Minnesota Mamaleh: About Raising Girls

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"The Soccer Look"

Kayli had her first soccer game this week. Right before the big game she jumped into her purple outfit, had her hair french braided by our fabulous babysitter and finished off the look with a dollop of lip gloss. She nodded in the mirror and smiled. Totally and completely satisfied with her “soccer look.” You might be asking yourself what any of this actually has to do with soccer right about now. Pretty much everything for my girl who fixes her fly-aways during a “throw in” and poses when she “traps a ball.” You learn something new everyday people. Every. Single. Day.

She’s lovely and gentle and adores all things pink, sparkly and girly. She’s also earthy. And fiercely competitive. Fiercely. Competitive. For those of you who know me well, there’s absolutely NO need to chime in on where she got that from. Nope. No reason at all. Thanks-a-million.

Now back to Kayli. She’s smart. Loves worms. And is only six years old and I’m already contemplating the mishmash of traits that define her, explain her, are her. If “contemplate” means worry about, stress over and analyze much, then I’m also “contemplating” how some of these characteristics contradict each other.

Contradictions are innate. And natural. To everyone. But they’re absolutely pervasive in messages that girls receive both in our culture and gulp from us, their parents and role models. Gentle but tough. Friendly but private. Caring but independent. Kind but assertive. Join-the-group but stand-out-from-the-crowd. Healthy but eat. Take care of yourself but don’t be too into yourself. Oh. My. God. How could anyone possibly define themselves within these fuzzy parameters? Especially a young girl.

I also contemplate how I’m supposed to support my girls as they maneuver through these messages, ideals, wants and attempts, stabs-in-the-dark really, of figuring out who they are. I could definitely take the approach of whatever will be will be. I’m open to the kids defining their own selves and images. But in reality just living my life with them, as me, I’m sending messages. Of my own beliefs, biases, rights, and wrongs.

The other reality is that as the parents we are role models for our children. We’ve lived a chunk of our lives already and are obligated to share some of our hard-earned knowledge with them. Not in a dictatorial way, for sure. But in an authentic way. Because as much as I can learn from my kids, they can, and should, learn from me.

I’m conscious of the messages that I send to my kids. How I react to their choices, words, friends, activities and outfits. And how I respond to my own self in all of these areas. I don’t always change what I think and do, but I am conscious of it. I do contemplate it all.

Awhile ago I read an article about what to do when your daughter doesn’t like her jeans. Even though the response is innate and ingrained, the writer said to absolutely not exclaim, “You’re fine! Gorgeous! Beautiful! What are you talking about?” Why? Because it’s not helpful. Or listening. Or a conversation opener. Or a dialogue-continuer. Even if it is true. And, yes. I do know that it’s true. About your girl. And mine.

The article suggested standing in front of a mirror with your daughter and having her show you what she doesn’t like, what’s making her uncomfortable. And to then help her find the words to describe the jeans and the fit rather than the words that might first pop into her mind about her own body.

Believe it or not, this Fall Kayli and I had the jeans-in-the-mirror-talk. And, indeed, on the first cool day of the season, after a summer of growing like a weed, last year’s jeans didn’t fit right or feel right. That time it was easy to focus on the fit, the new jeans and her tall, tall self. But afterwards, I looked at my sweet girl and wondered about the day that she does doubt or question her looks. Her smarts. Her athleticism. Her talents. Or her worth. In any way.

And I contemplated how I would help her find her own validity, value, confidence because me just saying it’s so, isn’t enough. Sigh. I have to show my girls what I want them to see. What I want them to learn. Sometimes, perhaps usually, these “lessons” aren’t direct or purposeful. They’re silent. And natural. And just as powerful. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not.

For example, I love it when my girls sit next to me in the morning and tickle their own cheeks with my blush brush. Or put on some of my lip gloss. Or brush their hair while I straighten mine. Most of the time I revel in the sweetness and the fun of the moment. The innocence and the connection that we’re building. But every once in awhile I get a twinge of what message am I sending here? If I’m make-up-ing, straightening, plucking, shaving? Am I sending a not-good-enough-just-the-way-we-are message?

