Whenever anyone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, my three-year-old daughter says “I want to be a mom.” I’ve tried to tell her she can be a mom AND whatever else she wants to be, but she hates that idea and rejects it wholeheartedly. “I JUTHT wanna be a mom,” she tells me defiantly in her lisping voice. “Ok,” I smile. “Sounds good then.” My daughter is independent and full of spunk and determination. Who’s going to try to tell her what she can and can’t do? Oh, I think, sinking a bit. Everyone will.
I’m worried because I know I can’t protect her from societal pressures forever. So innocent now, someday she will realize the world might not look on her favorably. If she is a working mother, a stay-at-home mother, or a woman who doesn’t get married and never has kids—there will always be judgments on her. But I’m mostly worried because I know—deep down—that this is the least of my concerns.
My daughter doesn’t know that when I shop at the grocery store late at night, I walk back to my car with my key between my fingers so that if I get attacked, I can use it as a weapon. She doesn’t know that I dial 9-1- and hold my phone in my hand when I’m out walking after dark. She doesn’t know that when I was in college, we girls were warned not to walk alone at night because several rapes and attacks had been reported on campus, and my roommate and I used to meet each other in the parking lot so that we could walk back to the dorms together as quickly as we could. She shouldn’t have to know these things, shouldn’t have to learn these tricks. I’m worried because I don’t want to have to teach her these things—ever. I don’t want her to lose her courageous, independent spirit to the fear of being hurt because she’s a girl.
I know, someday, I will have to teach her how to be safe, to stick with friends after dark, to maybe learn some kickboxing moves. But for now, my husband and I are trying a different tactic. We’re targeting our six-year-old son.
My son is the boyest of boys—full of energy and testosterone and the need to destroy and wrestle and be louder and more obnoxious than I knew was possible for a human to be before I had him. He likes to hug and tackle and flail his limbs and squeeze, and the only willing participant around here is his little sister. I say “willing participant” because—for the most part—she gets right in there with him, but she can turn on him in about a millisecond. “But she’s laughing, Mom,” he complains when I hear her yelling and find him sitting on her head. “She likes it!” Or, “She told me to stop, and I did—but then she tackled me again!”
“I get it, buddy,” I tell him. “That’s confusing. But I DON’T CARE. If you think she’s having fun, but she says no—listen to her ‘no.’ When she says stop, you stop. I don’t care how many times she says it. You stop EVERY SINGLE TIME, and you stop INSTANTLY. If it’s frustrating for you, you can leave and find a different game.” I lose my patience with him quite frequently when I hear my daughter yell stop more than once, because—as I have told him ten or twenty or eleventy-billion times—she should only ever have to say stop ONCE before he immediately backs off. The rules are simple, and my husband and I reiterate them all the time. As long as you’re both having fun, go for it. But the SECOND you hear sounds of pain or distress, stop what you’re doing immediately. The SECOND someone says “stop” or “no”—stop what you’re doing immediately. No matter what.
He hasn’t learned yet, but we’re not giving up. We live in a society that blames victims for being raped, denies or downplays rape, disbelieves victims, defines rape as “legitimate” or not, defends rapists, and holds women and girls responsible for not letting themselves get raped. And it starts with children. Girls are forbidden to wear leggings to school, chastised for taking “sexy selfies,” handed rape whistles, and subjected to a myriad of sexual assault prevention programs and talks designed to teach girls how to prevent rape rather than to teach boys not to rape.
I don’t want to raise my children like that— in that disturbing and frightening rape culture. I’m working on teaching my daughter that her no means no, and to say no or stop with confidence—that her words should be respected. I believe teaching her to stand up for herself starts right now—when she’s three and independent and spunky and wrestling with her big brother. But even more importantly, I’m working tirelessly to teach my son that when a girl—or any person—says ‘no,’ that ‘no’ is to be respected. (And it’s exhausting, y’all.) It’s for him, of course, but it’s also for her! I hope mothers and fathers of little boys everywhere are teaching their sons the same—so that my daughter doesn’t have to walk around her college campus with her keys between her fingers or a rape whistle around her neck.
We women have enough to worry about. We deserve equality in the workplace and in the world. Our fight for our daughters should not have to include teaching them tricks to avoid being raped. My daughter wants to be a mom. And I, her mother, don’t want to worry about her being attacked. I want to spend my energy thinking about how to change society’s archaic views on motherhood and maternity leave and breastfeeding in public so that she gets a fair shake someday when she’s carting around all the babies she plans on having. That’s why teaching them both that no means no starts now—at home—when my son has my daughter in a headlock and she lisps at him to, “THTOP IT!”