The nation is wearing red-white-and-blue today, and after the news from Isla Vista, California, it seems like everyone should be wearing black. At least this is how I felt as I sat on the street curb with my two infant daughters and watched the cloggers, the marching band, the red blinking fire trucks pass by: today’s Memorial Day Parade. Someone handed me a red-white-and-blue balloon to tie to the stroller. It was half deflated already, kept sagging toward the asphalt, splayed with an icon of the American flag.
I want to clothe my girls in blue and brown today. Sturdy colors. Tough colors. I want to rename them gender-neutral. Kai. Rowan. Sage.
But we have inherited so much pink in the dressers. And their names are unmistakably feminine. And today, someone already told my one-year-old that she was pretty. So pretty.
I’d forgotten. Elliot Rodgers reminded me. I am not just raising a child with disabilities in a world that regularly undervalues people with disabilities. I am also raising two females in a world that regularly undervalues people with female parts.
News stories want to spin the tale as the work of an anomalous “madman,” a boy with guns and mental illness. Meanwhile, trending on Twitter (#YesAllWomen) is the collective counterargument: this happens often. The boy in school who says, “Kiss me or I’ll kill you.” The parent who says, “He hit you because he likes you.” The high school classroom in which the lone girl listens the other students—all male—agree: if a guy hurt a girl because she refused him, she was partly responsible. Why not just say yes?
When I was pregnant with Fiona, we didn’t learn her sex. I thought if I kept her from projections, from pink onesies and feminine adjectives and pink booties, she’d be ahead of the genderizing game. I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, toted its hot-pink title and glittery-sparkle cover to midwife appointments, tried to learn how I could teach my child—whomever she or he was—that females are not objects, not commodities to control, not ornaments to beautify. They are not in existence to please men.
“Look how pretty she is,” a male friend said over Skype. I held limp, five-pound Fiona in my arms. She wore a onesie covered in pink and purple hearts—I was too tired from failed nursing attempts, laborious drop-feeds, and around-the-clock pumping schedules to fight the girlie hand-me-downs.
“And strong and smart,” I added, half-joking, half-serious.
My feminist male friend easily amended his compliment. Of course, she was strong and smart.
Three months in, we got her diagnosis, and I treaded into Google. Could she handle fluid without dying? Would she develop life-threatening seizures? Would she, like supposedly a third of her peers, die before the age of two? Sexism was the least of my concerns.
Once the health crises were crossed off our list of concerns, others presented themselves. A team of therapists entered my house, furrowed their brows, reported her delays.
“She’s strong,” said an elderly, retired midwife at church, a fierce woman who’d ridden across Kentucky on horseback to help swelling woman push their babies out. I smiled. I loved this woman, and I was grateful for her praise of my (then) nine-pound girl. But Fiona was seven months old and not lifting her head. She was not strong. She was hypotonic, said the medical files.
“She’s smart,” my Skyping friend had said. But eventually, at a year old, other kids her age could manipulate objects, suck from straws, approximate words, even walk. Fiona was mostly silent, not yet sitting independently, only transferring an object from one hand to the other as she thrust her tongue out at the world, curious. She was developmentally delayed, said the medical files.
Now Fiona manifests her own versions of “smart” and “strong” which we wake to daily. But early on it was clear that testable whip-smartness and Herculean-strength were not going to be my daughter’s gifts in this life. Not given the body she had, with its rare chromosomal make-up. And so I found myself giving in to pretty. She would never fit into the world’s expectations of what a body should do, of how her body should be (scoliosis, dilated kidneys, hypotonia, seizures, rotated hip, “failure to thrive,”…) Therefore, pretty seemed, in this case, countercultural. Revolutionary. For Fiona, empowering. Yes, she was pretty. She is pretty. Unusual, and infectiously cute, and showcasing her syndrome’s facial features, and also quite pretty.
So I gave in to pretty. And then I gave in to pink. And frou-frou skirts. And gender-specific pajamas with bows and florets. Because I thought that the biggest battle I’d have as a parent was, not helping my child understand the world (as is many parents’ aim) but helping the world understand—and accept—my child. The world with its accessible parking spaces and expert physical therapists, yes, but also the world with its other stories: the police officers who tased a deaf man because they mistook his sign language for aggression, the teacher who bullied the autistic boy, the medical team who circled “mentally retarded” on a form and thus denied a girl a kidney transplant.
Here is why I want to wear black: Not just because Elliot Rodgers murdered six people. Not just because his reasons were grossly misogynistic—because women the world over didn’t offer him their consent. But also because Elliot Rodgers has reminded me that I’ve got a whole ‘nother battle to fight.
My other daughter will some day choose her own (pink or blue or black) clothes; she will probably go to college; she will aspire to and execute a specific career path. She will earn a paycheck and it will most likely be 70% less than her male peers.
She will see the dish-soap and make-up advertisements, and she will internalize the subliminal messages. She might apologize for someone bumping into her; she might be afraid to ask a question in class. She will be cat-called on the street. She will be told to smile by male strangers.
She’s already told to smile. A non-walking infant, she’s already encouraged not to make frowning faces. She’s already invited to exist at the pleasure of others.
She will probably be commented on how she looks far more often than she is commented on what she does.
She will (most likely) enter the dating scene. Whatever her sexuality, she will get asked out by men, some (or maybe all) of whom she will not be interested in dating. She will learn to say no.
She might be blamed for whatever happens next.
What can I give her as armor in this world? As weapon? Mace? Self-defense lessons? Blue and brown clothes? I don’t want her to need weapons. I want the world around her to yield. Her name is Petra, meaning rock. Stone. Too hard? I once thought before it was final. Too unyielding?
But today, I’m immensely grateful we chose that name. Today I see the name’s potential: my daughter as a stone in a river, firmly anchored, the world around her yielding to her potential strength.
Here’s a confession: after I wrote the first sentence of this post (The nation is wearing red-white-and-blue today, and after the news from Isla Vista, California, it seems like everyone should be wearing black) I had the urge to apologize. I actually wrote a sentence of apology three times. I’m sorry—a post that begins with a sentence like that isn’t going to be pretty. I deleted the sentence each time. The irony was not lost on me. Even as I was about to write a post about the expectation that a woman be pretty, be pleasing, be in service of the needs of men, I felt bad for not writing pretty.
As I was typing and deleting, typing and deleting that same apologetic sentence, I heard a friend’s voice from years ago: Women apologize for existing. I knew immediately what she meant: Women apologize for getting into an elevator. Apologize for being bumped into. Apologize for wanting a specific food. Apologize for saying no.
Petra, my dear, my rock in the frozen river: May you never learn to apologize for being.