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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sophie

My great fear as a parent is that I will fail.

No, that's too trite. My great fear is that despite an intellectual commitment to raising my children in as thoughtful, respectful, joyous and diligent a manner as possible, I will instead harm them with those thoughts and beliefs that remain hidden from the world, and even from myself; the submerged opinions formed in my own childhood that have long since been consciously rejected, but which perhaps persist, infecting my healthy parenting with a malady of anachronism.

This is Sophie:

Sophie

My wife and I call her "Sophie the twenty dollar giraffe", because even though she is a fairly inexpensive rubber toy in her native France, once imported her price skyrockets.

One cannot be a good (read: slightly snobby and keeping up with the Joneses) parent on the San Francisco Peninsula unless one has purchased Sophie. She is an excellent teething toy, and babies love her.

Erin loved chewing on Sophie so much that when she lost her at dinner we immediately purchased another. That's Sophie, the forty dollar giraffe.

We spent the money in part because it helped when Erin was teething, but we also spent the money because Erin liked Sophie. I want to give Erin the things that she likes.

But sometimes giving her the things she likes makes me feel guilty. For instance, she loves to push her own stroller around. And this is wonderful, and adorable, and also not always a possibility. But in those instances when I've taken her stroller from her, for whatever reason, she has grown very upset with me, and she shows me this face:

DSC04572

Which breaks my heart. And so occasionally I'll give in, and let her push it anyway.

This always makes me feel guilty. As though I am spoiling her by letting her have the things that she wants so desperately.

And then I wonder about this feeling of guilt, and whether it's legitimate or not. And I trace it, correctly or not, to a chapter of Rousseau's Emile that I remember reading in the 9th grade. It's an Enlightenment treatise on education that devotes only one chapter to educating girls (an oversight Mary Wollestonecraft was very quick to criticize). In this chapter Rousseau introduces Sophie, and discusses the proper way to educate a girl who is destined to be Emile's companion, wife, and servant.

And one of the key elements to raising this girl, doomed by her sex to the life Rousseau imagines for her, is to create her as a passive companion: "It is necessary that the one [Emile] have the power and the will; it is enough that the other [Sophie] should offer little resistance."

My deep fear is that my guilty feelings about possibly spoiling my daughter are influenced by some archaic notion that what Rousseau is saying is true: that women need to be raised differently than men, because they have some nature that differentiates them in a relevant way.

This passage from Rousseau has stuck with me for 16 years, peering down from my shoulder like my own devil; stalking me like a mad killer of dreams:

"Girls should be vigilant and hardworking, but this is not enough by itself; they should be accustomed to annoyances early on. This misfortune, if such it be, is inherent in their sex, and they will never escape from it, unless to endure much more cruel sufferings. For their entire life they will have to submit to the most continual and most severe annoyances, those of proper decorum. They must be trained to bear constraint from the first, so that it costs them nothing, to master their own fantasies in order to submit to the will of others."

And every time I think about taking Erin's stroller away I wonder if I am just buying into Rousseau's line: that I need to raise my daughter to be accustomed to disappointment; that I need to make her docile in the face of my authority, even when I exercise that authority whimsically and arbitrarily.

And yet, even knowing that this might be the reason for my guilt, I cannot help but think I might spoil her. And that is the real, damning, myopic legacy that I cannot shake.

So, I fear that at the end of the day I am not the man I claim to be, that I am not the father I intend to be, and that I am not the parent I ought to be. Because I only have a one child, and that child is a daughter, I have the fear that I would raise my son differently.

I fear that if, in the end, I have a son that I am going to make a choice, a horrible, terrible, and frightful choice. One that will save one child and doom another, because I am entirely within the power of some other entity.

While William Styron's Sophie has to face this choice because of a sadistic Nazi doctor, my fear is that I will be forced to make my own choice because of some lingering, traitorous, and anachronistic ideas about differences between men and women.

What I hope is that as much guilt as I feel about indulging her I will likewise feel about indulging him, giving the lie to this entire fear I've now spent ages and pages articulating. But until I have a son this can never be put to the test. And if I never have a son I don't think I will know for sure that I am anything better than the misguided, bigoted figure that I fear I will turn out to be.

