The following lyrics fill our dining room as my daughter colors and my son says, "Look, mommy, a gun!"
"Mommies are people, people with children. When Mommies were little they used to be girls like some of you, but then they grew and now mommies are women. Women with children." (Marlo Thomas,Free to Be You and Me.)
Tears spring to my eyes whenever I hear the song, my 7-year-old's new favorite, which reminds me a) of my own seventies childhood and the period where my mother returned to grad school b) that I am now, incredibly, a person with children c) that there's been no appropriately powerful feminist children's lyric since 1975. But I get distracted from nostalgia by my son who, although not yet 4, is making his chubby little hand into a gun. I begin to speak with him about non-violence while he fires at me.
My daughter presses the button on the iPod to repeat the song over and over again. I regret that she already knows how to handle the thing. But I let her handle the iPod lest she and I begin another tussle over the iPad, which she likes to use for her her weekend allotment of screen time. I watch her tiny fingers glide over the controls and worry about the metals in the screen that sits in her lap.
Then they begin their afternoon dispute about superheroes.
She: "Superheroes are stupid."
He: "Don't say that, you're mean!" (He is obsessed with Thor and Wolverine these days, powerful beasts who were once ordinary men but find they are possessed of a special untapped power).
She: "I hate them because there are no girls!"
Me: "Right, that's terrible. Let's invent one, a girl superhero!"
She's not into it.
How I want to tell her that she has powers, that she is supersonic and a genius on top of that. But she's right. She hates them because they deny her very self.
"Besides, she says, when they are girls, they're half-naked!"
She adds to her grievances. They have nothing to do with who she is. They show her no reflection. Recently, her second grade teacher, a man I respect, dressed as "Question Man" for Halloween. Fine, he promotes a love of learning and curiosity. But his assistant teacher, a woman, was "Answer Girl."
"Mom," my daughter said that night, "She really should have been Answer Woman, not girl."
I want to put on Marlo Thomas and dance.
Me: "You are so right about that. She is a woman, not a girl. Let's tell them tomorrow."
And so we do. I am so achingly in love with my daughter and so proud of her indigence.
She is 7, almost 8, and she is already aware of the remaining inequities among the sexes. I try to protect her, but it's everywhere. On Sunday afternoons, sometimes after due diligence with a children's museum or a nature outing or something wholesome, we collapse with exhaustion and all watch golf. My daughter used to love the gentle tock tock over the soft green mounds. But lately, she turns away.
"Its all men, it's boring!"
My son screams as I flick the channel away, desperately searching for a substitute sedative. Ah, women's college basketball! At last. She watches, but she can hear my anxiety I am sure, she knows my fear. I can no longer hide anything from her.
The deepest blow comes later when I watch "Girls" with a glass of wine and she has snuck out of bed and is standing behind me, behind the sofa without my noticing while a "girl" has sex with a not very nice guy.
"What are they doing?" she asks, a look of bewilderment on her face.
Me: "Oh my god, you scared me! What are you doing up?!"
Her: "I couldn't sleep. I need some water."
I walk her back to bed, to the spot that is padded and secure and laden with so many stuffed animals that they cascade to the floor when I tuck her in again. When women were little, they used to be girls like some of you, but then they grew. So why are the young women on the show called girls and if they are girls why are they, as my daughter says, "making sex?"
We have the talk right then and there. She's recently read It's Not the Stork (an excellent book), so she knows what sex is. I explain what I can about love. But what I can't explain is the world that we live in, how it has changed since my mother attended law school, but how it has not changed enough. Who is a woman and who a girl? I cannot make the world safe or perfect or even more evolved for her but I can tell the truth as I see it. As I turn out her light, I vow to do better, to turn off the noise.