My daughter lied to me again. On the bottom bunk of the bed she shares with her barely younger sister, her koala slipper covered feet tucked under her, she cried, preemptively, anticipating punishment. This would be the third time she had her phone taken away. She’s only eleven, I remind her needlessly; she’s too young to be on social media.
There are bad people out there: mean girls, dirty old men, internet trolls. She says she is careful, and I know she believes it. These discussions are familiar, and they feel pointless. She is desperate to grow up. She cries harder, despite my calm voice. I yell too easy, but not this time. She is struggling to make friends at her new school, she confesses, and the boy she likes doesn’t talk to her anymore. She tells me how she cries at night because he doesn’t notice her. I hug her tightly, and I can’t find the right words to help her make sense of all her changes. I feel like she is at the age that I need to tell her the truths of what it means to be a girl in this world; but, in doing so, I fear she will lose her innocence.
I was taught these lessons in various ways throughout my youth. Sometimes I was shown in small ways like when my uncle told me to never leave my drink unattended in college or when my principal in middle school made me change into crusty used P.E. shorts because my own weren’t long enough and it distracted the boys.
I was shown in more obvious ways like when I was seventeen and my much older cousin from California looked me up and down in my bikini and asked me how it felt knowing I was about to go on the market. But, the worst lesson of all, was realizing how much I wanted male attention and approval; I was conditioned to both fear and need men.
I don’t know how to explain to an eleven-year-old girl that, despite all the t-shirts with female empowerment slogans on them, we still live in a patriarchy. Our country shamelessly elects and appoints known sex offenders and misogynists; about half her own family don’t think a woman deserves body autonomy.
My daughter still believes in justice, that the police and the government are good. But the systems in place to protect her are very unlikely to believe her if she reports she was sexually assaulted. Especially if the man who did it is important or may become important. How can I look her in the eyes and tell her the truth: a woman in this world is considered less valuable than a man?
I want to raise her to be stronger than me, to look injustice in the face and present two middle fingers and a firm fuck you, but, at the same time, that is career suicide. I reported my rape to my workplace, and I was passed over for a promotion when the company decided I needed more time to recover. How different would my career be now if I had just learned to tiptoe around my shame and stay silent? But I don’t want that for her. I don’t want her to diminish herself for the comfort of others, but, even in that moment when she’s crying over a boy, when she’s doubting if she looks good enough or if she is cool enough, I can’t form the words to both empower her and level with her at the same time.
I don’t know if I should raise her for the world I want or for the world that is. Yet, lingering at the edge of my mind is the pervasive worry: does it even matter what I say? If I tell her that most men will prey on her vulnerability, would she even believe me? Or would she trust the man, like I did?
I decide to tell her about my ex-boyfriend, the one that groomed me over the internet when I was 16 and he was 24. I sugarcoat the experience, of course. The relationship wasn’t healthy (abusive) and it made relationships harder (dysfunctional, abusive) for many years of my life (some damage never heals.)
She is growing up, but she doesn’t have to hurry – although, God, how she wants to! How I wanted to also! I just want her to be safe, I tell her. And, more than anything else, I want her to talk to me. To be honest with me. There is no doubt in my mind that soon she will hate me or at the very least think I don’t get her. I tell her this too, and she sniffles against my shoulder that she could never hate me. She doesn’t refute that I don’t understand her, a point that I let go.
I hold her tightly to my side as she cries. I am helpless to prevent her from being hurt, but the primal need to protect my child grinds inside of me so strongly it could drive me mad if I let it. I want to cry with her and my own tears sting my eyes. I have no way of knowing if what I said mattered. I have no way of knowing if what I didn’t say mattered more. But I am there for her, and I hope that matters enough.
Emily lives in Jonesborough, TN with her husband, four children, and her service dog, Ghost. She has a special interest in writing about mental health and women’s issues. She writes both fiction and creative non-fiction. She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Art.