My daughter is singing. Her contralto is muffled as it drifts down from her upstairs bedroom. As always, I find its guileless vocal fry utterly charming; she sounds world-weary at age 7. I go to the foot of the staircase to listen in and maybe eavesdrop on her and her younger sister, who’s 5.
If I were a boy, I would sail the seven seas, sail the seven seas, if I were a boy . . .
Suddenly my blood runs cold, and my thoughts leap madly in all directions. Foremost amongst them: It’s impossible to know how many ways you can fail until you have children. It’s the one thing, above all else, that you want to do perfectly. And I’ve obviously failed miserably in my efforts to raise girls who feel empowered to pursue their dreams.
My husband and I had waited 11 years before we felt we were ready to start a family. We moved around a lot for work in those days, and it just felt practical to delay child-rearing until we settled down. Plus, I hadn’t yet formulated my Plan, a coherent philosophical approach to parenting I hoped might ensure that our kids would someday avoid all of my own mistakes.
I time travel back to a day in my early teens. My mother comes home from the market and tells me a story. She’d been at the produce counter trying to find a ripe cantaloupe when a young man appeared at her elbow. When my mother completed her task — sniffing and thumping and performing the other arcane rituals she deployed on a regular basis to choose food she deemed fit for our family — the stranger spoke up: “Would you mind telling me which melon came in second?”
I’m afraid that tale had an outsized effect on me. We had a book of inspirational sayings in our house that I thumbed through whenever I was desperate for something to read. The one that always caught me up short said it’s better to teach a person to use a fishing pole than to give them a fish to eat. But I just wanted the fish, not the tedious instructions on how to learn a process I found disgusting. So, I totally “got” Melon Guy. My mother’s story confirmed a dangerous theory: I could let some kinds of things slide and still count on the universe to provide me with ripe fruit.
Unsurprisingly, this perspective proved increasingly problematic, and difficult to shake as I grew older. I vowed that if I were ever brave enough to have kids, I’d make sure that they knew how to fish. Especially if they were girls.
Now, hearing my second-grade daughter yearn for an autonomy she seemed to feel was already out of her reach, I am momentarily stunned. Then I leap up the stairs, two at a time, and burst into her room.
“Honey,” I begin. “You can sail the seven seas if you want to! You can study and practice and work hard to accomplish anything you’d like! Girls can do everything boys can do!”
I continue in this vein for quite some time, so caught up in my own alarm that it takes me a while to notice that I’m not letting either girl get a word in edgewise. I finally end my impromptu lecture. My 5-year-old’s eyes are huge, like she’s seeing Mickey Mouse’s head come off so the actor inside can eat pizza. My older daughter puts her hand on my shoulder.
“OK, Mom,” she says. "But I was singing “If I were a boat, I would sail the seven seas.”
“Who’s hungry?” I ask, distraction being the last refuge of a chagrined parent. I follow in their wake as they bolt down the stairs, racing toward a future I can barely begin to imagine.
Carolyn R. Russell is a writer in West Newbury. Send comments to email@example.com. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.