There has to be a balance between taking care of yourself and feeling like you can’t leave the house without all of those -ings. Pampered versus boxed in, I guess. Can-do versus have-to-do.

Contradictions work when you own them. And live them. And accept each part of you for what is it is. If you want to be a girly-girl whose all nature-y and sport-y and bookish-y all at the same time. You can. One of our completely fabulous babysitters exemplifies the “you can” mantra perfectly. We saw her off to her senior prom last weekend and she was gorgeous. And glitzy. And sparkly. She was absolutely perfect. And she was also running around with the kids. Throwing them up in the air. Tickling them and chasing them. All in her golden heels. Because she can.

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And that’s what I want to infuse in my girls. By just…letting them be. Answering their questions. Showing them what I do. But also exposing them to other completely fabulous women who do things that I can’t even fathom doing. Like run marathons. Coordinate events. Carry tables. Coach soccer. Use the grill. Build a fire. Not to be over-the-top cheesy here, but teaching girls that they can be whatever they want to be? Priceless.

When I think of Israeli women I think of bad-ass girls who serve in the army. And carry guns. And know their politics. And mouth off. A lot. But really, I just can’t seem to get beyond the serve-in-the-army bit. Can you?

My Israeli Mama friends feel like American women are further ahead than Israelis in views about women and what they can and should do. When it comes to raising families, playing sports, dressing feminine. All of it. More traditional values prevail. The groupthink mentality is big as tends to happen in small places. Individuality. Differences. Paths. Choices. They aren’t always supported. And let’s just face it, an Israeli isn’t just going to quietly admonish from afar. Not at all. My stereotypes had me at the guns. But women, their choices, their sparks are available in the States. And that’s the rub. Wear pink on the soccer field. Have sparkles in your hair while hiking. Carry a table (or two) while wearing high heels. If you want. Because you can.

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Divas in the making

In terms of parenting our girls, it’s all about our words. Our reactions. Our modeling, for sure. Although I’m not going to stop shaving my legs just to show my girls that they can have that choice. I don’t have to do that. What I do have to do is check my own reactions to their individuality and forms of expression. At this age it might be when Kayli chooses to wear stripes and polka dots. At the same time. (Been there.) Or when Chloe wants five ponytails. At the same time. (Done that.) It’s about teaching our girls to own who they are. Be aware of their choices. And quite simply, to make them.

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About Galit Breen

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer. On any given day she can be found juggling three kids, one husband, one puggle and her laptop. Galit has had essays published in several anthologies, is the editor of Pens and Paint, a series anthology of children’s poetry and artwork and co-directs Listen to Your Mother, Twin Cities. Galit is a freelance writer for allParenting, Everyday Family, Mamalode Magazine, Soleil Moon Frye’s Moonfrye, SheKnows, and The Huffington Post blog and you can find her monthly here at TC Jewfolk. Galit blogs regularly, tweets excessively and may or may not work for dark chocolate.

Comments. Add Yours!

28 comments

  1. What a lot to take in at once. I may have to stick this on the bathroom mirror and absorb it over the next few years. Great article!

  2. Galit, this is such a beautiful article! Your girls are soooo lucky to have you as their mom! They are growing up so wonderfully! I can’t believe how much Kayli has grown! They are so beautiful and confident! Mazel tov!

  3. As with all things parenting- its such a delicate balance. Often, I wonder how to teach my daughter to be comfortable with her whole-self, when I know clearly that there are things about me that I’m not wholly comfortable with. Its hard to teach by example when we know that we’re not the perfect example. But then again, we know that its never an effective teaching tool to say “do as I say, not as I do.” Raising children in our present society often feels like teaching calculus with a degree in elementary music. So, I love the suggestion of surrounding our daughters with people who exemplify qualities that we wish we had.

    My hope for my children is that they will take the positive examples that I show them and not only internalize them, but build upon them. To be better than the examples they have. I think that if all children could be empowered that way, we would see a positive change in our society.

