"When I grow up I'm going to marry John."
We were driving, running errands while her big sister was at school. There is one month between Chica starting school and Bug starting school. Sometimes that month can seem v-e-e-e-e-r-y l-o-o-o-o-n-g. But I mainly soak up this special time with just the two of us. She has my undivided attention, no big sister to steal her spotlight. We talk about a lot of things. And just like on many of our car rides, her small voice piped up from the backseat. A seemingly innocent assertion, but one that opened a door to a greater conversation.
I've spent a lot of time thinking recently. About many things, but largely on parenting. My parenting. In today's culture. Our society certainly doesn't make it easy. But perhaps that is what every parent thinks during their season in history. We've seen so many setbacks and victories in the past few years, and it's telling about how our culture is moving, growing and remaining stagnant.
My own mind has experienced many setbacks and victories during these years as well. I've learned that my beliefs, my perspectives, are less permanent than I originally thought. That, really, they are quite viscous, ebbing and flowing, taking new shapes as they encounter new pieces of information. Over the years I've examined myself inside and out (a well-examined life, one might say), challenging the notions that are the bricks and mortars of my worldview.
Children are pliable creatures, sponges soaking up all things. In my examinations of self, I realized that the building blocks of my thoughts about life were constructed before I was actually conscious of most things regarding life. It starts with watching the world around as small children, listening to conversations, particularly from the primary people in our life. Our parents.
This realization struck me hard. As I've challenged my ways of thinking, turning them over to decide what is right, what is good, I see that what I'm actually fighting against are the preconceived notion building blocks set up during childhood by my parents and other trusted adults. Growing up, community was almost entirely caucasian. How those of different skin colors were regarded, described and treated were little building blocks set in mortar. My notions, stereotypes, prejudices and beliefs about race were formed.
I grew up for the first part of my life in a home where my parents, a man and a woman, were married. This is what was normal to me, what I was encouraged to anticipate some day. "One day you'll meet a prince and you'll get married!" My Barbies were always paired with Kens. So, I naturally believed and sought to marry a man, who was most likely white, one day when I was old enough. There were building blocks forming my notions, stereotypes, prejudices and beliefs about relationships.
I had the privilege of a stay-at-home mom when I was young. Her presence was always there, which was a comfort. As this was my basis for normal, it never occurred to me that women could 1) choose not to have children and 2) could work outside of the home. My parents never drilled this, and of course taught me to be industrious and motivated. But my experienced told me girls grew up into women who got married, had children and became homemakers. This was a notion that haunted me during the first few years of my own transition to motherhood. Because although it was never said to me, it felt wrong for me to do anything other than be a stay-at-home mom. Yet I felt so unsettled and struggled a great deal with identity.
While children are pliable, sponge-like beings, we become more rigid and calcified as we grow. Building blocks placed in wet mortar harden and set. As an adult, examining and challenging these foundations has been frustrating. My black and white understanding of race, of gender, of relationship, of equality started turning hazy and grey. My foundation felt unstable. Having kids only pushed me to challenge further. Because my worldview no longer impacted only me; it now impacted my daughters.
So what does one do when they face firm walls that need to be rearranged? They work to break them down, piece by piece. Which is how I've spent the last few years of my life. Every news story provided an opportunity: every presidential race, every marriage law passed, every racial injustice headline written, every mass shooting covered, every technological advance made, I have a chance to take what I know and challenge it.
On this journey, I've also come to realize the weightiness of words. If I tell my daughter that one day she'll grow up and marry a man and become a mommy, I'm placing preconceived notion building blocks about love and relationships into wet mortar. The way I choose to refer to someone of a different skin color, a different ethnicity than me within their ear shot will mold their understanding of race. If I allow myself to berate my looks or comment on my weight in front of my girls, they will store this away as appropriate self-worth.
Brick by brick.
My children will inevitably make big life decisions some day. Perhaps my daughter will choose to never get married. Maybe she'll marry a man they love. He may be white. Or Asian. Or brown. Or martian. Maybe she'll marry a woman. Maybe she'll opt to be a stay-at-home mom. Perhaps she'll choose to a career outside of the home. She may decide to not have kids at all.
When it all comes down to it, what is normal? What is right? What is good?
Regardless of the decisions my sweet girls make, they will stand firm in the knowledge that we love them, support them and do not judge them. They will not suffer from the internal guilt or quietly bear the agony that comes from feeling like they've disappointed their parents due to whatever path they've chosen in life.
So, I choose my words and reactions carefully. I allow conversations to play out. I ask questions. I work hard to be open-ended, transparent and accepting. And, above all, I make sure they know they are loved.
"When I grow up I'm going to marry John. And when I grow up I'm going to have babies."
"Yeah. I'm going to be a mommy too."
"Well, I think you'd make a great mommy if that's what you choose."
In the rearview mirror, I see her brow furrow, and I brace myself for where the conversation will go next.
"And I'll let my kids eat snack all. day. long."
"Oh, is that so?"
"Yep! They can have anything they want."
"I see where this is going."
"All day. Whatever they want."
"I'm guessing you wish I gave you more snacks."
"Well, I love you, little snack monster."
"Love you too, Mom."
Life Lesson #5271: deep, life-changing lessons come in all shapes and sizes.