Betty Duffy

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Anwer Answered

I have a lot of sons, but I also have a daughter. This morning while all those boys watched This Old House with their Dad, I thought maybe the gal and I could go do something fun. “What’s fun?” I thought for a minute, “Girl fun,” because typically the quality time I spend with my daughter has to do with her pouring in the flour while I cook, her sitting by me with her book while I read mine, or her tagging along to the grocery store.

It’s shopping and eating and homemaker stuff, getting dressed and combing the tangles out of her hair. Grooming and toenail painting, and all the girly make-up, dressing up, and plumage that I’ve used throughout my life to set myself apart from other women as well as to bond with them.

Today, we did shopping. It was half-price day at Goodwill.

My daughter sort of enjoys playing my rival, I think. From a very early age, if my lap were busy, and it usually was since younger brothers arrived to sit on it very shortly after she was born, she would pick a lap, any lap in the room and go sit on it. Times we’ve had company, she had no trouble backing herself onto some other parents’ sitter, and from there she would look at me in triumph.

I remember one winter morning at the daily Mass, she needed help putting her arm in the sleeve of her jacket, but she didn’t want my help. She preferred the careful attention of tender strangers, the old ladies who said she was adorable and were more than willing to hold her coat for her—poor thing with all those brothers at home. But her eyes were always on me, as if to say, “See how I make it without you?” (or my fear: “See who I need you to be for me?”)

In the car, since it was raining, I wanted to listen to Hildegard, but she wanted the Dixie Chicks, and she wasn’t going to let it drop, which made me feel greedy for the affects of my melancholy. So I put on the Dixie Chicks, the song that she and her girl cousins sang together this summer on vacation.

My cousin, Rachel, and I used to sing like that, with our voices just louder than the recording, proving to one another that we knew all the words to the song, and that our voices were pretty darn good too. I almost started singing along, but I sort of remember wanting my own voice to ring out when I was little, have someone notice. So I let my daughter prove to me she knew all the words, and then I said, “Maybe you should sing in the choir.”

She sat back in her chair, and kept singing while she looked out the window, and occasionally met my eye in the rearview mirror, not to be undone by a compliment.

I’m not sure about this, what to do with her to let her know I love her, that I’m definitely not her rival nor am I precisely her friend. As with the boys, we have not been too hasty to get her involved in things, rack up dates on the calendar for dance classes or gymnastics or soccer. But she becomes more and more herself each day, and it’s beginning to seem like she’s going to need something with which to identify herself and set herself apart from me and my things. I’m happy to have her tagalong where I go, but her own special interests have not yet distinguished themselves from mine. How to lead?

She wants to be a mom, as I did at her age. When I was in school, it was not kosher to say that you wanted to grow up, get married and have babies. My daughter’s only in first grade right now, but I spent most of my school years wanting only, really, to be a mother someday. Throughout college, and young adulthood, while I could begin to see a life as a writer, I still maintained that I never wanted “to work.” It was my mistake to think that homemakers (and writers, for that matter) didn’t work.

I wonder sometimes if it would be negligent for me just to let her continue following me around, hoping for motherhood and nothing else. At the same time, I wish that I could always be satisfied in my motherhood and nothing else. I have never been certain what that “else” might be for me, and far less certain am I for her. I suppose it will work itself out, as in Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poem, “Woman as Artist”:

When I first gave the question life,
The howling naked question life,
Did I not have some inkling of the answer,
And the answer answered.
The door that closed across the room
As my door opened?”

She’s a strong girl, like all the women in my family, some of whom have had careers, some who have “only” been mothers, and some who continue to hope for motherhood in spite of their careers. I think she will assert herself in her own good time. The answer will answer.

Right now, she seems to relish self-adornment, which she comes by naturally. She gets dressed several times a day, does her hair several times a day, goes through my jewelry drawer and tries things on, as I suppose young ladies have been doing with their mother’s jewelry for centuries.