25 comments:

Mandy said...

Interesting post... probably thoughts that most of us have had pass through our heads, particularly as we consider our relationship with children of the opposite sex.

Have you read Raising Cain or Reviving Ophelia? I like the former better than the latter, but they both talk about interesting subject matter with regards to boys and girls and their socialization.

SciFi Dad said...

You know, the reality is I don't get the impression you're raising her a certain way or parenting her a certain way because she's a girl, but rather because she's YOUR KID. You don't see her a girl, you see her as your child, who you are expected to raise and protect and nurture and help.

But, the truth is, you WILL raise a boy differently than a girl, but not because of some conscious or subconscious bias. It will be because a boy wants different things than a girl; his nature will be different, not just because of gender, but just because of the fact that while he was created by the same process with theoretically the same genetic material, he will not be the same child Erin is. And therefore, you cannot parent him the same way you parent Erin. Sure, there will be similarities an commonality, but there will also be differences.

Chill out. You're doing fine.

Just don't let her have beer all the time.

Her Bad Mother said...

Part of my dissertation was on the Emile, and there's no doubt in my mind that Rousseau was sincere in his belief that girls need to be raised to be sacrificial. Which is why I prefer Machiavelli, who understood that women could be as selfish as men - to their benefit. ;)

We have the same struggle with WB and her stroller. We let her push away.

Mumma Boo said...

Warning! Long response coming up... I read your post quite a few times and found myself saying, "Phew! I'm glad I never had to read Rousseau." and "Holy crap, do I treat my daughter differently than I treat my son?"

In my humble opinion (as one who never studied Rousseau), you're being too hard on yourself. I have a 5 year old daughter and a 19 month old son. I try to treat them equally, but given the differences in their ages, it's just not possible. Do I let him get away with more at this age than I did her? I don't think so, but maybe an outside observer would say that I do. And, if I do, is it because he's a boy or is it because he's my 2nd born and I don't fret as much as I did with my 1st? I don't know that I could make that distinction. I do know that the guilt I feel at having to either leave him with a sitter while I take her to one of her activities, or confine him to his crib while I'm helping her with homework or a craft project is definitely equal to the guilt I feel when I tell her I can't do something because I'm spending time with him. At the same time, I tell myself that they BOTH need to learn how to share, take turns and deal with disappointment. It's a conundrum - one that every parent faces, no matter how many kids they have. There is always something that will make a parent feel guilty. The guilt, the guilt, oh my head, the freaking guilt!!

You love Erin, you're doing your best with her, and that's all that counts. So, relax. As long as you know where to get another giraffe, you've got it made.

for a different kind of girl said...

Very interesting post. I agree with that which has been said. You're raising Erin as your child, making choices (or helping her make choices) that you see fit to keep her safe and to teach her.

I also think there is merit to the thought that you treat a second child differently from your first, regardless of gender, because you are more relaxed and because the older child requires different things from you. In addition, they learn from the older child, too.

I have very little insight into the raising of girls. Two boys left me wondering how I should do things with them, for them. Then I just realized I had to do what I felt was best and pick up pieces that didn't fit when they happened. I sometimes worry that I'm inclined to hold them back from some aspects of life because my "girl stuff" kicks in and I'm afraid to see them fail, but that's me just having to learn to keep my mouth shut.

In the end, you watch them go running off down the street to do their thing and you know, on whatever level, that you're doing the best you can. So far, it doesn't look like you've screwed up at all!

Headless Mom said...

Boys and girls were created different by God, for a purpose. We inherently treat them differently:because of our own upbringing, education, life experiences, our own sex, etc. First borns, second born, etc. will be treated differently because of the experience of the parent.

Assuming we, as parents, are not abusive, love our children and try to do the best we can with what we have available, I think we can safely say that our kids will turn out all right.

We did, didn't we?

THopgood said...

I always had that fear too...that I would treat my daughter different than I treat my boys. I don't think I do but it's always in the back of my head. If you're questioning yourself about it now then you're already one step ahead in the game.