  4. Oh, oh, OH. So thankful to have the opportunity to read your writing today. Can’t even count the number of times I’ve smiled and said, “I feel so beautiful today!” to my kids when I know they just caught me critiquing the 400 stretch marks that decorate my tummy in the mirror. BUSTED. At that point I always stop and quickly think: I have a choice. I could groan, kick the tub, and yell, “Why oh, WHY do some women not even get ONE stretch mark?” BUT, alas, being caught provides me with the opportunity to say something I believe will benefit us both. My brain needs to hear me say “I am beautiful.” and my kids need their mommy to be happy with herself. Win-win. Never mind that it is a totally different story when I am alone in the bathroom :). Or the fact that I could never fit one leg in my husbands jeans- even though the kids all think he’s so much bigger because he’s older and taller. Love it. Win-win again.
    Thank you, Galit for sharing your gift or writing, knowledge and honesty with us!

  5. this is a beautiful piece. i have the same worries about my daughter…but also for my sons that they see value and beauty in all women…

  6. Right on, Galit. I loved this. I also think it’s so important to send that message to our girls–that they can be whoever they want to be, wear makeup or not, do whatever their hearts desire. No prescription, just freedom. You are the best role model ever for those girls. They are, and will always be, wonderful!

  7. I so love this from the Body Project (I have to find the link again): that the best thing you can do for girls, your own/others’ is NOT to comment upon how they look. Try it. Really hard between the dresses & sparkly & hair… And even if we don’t exactly never comment, to realize how much we are commenting — & tone it down, way down — is a perfect start.

    You piece was so thoughtful, as ever!

    Much to chew on…

  8. Galit — I love what you’ve written here. It is so hard to teach positive body image. Especially if the parent has, say, negative tapes playing in *her* head much of the time. On the one hand, I don’t want my daughter to be vain. But she really is beautiful and I don’t want her to feel apologetic about it. What I love about her is that, so far, she loves dressy-dresses AND playing with worms in the dirt. Wearing said dressy-dresses!

    You have selected such a great role model for your girls. The memories, augmented by what you’ve captured for them, will teach them much about what it means to be a girl!

  9. Oh how I love 21st Century parenting! No more is it a world where children should be seen and not heard. No more is it that boys shouldn’t cry and girls should.
    Things have changed so much in the last couple of generations; I’m busting at the seams just imagining the children that our children will have and can it get any better than this? Awesome.

  10. Lovely piece. I particularly like the advice about how to handle the jeans and mirror discussion!

  11. A fine piece of writing.

  12. Lovely piece. Spot-on. I have 2 boys that came before my girl, and it is so interesting to me the different things I think about as I make and attempt to parent each one differently. My daughter, though, gives me the most pause, because a) i have less experience – I have 2 boys first, and b) i wasn’t mothered in a particularly productive way, so i’m not entirely sure what i’m doing with her. BUT she’s pretty cute and smart, so i’m hoping she’s patient while i learn :-)

  13. Sounds like you are very present in your parenting – good for you. A wise man once said, “Childeren become what we help them becoeme, not what we simply wish them to be.”

  14. Raising girls must be one of the most difficult jobs around. I have four of them, and in no way am I an expert. Being a mom to four gorgeous girlies has made me strive to become a better person, because I quickly realized the key to the whole game is not do as I say, it’s to live by example. Hillel stated, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” My girls have taught me that I am for them. I am so proud of my daughters, and that makes me feel good about myself.

    BTW, that issue with the five ponytails, been there, done that, for an entire YEAR of kindergarden.

  15. Well, with a two-year old boy, I haven’t had a chance to do the 5 ponytails. I did put a clip in his hair because he found it and asked me to. He took one look in the mirror and wanted me to take it out. I wonder where that came from? ;)

    What’s funny is that even though he’s only 2 and a few months, I really see the man I’m raising him to be. He loves to spend time with me in the kitchen. He knows the names of all the items in there and gives me directions (“Now salt. Now oil. Now mix”). Hopefully he won’t be one of those men who don’t know how to cook a chicken!

