The Daughter Dilemma; How To Raise A Strong Woman.
When I found out I was going to have a baby girl I was elated. I always knew that if I was to ever have children of my own I would love a little girl. Ten years working in childcare enabled me to experience a deep bond with many little girls. That’s not to say I loved the boys I took care of any less. Just that the girls always stirred up an understanding and connection that was special, reciprocal and beautiful.
While the boys would be running around leaping off furniture and smacking me over the head with various weapons (disguised as toys, but still), the girls would engage with me in a way I could better relate to. Obviously that is a huge generalization and I looked after both boys and girls at the other extremes of the spectrum as well. Every child is different and ultimately a product of both its upbringing and its nature. But on the whole, if I’m brutally honest, the girls were the ones I most enjoyed spending my time with.
So, when I held my own baby girl in my arms my heart swelled. Yet as I stared down at her sleeping face, the colour of peaches and cream, I felt anxious. As I traced her tiny perfect nose with my finger and smoothed down her silky soft hair, I felt a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was now faced with raising this precious girl in a world that is still male dominated. A world that will tell her repeatedly that she is not good enough, that she is too much, or too little, of everything.
I have to raise her in a society that will still focus on her appearance and pay her less than her male counterparts for doing the same job. I have to somehow instill the strength and confidence within herself to stand firm in her choices when any path she takes will be questioned.
A very real and present problem.
The rate of suicide in teenage girls is increasing faster than ever before. With the rise of social media they are now more than ever bombarded with unreasonable expectations. And unwanted opinions. I look at the young girls around me, 10 year old children dressed like teenagers. They idolise the air brushed celebrities they follow on Instagram, desperate to be like them and frustrated with themselves when they’re (inevitably) not. I watch them obsessively taking photos and videos of themselves, clamouring for the “likes” and validation of complete strangers. It scares me.
Online bullying from trolls has also become a massive problem. The internet gives people a screen to hide behind, it gives bullies of all ages the opportunity to taunt their victims without getting caught. Obviously these people are pathetic and to be ignored, but in the mind of a young girl who already has low self esteem due to not looking how she thinks she should, she blames herself and her own perceived inadequacies. And so the cycle continues.
There is still hope.
I am hopeful that things are heading in the right direction. Strong women are coming forwards more and more, raising a middle finger to the injustices and fighting for the next generation. Society is recognising that women deserve equal rights to men. Sexism is, finally, becoming something that most people refuse to tolerate.
Still, I think it’s one step forwards and two steps back. Adult women are now told they can “have it all” and rightly so in theory. But even that is problematic. We now feel a huge pressure to do everything, to have a career and be a good mother at the same time when realistically even one of those things on it’s own is huge and all consuming. Lingering low self esteem from our younger years plagues us and makes us believe that we are failing when we don’t meet the ridiculously unattainable standards set for us. We go back to being the little girl who has always been conditioned that she is not enough. We wonder what we are doing wrong without even questioning that it might not be us that is the problem.
What does “having it all” really mean?
Being able to “have it all” should mean also being able to have our limits. To set our own boundaries. If a woman wants to focus on her career, great. If she wants to focus on raising her children, great. If she wants to do both, go Mamma!
True equality lies in being able to make those choices for yourself and not feel like a failure. It lies in being able to accept ourselves for what we look like, to appreciate our bodies whatever form they take. Even when they inevitably change after bringing babies into the world. We have to recognise that being a Mother is a full time job, and not an easy one. To enable women to have a career they love and no children without being constantly questioned for it. We need to normalise juggling both without criticism. Most of the women I know are absolute Superwomen, whatever path they have chosen in life, and not a single one of them realises it.
What can we do about it?
A friend of mine recently reminded me that society is not an actual “thing”, it’s us, every single one of us. We are the ones that have to change. So what can we do to nurture the next generation? How can we help our daughters grow up into confident, self assured strong women who are true to themselves? There’s only so much we can protect them from and so we must arm them with the unfailing self respect and integrity they’re going to need throughout their lives.
All a little intense hey! But actually by tweaking how we behave towards our daughters we can totally do this. The seven points below are ones I have picked up on through my years in childcare, and from the experiences of being a woman and mother. They’re behaviours I consciously apply with Ayla every day. She is only 2 but in my opinion there’s no such thing as starting too soon with building her sense of self worth. They apply to children of all ages and, despite this article being predominantly for girls, regardless of gender.
1.Show Them Respect.
Validation, validation, validation! Children, particularly girls, will associate however an adult they love treats them as what they deserve. They will look for the same treatment from their peers and in future relationships. If you want your daughter to demand respect throughout her life, it has to start with you.
Listen to what she says, however trivial you might think it is. When they are upset about something stop what you’re doing and talk to them about it. When my daughter who can’t yet verbalise what is frustrating her is upset, I will sit down with her and offer her a hug. 9 out of 10 times she comes in for the hug even if she is mad at me for something, because it has validated rather than dismissed her. Even when she is crying at the top of her lungs about something ridiculous and quite frankly driving me CRAZY, I take a deep breath and remind myself that something is bothering her. And it’s not necessarily what she’s shouting about.