Great post!

Patti Mayo said...

Wow. Great post.

Being a mother of two girls before the twins came along and gave me a boy, I never thought about raising them based on their gender. As they get older, of course, I'll have to take into consideration that they are girls and not boys (think bras, periods and shotguns for when the boys come over), but I don't put much thought into it now.

My son is a completely different ball game from my girls. He's obnoxious and high energied, but I treat him like I would the girls. He doesn't get away with anything that they wouldn't.

I do for him as I would for them.

You do your best as a parent and Erin and your son, if you ever have one, will be just fine.

like Scifi Dad said...just don't let her have beer all the time (because then, you will have a totally different problem)

mommastantrum said...

I feel like this all the time. AND I HAVE A BOY.

I think that we all worry that we are "spoiling" or "ruining" our children. But no matter what, we just need to knock that stuff off and raise them to be the best people that they can be.

Yeah, boys and girls are different and sometimes you do things differently for different sexes. Overall though all kids give you that "LOOK" when they are in trouble or don't get their way - they are learning how to push our buttons, how to "work the system."

Its totally nature.

And you are doing GREAT with Erin. She doesn't look any worse for the wear. So have another beer and chill a little. And just try not to teach her any swear words that she will repeat for the grandparents.

My_Dog_Is_Better said...

Because you're a male are you raising her differently than if you were a female?

WHO CARES?! Internet world finally meets the philosophy obsessed you.

Really though, you're looking into it way too much. Just look at how we were raised and how great I, I mean we, turned out.

I think as long as you realize that girls don't like the feeling of food all over their face when they're eating, you're doing just fine.

Christi said...

You're thinking too much.

Boys are inherently different than girls just like every child will be different.

My son needs boundaries for climbing running and jumping, my daughter needs boundaries for wanting to play with outlets...

You WILL treat them appropriately different...

Becky said...

Totally interesting, Backpacking Dad. I'm glad as hell that I came over. I'm so adding you to my blogroll.

I have two boys, and although I was initially wigged out by that (being female and all) it's great. But I DO wonder what I would do differently if I had a girl.

Hmm...

Stacie said...

Well...I've never read the authors mentioned, and I've never raised a girl. I have 2 boys, 3 years apart and I can tell you right now I raised them differently and yet the same. I raised them differently because they are different people, One's into sports, one wants nothing to do with sports, he's more into music etc...but I also raised them the same in that I have my own values that may be different than the neighbors etc. I really liked what Scifi Dad had to say about treating them the way you do because they are your kid not because she's a girl, or the next may be a boy etc. Also, the rules change for the second child as you learn what works with the first, you ease up a little etc.

My impression of you, from reading for only 2 weeks is that you are a FABULOUS father who truely cares about being a good father and who loves his wife, which is often said is the best gift a father can give his child. You'll be fine and the thoughts you struggle with "am I spoiling her" etc are the same thoughts for the majority out there. You want the best for them, you want them to be happy, but you also want them to learn the rules and that there ARE rules. Sometimes it's appropriate to let her push the stroller, sometimes it's not, but if she doesn't learn that now, it's gonna be really hard on her when she goes to school and has to learn the hard way. I've seen a friend raise her boys that there are no boundaries, they can jump on furniture, climb up on the roof at the age of 5 (I wish I was exaggerating) etc and when they have to fit into society it's next to impossible for them. She now homeschools because she was tired of the school system "limiting" her kids...that's an extreme of course, but you get the idea...
You are a great dad, don't sweat it!
Stacie

Stacie said...

Well...I've never read the authors mentioned, and I've never raised a girl. I have 2 boys, 3 years apart and I can tell you right now I raised them differently and yet the same. I raised them differently because they are different people, One's into sports, one wants nothing to do with sports, he's more into music etc...but I also raised them the same in that I have my own values that may be different than the neighbors etc. I really liked what Scifi Dad had to say about treating them the way you do because they are your kid not because she's a girl, or the next may be a boy etc. Also, the rules change for the second child as you learn what works with the first, you ease up a little etc.