I could slant her interest in dress as a proclivity for costume arts. She’s an artist, then, and to help her in her arts, we sorted through the aisles of secondhand goods on half-price day to pick out the perfect tools in her medium. She was happy to find some bright yellow sandals to wear for the remainder of the summer, and for mom, a white silk tunic with embroidered flowers.


Sally Thomas said...

Another lovely post. I have one at precisely that age and stage right now, and she's similarly under my wing. She just wants to do what I'm doing -- I can count on her to want to go to the grocery store every time I go, to want to be with me every waking moment, etc.

As far as I can recall, her older sister was a lot like this, too, though both her personality and our life circumstances were different. She was pricklier and also downright clingier, as in, clamping onto me at parties and not letting go until it was almost time to go home and most other people had already left. This current first-grader just wants to beeeee with meeeeee (or with her big sister, also doing girly things like the makeup and nail polish and hairdos).

I dunno. The older one has become very much herself, and her interests haven't been what I would have predicted when she was six. We went through the dressing-up and the weaving potholders on a plastic loom and the twenty art projects a day, and then she got interested in drama and overcame her shyness (which amazed me) to audition for a play, and that was what she did for about three years. So I figured maybe we were performing-arts-school bound.

Now she's sixteen and into Latin and is interested in being either a teacher or a midwife, but really she wants to be a mom. She announced this, in fact, at dinner one night at this college program she went to last month. All the other girls said they wanted to be lawyers. When mine said she wanted to be a mom, there was a silence, and then some other kids said, "Then why are you here?" She said, "Because I think the basic unit of society ought to be educated."

Score one for the home team. Anyway, we've never pushed the organized activities, either. I tried, with things like ballet, early on, and it was always a disaster, so I gave up, and she had to ask for violin lessons for two years before I was finally convinced she was serious and gave in. And she's turned into the person she is . . . and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Meanwhile, my little is into the self-adornment thing, too. I don't remember changing clothes that much in a week, let alone an hour.

Sally Thomas said...

PS -- we have this "what to do with your life" talk quite a lot, my older daughter and I. One thing which seems important to me, even as I believe that it's probably an imponderable, is to think seriously about what your organizing principle is going to be, because you can't, as a woman, just go, "Everything! Whee!" I mean, unless you want your life to look like 52-card pickup, as mine actually sort of does.

I have frustrations, though not really regrets, about the consequences of thinking I really could just, you know, have a bunch of babies and also crank out the deathless prose at such a rate as to be taken seriously. And having not thought it through in a non-delusional way on the front end, I'm now having to say to myself, "Oh, okay, so THAT's the organizing principle . . . the human beings I consented to bring into the world."

So when I've talked to my daughter about life-vocation kinds of things, I think I've tended to stress doing that kind of discernment, asking yourself what needs to come first, which really amounts to asking yourself whether you want children, because if you do, then whatever else you do will have to be arranged around that organizing principle one way or another, and at some stages, if not all, this will be far more true for the woman in a marriage-with-kids than for the man. She gets all this, and she's also old enough to have noticed that quite a number of her friends don't remotely have children on the radar. These are the high-achieving girls who say they want to be lawyers, and if anything else happens, well, that's fine . . . They've been raised on "strong women doing interesting things," which I'm all for, but what I'm not all for is that nobody in their lives seems to ask them to think about having a life apart from self-defining work -- or what their biology is for, except to contracept into submission.

She and I talk about this a lot: about what she's interested in and could see herself doing, but could juggle around to accommodate kids. (she's also a good writer, and I keep saying, you know, there is a certain flexibility to writing, even though I haven't figured out yet how to bilocate).

The six-year-old, on the other hand, says she does not want to have children. She wants to drive a small car and possibly be a nun. Obviously, for all the time we spend together, I haven't rubbed off on her that much.

(sheesh, sorry for these long-winded comments, by the way!)