That doesn’t mean that you have to give in to their every demand. I’m not keen to develop a generation of insufferable narcissists here. Discipline is of course very important. It just means that you are hearing what they are saying and respecting their opinion, even if you don’t agree with it. Ultimately you’re telling them that they are important and worth listening to.
Children should be seen and heard.
2.Let them get their own way…sometimes!
It is tempting as parents and caregivers to feel like we always know best and need to assert our authority. But whilst it is vital to establish that ultimately you are the boss and someone they can rely on to be strong, it’s also important to sometimes let them win. Pick your battles wisely, and be aware that sometimes the path of least resistance really is the best path. Changing your mind on something that you’re at loggerheads over with your daughter, will show her that her voice is strong and valid and that it is worth fighting for what she wants. It will also show her that backing down when you are wrong is a good thing.
In contrast sticking to your guns will show her that you don’t always get what you want in life and that’s OK too, learning to deal with negative emotions is important as well. Balance is key.
3.Nurture their natural talents and interests.
One of the most powerful things I feel you can do for your daughter is to quietly observe what she is good at, where her talents lie and perhaps most importantly what she enjoys doing. Those things are where her success lies and you must encourage her engagement in those studies/activities.
We all have our own hopes and dreams for our children. But it’s wise to put those aside and let them march to their own beat. Of course you should be involved and offer guidance, but trying to force them into a shape that they just don’t fit into will only feed feelings of failure and self doubt. Plus, when she is engrossed in a hobby or study that she is passionate about, she’ll root her self worth in those things and have less time to worry about destructive behaviours like obsessing about what she looks like or seeking validation elsewhere.
4.Don’t be critical of yourself or other women.
Whether that be someone’s appearance, how she raises her children, her weight, the state of her house, her choice of boyfriend, lifestyle, whatever, do not criticize other women in front of your daughter. As women we must build up each other, and most importantly ourselves.
Be as kind to yourself and other women as you want your daughter to expect for herself. We all have days where we feel shitty about ourselves, but quell that voice that keeps telling you you’re too fat or need to go on a diet. Our daughters are always watching us and absorbing our words and actions. They subconsciously mirror us, so if we are constantly berating ourselves they will do the same. They will learn that not being perfect on the outside leads to unhappiness on the inside.
Don’t focus on outward appearance, of her, yourself or anyone else. All that does is put into her head that looks are top on the priority list. Instead focus on positivity, achievements, strength, kindness and all of the other little nuances that make up a perfectly imperfect person.
5.Watch your language.
We’ve all done it when hanging out with a little girl. Told her how pretty she is, how nice, how cute. I get it all the time when I’m out and about with Ayla, well meaning people stop us and comment on how pretty she is. I mean, she is pretty, beautiful in fact (Mum brag alert!) but while there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out to our girls, it’s important to expand the vocabulary we use around them to reward other qualities as well. Children have an uncanny knack of becoming whatever we tell them they are.
The general language we use for boys and girls is vastly different. One study showed that we are four times more likely to tell girls to be careful than boys when they are doing the same thing. What does this tell the girls? That they are less capable. If a little boy is playing up he is labelled as “mischievous” yet when a girl displays the same behaviour she is “difficult.” Our conditioned expectations are there without us even being conscious of them.
So, let’s start rewarding our daughters for their other qualities as well, maybe they’re funny, kind, athletic, smart, friendly. Even those qualities that drive you insane like her being strong willed and fierce! When we start favouring language like that we’re enforcing that those are the valid and worthy qualities that we expect from our daughters.
6.Give them control.
This is very simple to do. Offer them choices whenever possible, then go along with their choice. For a toddler that can be as basic as asking them which direction they want to go whilst you’re out on a walk, what they want for breakfast, which fruit for a snack. It gives them a sense of control and when we let them take the driving seat we are showing them we trust them and their judgement.
7.Encourage a healthy diet.
For me, one of the biggest gifts I feel I can give to Ayla is to nurture a good relationship with food. A healthy diet will make her physically and mentally strong, it really is as simple as that. Now I’m not saying that it’s always easy. I am lucky that Ayla happily eats a wide variety of foods, for the most part. But some children are picky and that poses a frustrating challenge. You can’t force a child to eat, the last thing you want is your teenage daughter rebelling against you by not eating because you haven’t let her control that as a child. What you can do is offer a variety of healthy nutritious foods containing plenty of vegetables and proteins every day.
Offer fruit after every meal. Eat and cook with your child and let them see you enjoying those things too. Make it the norm. Be careful about rewarding or comforting your little one with “treats” as they could start to lean on food as a comfort in later life leading to weight issues and feelings of low self esteem. Food should be fun and delicious but not an emotional crutch.
As a busy Mamma I know it’s not always easy to do and the constant “what’s for dinner?” ringing in our ears can be deafening and fill you with dread. So hop on over to my Family Friendly Recipes page for some nutritious and uncomplicated meal inspiration.
There’s still a long way to go before we will have true equality between men and women. The day women stop being preoccupied by shaving every hair on our bodies, painting our faces and bending over backwards to be the unattainable way society tells us we have to be, will be the day we know we have truly achieved that.
I might not even be around to see that day. But I hope my daughter will be one of the self assured, un-oppressed hairy sirens leading the way!!