My daughter is ten. She is at that stage in life where she is somewhere between a child and a woman. It’s come earlier than I had thought, and sometimes I treat her as though she were already my equal. There are times I disagree with her a little too fiercely. There are times when I correct her when she’s wrong as I would a peer – without compassion and without giving her feelings any thought at all. Sometimes she disagrees back with even more ferocity. And sometimes she bursts into tears, unable to articulate herself, and it is then that I hold her close and remember that she is still my baby, even though the hormones that surge through her make her feel as though she is not. I wouldn’t go back there for anything. It is not an easy thing puberty.
I look at her flawless skin, and her sun-kissed hair with a mixture of pride, envy (there’s nothing like having a daughter coming into her prime to remind me that I am exiting stage left on my own, of course I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it’s sobering to experience), but most of all I look at her with huge admiration for the girl she is, and the woman that she will become. I’m a little in awe truth be told. I don’t tell her that, but perhaps I should.
You see, she teaches me things. All the time. It is not a side of parenthood that I had foreseen. Sure, I thought, she’ll teach me how to love in a totally different way. Sure, I thought, I’ll learn this breast feeding thing and it’ll be easier second time round (it was and it wasn’t, still smarted truth be told). But as she grows up she has turned into a person. With opinions that don’t always agree with mine. She taught me the word portmanteau (don’t judge me… Okay, maybe just a little. I am a writer who previously referred to them as mash up words). She taught me the way to catch a wave properly on a surfboard (she’s far better than me, but lets me tag along sometimes). She showed me how to play the violin. I could go on. It transpires that I am not the only teacher in our relationship. She fills my life with new knowledge.
But most of all, what she fills me with is hope. It’s a strange time that we’re experiencing now. Strange on many levels. The tolerant, kind world I knew is cracking. Those cracks can be filled in, repaired and I hope we can move on. Or they can become chasms that threaten to divide us before we are able to reconcile our differences.
The current world teaches us jealously. It fuels envy, and it teaches us that ‘celebrity’ is a good thing. It’s not. It’s a very unhealthy thing, where people who have won the genetic lottery (because let’s be honest, that’s what good looks really are) parade themselves and what they wear, endorsing (ie getting paid for advertising) anything they choose to; we are no longer content with what we have, we look up, all the time up, up, up. Rarely down. Rarely do we see what we have, until we see someone who had so little, and then has that taken away. The news has been full of that. Of loss. Why is that it is only when we see someone else’s loss that we are able to focus again on how much we do have?
My ten year old came home from school the other day indignant. She had been learning French. ‘Mummy, do you know the word that we use for lots of girls?’
‘Elles’ I answered, relieved it wasn’t something more taxing that may involve me resorting to Google.
‘Yes.’ She had said. ‘Do you know what is used for a group of boys?’
‘Ils,’ said I feeling all levels of relief, not to mention just a little bit over-confident in my French ability.
‘Yes.’ She said. She paused. Her face full of genuine anger. ‘Mummy, if one single boy were to come into a room of girls, it changes to ils! IT IS RIDICULOUS. HAVE THEY NOT HEARD OF A MAJORITY?’
I must admit I very nearly burst with pride. ‘That’s the Patriarchy for you M’, I said. Her face went a little blank at that point. There were high fives and self-congratulatory pats on the back (from me to me) on having raised a girls with reason and a feminist. GO ME (and to be fair my lovely husband). I thought. WE HAVE WON at parenting.
But I’ve been thinking on what she said a little more, and realised that not only have I raised a brilliant young woman with a mind of her own and a true understanding that men are equal to women (duh), but more than that. She actually taught me something about gender.
I am happy to be a she, very much content with my gender, married, two children. I am boringly conventional. I am liberal in my outlook to pretty much everything. I am thrilled that gender is – as it really is – so much more fluid these days. That people are – on the whole – so much more accepting. But I’ve struggled with the need for non-binary labels. I’ve just not got it. I’ve not got it because it’s never bothered me being a Miss, or a Mrs. Or a She. Or a Her. I am all these things.
And then my ten year old indignant feminist of a daughter told me an anecdote about the fact that French nouns have a gender (incidentally, one of the many reasons I loathed French I remember now is that THERE IS NO LOGIC TO WHAT IS WHICH, I dropped it as soon as I could and did German at GCSE, which had NEUTRAL gender as well as masculine and feminine, though leveling with you, modern languages were never my strong point), and that a boy automatically changes the gender of a room, just by being a boy. And I had that moment, when I, a thirty-something year old women, was taught something quite by accident, by a young girl who is (and I’m biased naturally) going to be quite a formidable woman. Sometimes things aren’t put into he and she categories. Sometimes you need something that’s just neutral.
So M, thank you. I get it now. Something that I didn’t and that now I’ve understood clearly. The last time this happened was when my niece (she’s now fifteen) was talking about thunder and lightening. Look, I knew that thunder is after because speed of light versus speed of sound, just no one had ever articulated it as well as a three year old did.