Ophelia’s ride

Lately, the evils of four year olds has me losing perspective. I keep telling myself, “they’re four, they’re only four, they’re just four year old little kids!” But, when my sweet daughter Maya tells me a classmate said, “you can’t play with us” within some particularly nasty context (playing doggy, no one would be her owner) I want to rip out the classmate’s hair and throw her into a locked dark closet. Would that be inappropriate?

Life is like ocean waves. My self-awareness and understanding always reaching and finding new sands, new treasures. Always uncovering new old rubble. I’ve come to love The Ride even when storms make it scary. The Ride always rocks and rolls me. I’m always safe.

From this perch, I’ve been revisiting what it was like. What it used to be like. My happy tendency these days is to live in what it’s like now, finding the past an ordinary place with the present full of mystery and joy. Then these little brats came along. These little excluding and nasty and superficial little crap heads.

I’ve started reading Reviving Ophelia.No matter what parents do, Pipher reports in Ophelia, young girls risk losing their authentic selves. It’s only by being “high in acceptance and strong in controls” that we parents have a chance to find our daughters reclaiming themselves in their later teens. Apparently, our daughter is doomed to begin hating herself and hiding herself at around 11 years old, just like every girl I’ve ever known. The parents are not to blame.

Overbearing parents, absent parents, cool parents, geeky parents, they’re all facing the same thing. Girls who used to be outgoing, unabashedly intelligent, confident, and creative turn into little puddles of quietude, bitterness, or fear. Everything the girls are is wrong — their hair, their bodies, their thoughts, their words.

Early on, I was entirely a Good Girl. I didn’t get in trouble, I followed the rules, I did my homework, I was Responsible. Before junior high, I was an artist. I wanted to be an architect, among many other things. Then on career day, an older woman groaned at me when I told her this and said, “Oh, no you don’t, dear! You’d have to major in math and science!” She said this in an honors seventh grade math class. Not only was she not accurate about the “majoring,” but she was talking to someone who (at the time) loved math!

In the seventh grade I decided to become popular. I set about it like I would any homework assignment, I read books, magazines, studied up. I realized I’d have to drop the friends I had, even the ones who were hoping to climb the social ladder with me. It would only be by publicly rejecting them that I’d move into the cool crowd. I did what it took. I began flirting with boys, too, and found them flirting back. My life began revolving almost entirely around how others perceived me and I did, as Pipher reports as so common, lose track of my real self.

In the 9th grade I wrote a play in AP English as a class assignment. I have no idea why I thought it a good idea, but the play ended with me, standing alone in front of the class saying, “I’m lonely.” It was meant to be a Waiting for Godot flavored performance, but I look back now and see that I was speaking the truth.

There are other pivotal moments that shoved me into the typical self-hatred so many of us experienced in the brutal years of junior high and beyond. For a while in my 20s I blamed my parents, of course. But I think Pipher’s on to something in her position that it is our culture, our misogynistic surroundings that damn girls (and boys, I could argue in another essay) to the Hell of self-annihilation. Blaming the culture may sound like a cop-out. But now that I’m living life as a parent of a child, and now that I’m reflecting on my own history from this perspective, I see no other explanation.

Now I’m examining my role as a grown woman, a mother. How can I help Maya survive with her Self intact? Or, help her have a chance of reviving her true self when the storm of adolescence calms?

I’ve already strayed. When Maya went to a summer camp (mornings doing crafts and music) I began to pack little “treats” in her lunch box that felt inconsistent with who we are. I bought the little sugar drinks (claiming to be yoghurt, with Disney characters on the bottles) or pre-sliced cheese. I included bits in her lunch bag I knew “all the other kids” would have. Already I was concerned about her experiencing the ostracizing that comes from having the “wrong” foods in a lunch bag. I was giddy doing this, knowing I was “helping her” be one of the “cool” kids. Oh my god. What was I thinking?

Last week I again packed a lunch for Maya, but this time I was grounded. I was joyful and held true to our family’s priorities. I did pack a little treat, but it was some plastic spider rings we got at the dollar store last year (the lunch was on Halloween) rather than some crap food that would only make her feel tired. The environment for this lunch was also not typical — I knew that in this group “cool” was actually healthy and wholesome and genuine. Authenticity and kindness are the norm and the children are much less likely to say, “eeeew” to Maya’s lunch choices (as they did when I once included a box of carrot juice).

Just as I am revisiting this insane pressure to be what others expect — the same pressure that forced me over the cliff into self-hatred as a young girl despite my loving supportive family — I’m finding my own life to be a comfortable, firm, and perfectly fitting shoe (is there a prettier more accurate metaphor? I’m sure there is…). I am coming into being myself, fully accepting and pleased.

As a mother, I think I’ve caught myself early enough — I’ll do my best to focus on being true to myself, modeling the self-respect I want for Maya. I don’t need to buy the Disney. I will also focus on supporting Maya’s choices, encouraging her to realize that she has choices, that she alone determines her value — no matter what those around her say.

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today, I’ve read. What I got from the Ophelia book wasn’t despair or hopelessness. I got guidance. The book recalls a study done on strong and successful women like Eleanor Roosevelt. She describes a common theme for all the women was intellectual curiousity about something and a generally lonely adolescence filled with solitude or social rejection. Armed with this information, I feel encouraged. If Maya turns out to be a girl who loves horses, or a girl who loves Broadway musicals, or a girl who loves field hockey, I’ll be overjoyed. Passion for something, no matter how unfamiliar or even distasteful to me, will be her go-home-free card. I also won’t let myself get sucked back into the “if she’s liked, she’ll like herself” trap. As I begin experiencing the pain and joy of watching my daughter work her way through the system, I’ll try to remember to let go. I’ll practice having faith that everything will turn out okay.

Tonight a friend asked Maya who her best friend at school was. Wouldn’t you know her answer was that very same girl who had so wretchedly spurned her before? I can’t say I’m pleased about this since I am still nursing a tidy resentment. However, I am more comfortable remembering that not only is she only four, she’s out there practicing life. She’s learning about who she is just like I am. All I can do is just hang on for the ride.

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