls, but of walking down the street, large and slow, and feeling an overwhelming sense of pride in the satisfied and sentimental looks of strangers as I passed by them. It's the feeling of someone else's approval, and it's probably one of the most powerful things in the world.

My daughter knows that look; I know she does. She has a pair of fairy wings that she loves to wear about town. She almost always flutters in front of me when she does, and I do love the look of joy and abandon on her face as she jumps about, arms spread wide. I want to say there is a sort of freedom there nestled in her curly blond hair, bouncing off her round baby cheeks, and perhaps there is — the freedom you find in fantasy and imagination. I only wish that sometimes she could stay in that little world, eliminate, that is, the bystanders who walk by and smile, innocently enough, at her in such a way that she beams and winks her irresistible wink. As I did with her in my stomach or, days old, in my arms, she is getting something from them. She is learning what is means to be a woman: on show, agreeable, lost in some other world.

Nothing about this feels easy. When Julia stares in the mirror — at 4 years old — and cries because she doesn't "look nice," I admit that sometimes it feels like there is nothing I can say to reach her. My impulse at these moments is to blame nature, the media, but then every now and then I catch myself doing something I never thought I'd do. At a recent school fair, I asked her probably 10 times if she wanted to visit the nail polishing stall, though each and every time I asked, she said no. Sometimes I fear I'm subconsciously preparing her for the torn life, the woman's life — telling her to be strong and independent, but also reminding her that people are looking, and that that is somehow important. I smile too when she's in her fairy wings.

Lately, though, I am trying to be more careful and astute in all things. I feel more responsibility than ever, and I know too what's at stake. My husband has begun to spend more time at home, and he and I have started counseling, started to open up about our various struggles with our respective roles, and how to differentiate what is expected of us from what we truly want. For the first time in months, I feel hopeful. But I've also vowed to be more conscious and direct with Julia no matter what happens between her father and me. I recently got her a book on women's history, and she's really into Abigail Adams (though, admittedly, mostly because of her fancy clothes). I also play her a lot of Janis Joplin. We jump around the room screaming along with the songs, and I show her YouTube clips too. "You just want me to like her because she's ugly," she says to me, smiling. Above all, she's a smart one, my girl.

She knows her mother's been going through a hard time. Sometimes, without warning, I cry in supermarkets and on sidewalks, uncharacteristically unconcerned if others see me without makeup on, or with it somewhere down around my chin. I always mutter "Sorry, sweetie, sorry" to Julia whenever I do this, though I'm beginning to realize it may not be the worst thing for a daughter to see her mother being human, having an interiority, struggling to regain a self she let go.

In the past few months, she's been understandably more needy and prone to tantrums and fits of her own. The other day, during one of her meltdowns, she did something I found so disturbing that my shoulders tighten just thinking about it. She ran to her room and stared at herself in the mirror as she cried. I followed behind her and sat by her side as she did, but that only upset her more. With a glassy stare somewhere between fear and confusion, she took to looking frantically back and forth between the mirror and me, and it was at this point that I started crying too. I realized then that my daughter didn't quite know how to be herself, express herself, without worrying about how she would appear to others. It was as if our lives at that moment collided. I knew exactly where she was — stuck between her girly world, a world where people are looking and judging, a world represented so completely by this mirror by which her frilly dresses hang and in front of which she has spent hours primping and posing, and the real world of her mother, a world that lately is hardly simple, that is full of tears and trials, that makes you work for your triumphs.

When I could stand it no more, I pulled her onto my lap. "It's going to be all right, Julia. You know it's going to be all right." I felt as if I were talking about nothing and everything at once.

"In real life?" she asked. "It will be OK in real life?" Along with the tantrums, this is something relatively new too, a development since he's been gone. Whenever I say anything — we need milk, I have a stomachache, your sister's eating a puff ball — she asks, "In real life?" as if we women normally live in some other realm, and not here, now.

"In real life," I confirmed, in a voice that was surprisingly serious and slow. They felt at once ridiculously simple, these words, but also exactly to the point. They reminded me of the lessons I'd learned since Julia's birth — that life isn't a movie, nor are you a prop or a poster girl, but a person — and how they were the exact ones I needed to impart to her as she began to sift through the stuff of women's lives, to distinguish who she really is from who others think she should be.

On the floor around us were a million scattered accessories — rubber bands with rhinestones, plastic pink high heels from Target, glitter embedded in everything. "We've got to clean up this mess," I said partly as a diversion and partly because I meant it. I've started to throw away these little trinkets whenever I get a chance, and though doing so always brings with it a strange tinge of guilt, I'm happy to say Julia has never once noticed anything missing.

I gave her a little tickle, and we both chuckled. I don't mind her knowing that I'm struggling — that sometimes you have to go through hard times to get to honest times — but I also want her to know that I'll be OK too. Leaning back and giving me a kiss, she seemed to intuit this. For a blissful moment, we weren't talking in funny, fake voices. We were just Mommy and Julia. And I knew then that if anything could make us happily ever after, it was that.

By Ashley Sayeau

Ashley Sayeau has written on culture, politics and women for a variety of publications, including the Guardian, the Nation and Salon. She is currently writing a memoir about cultural and class divides in America.

MORE FROM Ashley Sayeau

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Motherhood Parenting