I’ve never been good at being a girl.
By that I mean, not by anyone else’s standards, I think.
This has always been a source of anxiety for my mom, at least as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, we had a fight–or she did; I was just a bystander–because I didn’t put on earrings before leaving the house. She was furious with me for reasons that she couldn’t articulate and that I could not understand. What difference did it make, I wondered? Who would even notice? But that, of course, wasn’t the point. The point was, my mom would know, would been painfully aware of the absence in my earlobes and thus be unable to function.
I don’t remember who won that one.
When I was in middle school, the boy band New Kids On The Block was the overwhelming teenage thing. We were middle school kids with one eye already on high school, on that great thundercloud that promised a kind of future that everyone was always telling us we should prepare for. Like adulthood was something that required waders and a hat. A flashlight with some extra batteries and we’d be all set. It was a worry in the future, one we were aware of but not consumed by.
We were just girls prone to sleepovers and lazy afternoons with bad movies. And, for a time, New Kids, too. But I didn’t care about them. I was no gender warrior, to be sure; I wasn’t consciously rejecting their kind of cool as some sort of feminist protest, I just–wasn’t interested.
Granted, this self-imposed limitation kept me out of some conversations among my friends, sure, and I couldn’t sing along to “Hangin’ Tough,” either. But my friends didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know that I ever fit in easily with them, anyway. At least that’s how I felt at the time. If I thought about this New Kids question at all, it fell into the well-established column of “how I am different,” so I paid the issue of Jordan and Jonathan and Joey and Donnie no extra mind.
But my mom, she was worried. She couldn’t understand why, if all my friends were into something, extolled its virtues in chorus kind, I did not. In her mind, I think, it was willful; I was stubborn, I was ostracizing myself. She thought this way, still does, I think, because that’s the way she operates, the only way she knows how to be.
So she mounted a sustained campaign, one designed to convert me into the teenage girl she knew I could be, if only I tried a little harder. If only I took some of the energy I devoted to reading or writing or whatever the hell it was I did that she chose not to understand and put it towards something worthwhile, then I could be fixed. Of this, she was sure.
While my friends’ mothers were rolling their eyes at the stupid New Kids phase, then, and resisting their daughters’ entreaties for more merchandise, more material proof of their undying devotion, my mom did the opposite: in the face of my not asking, not caring, she bought me New Kids tapes and a New Kids t-shirt and waited anxiously for my new self, my girl self, to be reborn.
An effort, I fear, all in vain.
I wonder what she wanted me to be, really.
A girl who liked pink, I think.
A girl who dated.
A girl who was at ease with her femininity in a way I don’t think my mom’s ever been.
For her, being a girl isn’t a social construct, a pattern of public behaviors that mark a particular gender, an easily recognizable version of “woman.” It’s who I was supposed to be, someone who got it, got girlhood, and thus (went my mom’s thinking) would reap the benefits that the world heaps on somebody who’s good at being a girl.
My father’s the feminist in the family, the one who always told me that I could be and do whatever I wanted to, that the only limitations were my will and my willingness to convert what’s in my head into action.
She feels cowed by the world, by people she’s decided are smarter than she is, better in some undefinable way, and she deals with this anxiety by inexorably pushing everyone else away.
My dad’s the only one who’s refused to go. Loyal to a fault, he is.
I’ve done a lot to disappoint my mother, but I think this is the most fundamental of them all: I’ve never been good at being a girl.
And more to the point: I’ve never wanted to learn how.
I don’t know that she’ll ever forgive me for that.