    You’ve got me thinking about the image we send about gender roles, though. Because of our schedules, right now I do most of the housework. My husband is (and has always been) the fix-it person. When something breaks, even if I know how to fix it and tell my son I’ll do it, he insists that “Aba fix it.” If he sees my husband washing the floor, he’s completely tickled. Hmmm. Perpetuating the divide, am I? That is something I’ll need to think about.

    Thanks for another fantastic, thought provoking article.

  16. erica, hi! so glad that you’re back, i always love hearing from you. and why, yes. yes, i *will* take that spot on your NEW mirror, thankyouverymuch! :)

    t, thanks so much, lady! what a *huge* compliment from a totally & completely fabulous woman!! anytime you want to come visit & role-model-it-up for my little ladies, we’ll take ya!

    melissa, hi! thanks for the note, i think that you are so, so wise. i really love the teaching/degree analogy (lol!) and you’re 100% right, i hope that the kids shoot for above and beyond our wildest imaginings!

    oh my dear sweet kee, *your* children have nothing to worry about! they have nothing but fab people in their lives. and, can i just say, i so (so!) hear you about the jeans! could matt and j *be* any more fit?! thanks so, so much for the note on here! xoxo

    phyllis, hello! thanks so much for the note. you’re 100% right– total & complete miss on my part about the messages that we moms send our boys, too! thanks much for bringing that up. now that brody is almost 2, i guess it’s time to stop thinking of him as the baby and as the little man that he is!

    lisa, hi! thanks so much for the lovely compliment, which as you know i take very, very seriously coming from you!! & thanks, of course, for lovin’ my girls! :)

    sarah, thanks for the note & advice. that is good (*and* hard!) i always love, and learn so much from, your insight. if you find that link will you please post it here?

    rivster, excellent to hear from you! thank you for the kind words and encouragement. both are very much appreciated! i really love what you wrote about teaching kids to not be apologetic for any part of themselves; that’s a life-skill for sure! and btw, we so rock the fancy dresses-in the dirt-bit here, too! love it!

    christine, hi girl! i always look forward to your positivity! you’re absolutely right, we’re lucky to be discussing more opportunities for freedom of self exploration and expression for our girls! hooray, indeed!

    susan & ilana, so lovely to hear from you both and thanks so much for the kind words. i probably can;t express enough how much they mean to me!

    leah, hi! so much fun to hear from you on here! pause, indeed! i’m thankful for everyone’s patience every. single. day. we’re all just muddling through, aren’t we? and btw, i think that you’re absolutely right, so much of how we initially parent is a reflection (good or bad) of how we were parented.

    neil, hi! thanks for the vote of confidence. i love your wise words, as always.

    mirj, hi! hooray! you’re here! :) 4 girls, yowsers! i remember a teacher once saying that all kids deserve at least one person who is 100%-over the top- “for” them. i really get that now. and lol to the year-in-ponytails! did she wear them for picture day? b/c that’s a picture that would, for sure, tell 1000 words! thanks for the note.

    debbie, hi! indeed you’re 100% right we *are* raising little boyfriends, husbands, co-workers, men-in-society and i am so glad that you put that out there! i missed that completely in my thinking! i have no doubt whatsoever that *your son,* will know exactly what to do in the kitchen!! love it! :)

  17. What a WONDERFUL Post this is….So thoughtful in every way and ‘right on’ the money about being who you are…..! Doing whatever, because you can!!! Indeed, Indeed!
    My favorite picture of all the pictures you showed us?
    YOUR TWO GIRLS! Being themselves to the Max! BEAUTIFUL!

  18. Fascinating!
    I think I have succeeded in giving my girls the feeling they can do whatever they want – in play or sports or school. I have three girls – one is more girly than the others. They are all very active – although none of them are into organized sports, certainly not soccer (soccer teams for girls are not at all popular where I live in Israel).