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, one more, why not? Every time I reread what you wrote, I think of something else.

This time it's that mother-daughter relationships are truly strange. I don't remember the rivalry thing so much with my oldest, but it's definitely going on with the youngest. She's a mind-game girl for sure. And boys are so not that way.

A friend of mine who had six sons, and then finally a handful of granddaughters, used to say that boys were easy, because when they were caught in wrongdoing they would just look at you while you yelled at them, and then go on doing whatever whatever they felt like. Girls, on the other hand, had a genius for implicating you in the drama. That's not exactly what she said -- what she said was all about tears and stuff -- but I think that's what she was describing.

Anonymous said...

Any random post on here has far, far better writing than 90% of what I read daily. It's frankly beautiful. Thanks for putting it here.

Anonymous said...

It means something to my two daughters (12 and 8) that I read classics to them aloud: Little House, Little Women, All of a Kind Girls, Betsy Tacy Tib, et cetera. They sense I am sharing something with them that was deeply important to me, a glimpse for them of myself at their age. And that means a great deal to me.

BettyDuffy said...

I Hope you're putting all this stuff on your blog too, because your comment is a post in itself.

The sister thing--since I only have one girl, I can only go on my growing up experience with my sister--but you've brought to mind the realization that after all of our early attempts to distinguish ourselves from one another, different interests, different colleges, yada yada, we are essentially doing the same thing now. ie. being moms. And our temperaments, at least in the early days, could not have been more different. We were raised in that, "you can be anything you want to be" era, too--and I know this makes Feminism's case--but taking contraception out of the picture made our story for us. It decided our organizing principle, or actually, I guess, we consented to that principle when we fell in love and got married. This is not a complaint--at all--but I do wonder what to make of all those early efforts at distinction--what were they? Self-adornments? Examining my own intentions, it was not so much that I thought the basic unit of society should be educated, but that I wanted to attract a particular kind of mate and raise a particular kind of family. I got a different and better mate than I anticipated--but that particular kind of family still eludes me--because we don't handpick our kids, or their interests, I guess. They're also still young.

Maybe it's the question of whether or not to allow that "you can be whatever you want to be" mentality to sink in, because if you choose the Catholic faith wholeheartedly, and you are a fertile married woman, you really cannot be whatever you want.

On your third comment,"Girls, on the other hand, had a genius for implicating you in the drama,"--oh gosh--this is rich. My gal has started to say things like, "You don't love me," when I tell her she can't do something. At first I got choked up, thinking maybe I'm not loving her well enough, or at least not letting her KNOW that I love her. After beating myself up for awhile, she had said it enough times that I had to say, "Stop. Saying that is rude because you're presuming to know my feelings. I've told you I love you, and that is why I'm also telling you "no."

Anon 1 and Anon 2, thanks! My daughter loves read-alouds too.

wifemotherexpletive said...

wonderful. all wonderful. the comments are as rich as the origin... wonderful. makes me want to try for a girl... (only sort-of..)

maggie said...

I love all your posts, but I love LOVE this one. My girl is only two, yet she sits on the counter while I do my make up, watching, wondering... this stirred my own wonderings.

Emily J. said...

We have an ongoing debate about whether Daddy is looking out at a bacon field (Miss C's interpretation) or a vacant or barren field (no conclusive determination of that lyric yet.) Although it would have been more wholesome for their cousin to teach them Hildegard's chants instead of Dixie Chicks, since I like the part about the brother gone to Indiana, I make no comment when the girls sing.

Sally Thomas said...

Heh. Yes, mine likes to do the "You don't love me" thing. And the "I don't love you" one, too. I just say, "Yeah, yeah, but you still have to go to bed," or whatever.

I'm not sure I could have done that with the first one -- I don't remember her playing that card, actually, though she was far more a drama queen in most ways. And I was much more in awe of her as a force of nature than I am of the youngest, who despite being a little operator is still kind of a dumpling.

