Naomi* was trying not to cry, but it wasn’t going well. She was a good friend of mine, unexpectedly pregnant with her third child, who would be born within a year of her second. She was a great mother who handled the surprise of that well, but, five months in, there was news.
She was having a girl.
Her first two were boys, and even the days when they were hard, she knew that they would be easier than a daughter. Not that there is anything inherently difficult about a girl, and there were great joys, she felt assured, in rearing a daughter. But there was also difficulty, too. Her relationship with her mother, which always felt harder than her relationship with her father and much, much harder than her brothers’ relationship with her mother, was evidence enough, but she knew, too, from talking to other women about their mothers that mother-daughter relationships were often difficult. Maybe almost always difficult, at least for long periods of time.
But there was something else sad, too, about having a girl—the world is hard on them in ways that women know and fear.
*No, this isn’t her real name. And, yes, she now has a beautiful daughter she loves–and worries about–very much.
Our family was at the park the other day, having a picnic before the weather got too cold and we would need to bring a broom to sweep the snow off the sliding board before we could use it. We’re public park aficionados—real public works boosters—and had had a great time. We left dirty and tuckered out. The kids were each done with bathtime, the oldest was tucked into bed reading some history of Danish resistance in World War II, and I’d just finished two chapters of The Mouse and the Motorcycle with the younger two, now tucked in bed, so I dared to get a shower. I don’t even bother to close the bathroom door because this is prime time for discussions about serious issues with Mom, but still, I was surprised when my daughter came in, telling me she was worried about something she’d seen at the park hours earlier.
I turned off the water, not even having yet lathered up, and stuck my head out of the shower.
She’d seem some really nasty graffiti at the park. Something violent toward women.
There was a lot to unpack here, so I let her lead, asking her what she thought about it. She understood the literal meaning, she said. “But what does it mean? And why would someone write it where kids would see it? Actually, why would they write it at all?”
All good questions, but the full answers are too big for her. The answer for a nine-year-old girl is that our culture teaches boys that they are valuable only if they are violent. Sometimes those messages are explicit, like in how we make war toys for boys specifically. Sometimes they are more subtle, like when we ignore physical fights between boys. Violence against women is one way that some men reassure themselves that they are important. The new words for the night were misogyny and toxic masculinity, which hurt men and women alike.
“What is your best guess about who wrote it?” I asked.
“Teenage boy,” she answered knowingly. “They’re practicing being violent to girls so they can prove that they are powerful to other teenage boys.”
“Good guess. I mean, we can’t know, but I bet you’re right.”
She still seemed worried. “Do you think the boy who wrote that is violent?”
“I don’t know, baby. But I know that if we practice violent words, it’s easier to do violent deeds. So I hope he stops writing those words. I hope the person who saw him doing it told him it wasn’t cool, that it’s not how a person who actually values himself acts. I hope that is the kind of friend you and your brothers will be.”
This helped a bit but not entirely.
“Mom, there’s one more thing.”
“Tomorrow at the park, some other kid is going to see that graffiti. Maybe a boy who thinks its how older boys act. Or maybe a girl who will be worried that boys will hurt her.”
I was stumped for a second, then got what she was saying. We’d need to go fix it.
We did, and we decided on something else, too: We keep a big set of Sharpies in the glove compartment of the van now. We’re guerilla artists, doing our part to help make our parks even more beautiful, more welcoming, as public parks should be. It doesn’t get rid of the problem that my daughter encounters—or the many problems all of us fear our daughters will encounter. We can’t neutralize every threat, fend off every attack, or dismantle the patriarchy all at once. We can’t prevent that hurting, hurtful stupid boy from writing violent threats against girls and women or his friends from laughing at him or cheering him on.
Above, you can see our work under the slide at High Adventure Park in Ogden.
But slowly, slowly, we go on, back to the park again, claiming our territory and our right to be there, to be safe, to transform other’s mistakes into a beautiful world for ourselves.