    What does worry me is body image. They are all pretty slim, but I already see the talk of diets begin to infiltrate their speech (at the tender age of 8 and 10!) It worries me. Half their class is on a diet.

    Anyway, I do love those pictures of your babysitter. I love that image of womanhood – she seems so secure, so confident, so free, and so loving with your kids. You really lucked out with that babysitter!

  19. ol of the h, thanks so much for your kind words! and yes, i *do* love the little diva picture, too. it was a surprise shot taken by my sweet babysitter who knew i wouldn’t have wanted to miss such a cutey-patooty shot!

    & shira, hi! thanks for the note. it’s always nice to hear from you. the body image bit *is* truly frightening, isn’t it? 8 and 10 is so very young to be thinking about a diet! but i suppose 6 is young to be thinking about lip gloss!! & you’re right, we are so very lucky to have our babysitters! they are sisters (16 and 18) and we met them when the 16 year old was in my 1st grade classroom! *sigh*

  20. I absolutely love this post, and will definitely be adopting the suggestion about the jeans in the mirror. I just wish I could make everyone else here read it and think more about what our children are being taught with all this gender bias – both blatant and latent.

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  21. hi robin! thanks for the note. indeed, i love all of us talking and agreeing with each other. but you’re absolutely right. we are “preaching to the choir,” so to speak. there’s something to be said for that, too, though! great to hear from you, lady! :)

  22. Daughters are different, don’t I know it. Special, but very different from boys.

  23. jack, indeed. not something i understood *at all* until i had both. shocking, really, considering that i was a teacher once-upon-a-time! thanks for the note! :)

  24. I am the youngest child and only daughter, with two older brothers. When my middle child — my daughter — was born, I felt extremely blessed. As I’d never had a sister, or many of those sisterly type friendships with others, I’d always hoped for a daughter.

    But she is a few months short of turning 13, and it’s a difficult age, and sometimes I feel extremely lost in my parenting skills…especially with her.

    She is a much different personality than I was, and I thank G-d for her outgoing self, but still, this road map of parenting a daughter takes more twists and turns, I think, than parenting a son.

    But nonetheless, I wouldn’t change if for the world.

    Sugar and spice (lots of spice!) and everything nice…that’s my Adina.

  25. pearl– oh, do i ever hear you! i’m an only child and i was over-the-top excited when i found out i was having a girl and even more so to find out that she would have a sister! there’s just something amazing about that bond. but the teenage “spice?” that’s just plain old frightening!! excellent to hear from you, lady, and btw- i still love our “adina” connection! :)

  26. I’ve often observed an interesting pattern, where we raise children (especially girls, but this is somewhat true for boys, as well) with these beautiful ideas that we think it would be really nice and cute if they had, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to get them to let go of those beautiful ideas, and be able to function well in the real world.

    I give you sparkly nail polish and easy-bake oven for 3 and 5 year olds, and then the “looks aren’t everything” and “cooking is not just a woman’s job” talk for 12 year olds.
    Or the even more inisiduous Disney love stories for 7 year olds, followed soon after by “love doesn’t always conquer all, and some people are really dangerous” talk for the 16 year old whose “true love” is real trouble.

    I think we’d all love to see a world where all those beautiful and nice and lovely things are true, but especially for girls – how do we go about focusing on raising functional adults, prepared for a healthy and happy life, instead of really fairytale-struck kids?

  27. hi jenna! thanks for the comment, it’s nice to hear from you! hmm– i think it’s not so much about “letting go” of anything– i still love sparkles, etc. and promise to not be fairy-take struck! :) it’s more about not boxing our kids in. ie: my kids *definitely* know that jason is the better cook and in our house the vacuum is called “daddy’s vacuum” for a reason. brody plays with baby dolls and kayli plays soccer. you get the idea. it’s more about being conscious of our allowances and reactions. and as for disney? i love a good fairy tale but as with anything else there’s balance with other forms of good movies and literature. “the paper bag princess” is an excellent example and is a favorite at our house. and talking, talking, talking with our kids about all of the above is a must.