She is lovely company now -- when she was little, and difficult, I used to say to myself that really, I couldn't let myself break her neck, because she would be a great adult some day. And now I'm glad she's around, because 99% of the time we really enjoy each other's company.

On the other hand, she has to do chemistry this year, and she's going to have to let me hammer through it with her, and she's not going to want to let me help her, and -- sigh. I can see exactly what's happening: she's reading these pages, and the words and formulae are sliding over the surface of her mind, and she's blanking it all out because she doesn't care about it, and I know this because it's exactly what I would have done in her place and at her age. Not that it's necessarily helpful to know this, but I do know it. And if I think on it long enough, maybe I'll figure out how to get it all into her head, but it won't be fun and easy.

I do love having girls, though. I love having boys and girls, just for the sheer variety of it. I love the otherness of the boys, though they frequently drive me crazy; I love the companionship of the girls, though they also frequently drive me crazy.

Re visions of the future, goals and dreams: I still struggle with what the balance is. "You can do it all" is clearly a lie. It's a lie for men, too, of course, though they don't seem quite as deceived about their ability to support a family and also do an egalitarian share of the housework as we would hope that they would be. And "you can be whatever you want to be" -- hm. I mean, I'm loath to say that a girl can't be an engineer, or an astronaut, or whatever. I mean, I wouldn't say that, because she can. Whether she should choose an all-consuming career without stopping to count what the costs might be is another question.

The culture thinks in terms of a buffet of choices, but doesn't really offer any kind of discernment mode, beyond a sort of lateral level at which you ask, "Do I want to be a doctor or a lawyer?" What people aren't being challenged to ask is what kind of life they want outside the rather limited boundaries of work -- in fact, I'm not sure they're being challenged to consider that as an identity paradigm, "work" has serious limits, and that they ought to think at least as much about what kind of home and family life they want as about what work they might do. Again, I think this is as true for men as for women, though clearly for women the implications are more life-determining.

And yes, I'm pondering some kind of response post. Busy week, though. Gotta think about chemistry.

Sally Thomas said...

"She is lovely company" -- I mean my 16-year-old, though the 6-year-old is nice to be around, mostly, too. I had to delete some stuff to get my comment not to be too long (again), and de-clarified the antecedent.

lissla lissar said...

"When she was little, and difficult, I used to say to myself that really, I couldn't let myself break her neck, because she would be a great adult some day."

I keep telling myself this about my oldest son. He's two. I'm hoping it's not just that we're crummy parents, and that his drive to take everything apart and immerse himself in it (frequently up to the neck) means he's curious and intelligent and not just specifically created to drive me nuts.

But the parents of girls all tell me their two-year-old girls are having twenty-minute tantrums. Nat just wants to eat mud, play with broken glass, and put sticks in precise lines.

I think I'm looking forward to having a girl. Maybe.

Sally Thomas said...


Sounds like two to me. My younger son, at two, could walk into a room and things would spontaneously break (or so it seemed). His baby sister would be sitting charmingly in her clamp-on chair at the table -- she really was a total dumpling as a baby -- he would come up and grab her head and pull it back so it would sproing up like a bobblehead toy . . . He's now 8, and still pretty kinetic, but a good kid whose company I enjoy, and I am with him all day long most days. It does get easier, mostly.

Boys just do that get-into-things-and-eat-mud thing. At least, both of mine did at that age, and we all survived.

And we had tantrums muuuuuch longer than 20 minutes when a female of my very close acquaintance was two, and three, and four . . . Some days were hard and long for sure. And she's still hypersensitive and hard-headed, as this chemistry adventure is reminding me daily (and not that I don't know where she gets those traits). But overall I am finding the teenage years to be a cakewalk compared to the toddler/preschool years. Your mileage may vary, of course, and it's not that we don't have our stresses, but on balance I really, really like having a young woman in my house.