Letter to my daughter: Being a girl
Yesterday morning I heard a story on the radio about a study done at Princeton which found daughters are more likely than sons to take care of their elderly parents. The study noted all of the costs of doing so — which involve, among other things, juggling the needs of elderly parents with other duties like raising a family and going to work. In the end, the researchers chalked up the discrepancy to gender inequality. It was this conclusion that rubbed me so wrong.
Earlier this summer, when we were with your grandparents in Tulsa, you got upset when my mother started telling you that girls can’t do everything that boys can, or that boys are stronger than girls. This conversation — what can girls do? — is one we have often had in our house. And your little sister chimes in, too, asking if girls can do all the jobs she sees boys do. My answer is normally yes, a girl can do anything she sets her mind to. And girls can be very strong.
The world is full of women who were firsts in their field: astronomers, biologists, botanists, astronauts, judges, lawyers, athletes, and the list goes on, and they are to be celebrated. Women have always, too, been mothers and wives and caretakers and nurturers, and it doesn’t seem like gender inequality to me to say so. It doesn’t seem a putdown to me to say that women’s sense of nurture — so uniquely gifted — would make them better candidates for taking care of those most in need, be they aging parents or anyone else. Sadly, I think, the world’s sensibility speaks differently.
At the point that I was in my twenties, I fell in love with the idea of being a feminist. Gloria Steinem’s book Revolution From Within had just come out, and it answered a deficiency that I think I always felt in myself. It answered an insecurity of feeling less than adequate. To be a strong woman, a feminist, meant that I could be sufficient unto myself. The need for need would be diminished.
Now believing as I do that we are made in the image of a God who is fully intelligent and creative and good and strong, I want to raise you to believe that that’s who you are too. Or that is who you are to be as you live out of a place of honesty and integrity and love. But being strong, as the Gospel also says, means that the strong, wise one willingly enters a place of weakness and service. This is true for any man, woman, or child. True strength may be seen in one’s ability to have the courage and confidence to make him or herself become less. In the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And so I think it is with women and how girls are made. For as strong as women can be, our gender carries a softness or openness that is different than that of males. This is something I have yet to speak with you about.
We all are meant to serve one another, and while I would never want you neglecting your gifts and work, I want you to know that you are made differently than a boy is made; just as you are every bit as great and capable. The biblical image of Eve being made from Adam’s rib shows me that we women were made to be cared for just as we care for others. Eve came from the place closest to Adam’s heart. There is a humility and vulnerability in that picture which to me seems good.
At this point in your life, you want to be a basketball-playing FBI agent who goes undercover and uses her basketball skills to throw people off your trail. Your sister wants two jobs. She wants to be a fairy and a school teacher, and I want you both to be all that. Your heart is being enlarged with greater self-awareness. I don’t know how it’s possible, but you’re aware of the crooked teeth behind your smile and so these days smile with your mouth closed. You are beautiful with your closed smile and your crooked teeth, just as you’re beautiful when you live out of your strength and your softer weakness.
Identity is such a tricky business in a world where so much input is given that is unsolicited. You’re at school today, the both of you, and I realize that there’s so much I haven’t taught you, and what I have taught I fear I haven’t taught well.
I don’t know when you’ll ever read these letters. But my heart says to speak this now. I hope to talk about this all with you, too. And I hope you see through others the ways of good men and good women in this world. My friend Jeanenne (along with her husband) has taken in her elderly mother, and she is essentially doing what I do (though she has already raised four children). She and her husband give nearly full-time care to a woman who is about as needy in her old age as you were needy when younger. I know it’s been at great cost to them, but it’s a blessing even to me to see the love and sacrifice they live out daily. It’s not gender inequality that put Jeanenne’s mother in her own home at this late stage. It’s love.
Love is what they mirror, as I hope to mirror it to you. And holding up a mirror, I hope you see yourself and your life’s call through a window of truth that is unhinged from values that are near and dear to the world — rejecting things like getting your own or neglecting deeper truths of the spirit. There is a lot for you to embrace about being a thoughtful, courageous, and caring and daring girl. And embrace it is what I most hope you do.