My impression of you, from reading for only 2 weeks is that you are a FABULOUS father who truely cares about being a good father and who loves his wife, which is often said is the best gift a father can give his child. You'll be fine and the thoughts you struggle with "am I spoiling her" etc are the same thoughts for the majority out there. You want the best for them, you want them to be happy, but you also want them to learn the rules and that there ARE rules. Sometimes it's appropriate to let her push the stroller, sometimes it's not, but if she doesn't learn that now, it's gonna be really hard on her when she goes to school and has to learn the hard way. I've seen a friend raise her boys that there are no boundaries, they can jump on furniture, climb up on the roof at the age of 5 (I wish I was exaggerating) etc and when they have to fit into society it's next to impossible for them. She now homeschools because she was tired of the school system "limiting" her kids...that's an extreme of course, but you get the idea...
You are a great dad, don't sweat it!
Stacie

Danielle said...

uh... right. Couldn't follow.

Just spoil her. Boys and girls are supposed to be different...

See if she'll push the stroller when you're in it! Now that would be something worth encouraging!!!

Redneck Mommy said...

I was going to say what Her Bad Mother said.

Honestly.

Snicker.

I find I do raise my kids differently. Not because they are boy and girl but because they have polar opposite personalities.

Same rules for both, but yet I relate to them each differently.

The therapist says I haven't damaged them too badly so far.

And I always let the kids push the buggies when they wanted to. Unless it was in a parking lot or a geriatric facility where an old person was liable to suffer broken bones at the hands of my two feet tall child blindly pushing their buggy.

A Godforsaken Wasteland said...

Great post.

The backpack is a neat idea, how does it work? I mean, what kind is it...just a run of the mill daypack altered to fit your daughter? or something special?

All the best!

ScientistMother said...

Excellent post! Mr. SM and I had a very similar discussion regarding how the gender of our child affects the way we treat them. This past saturday we were at yet another family function and the monkey was the center of attention due to his 'amazing' table manners (snicker). As per usual he needed a full bath and a change of clothes after feeding himself, while his two female cousins (1.5 and 2.5 years old) were calmly letting their mums feed them, and thus did not get their very pretty dresses dirty. The monkey does not let me feed him even if I wanted to (which I wanted to do to avoid the above scene), and everyone chalked it up to him being a typical independent boy. When we came home, I commented to MR. SM that his mom did not appreciate that I let the monkey feed himself and get that dirty, unlike the cousins. Mr. SM realized that he didn't care only because the monkey is a boy, and that if we are lucky enough to be have a daughter he probably would not want her creating the same scene, as it would not be cute or proper for a 15 month old girl.

Which precipitated the question of whether Mr. SM would wrestle and rough house with a daughter, in the way he does with the monkey. I hope that he will, but I am not sure he would. He knows that women are strong, independent, and equal in all ways but he also is a very protective and loving man which causes him to forget the whole strong and capable aspect sometimes. It breaks his heart to see the monkey sick or hurting in any way and I think if we had a daughter he would be even more protective. And if she were to have my eyes as well, I am not sure he would ever say no to her. But then again isn't there a reason that they call daughters daddy's little girls?

Backpacking Dad said...

Wow. Thanks, everyone. I feel a lot less wonky than I did yesterday when I wrote this one.

Mandy: I haven't read either, but maybe I'll check them out.

SciFi Dad: well, maybe not all the time.

Her Bad Mother: It was always amazing to me that Rousseau could spend so much time in the company of amazing, intelligent women like MW and still think stupid stupid thoughts.

Mummaboo: the guilt indeed. I may have to start "No Guilt Tuesdays" :}

FADKOG: Thanks. I'll be surprised if I ever see her at home when she's older; she already always wants to be somewhere else...anywhere else. The world isn't big enough to entertain her.

Headless mom: Grant me the serenity...the strength...and the wisdom...I guess we did turn out alright.

Thopgood: Glad I'm not alone in this.

Patti: The shotgun thing is definitely something that makes me feel guilty. Because I'm always only half joking when I say that I'm going to get a shotgun to scare the boyfriends...it doesn't even cross my mind that a girlfriend could be just as in need of a little pep talk on how to treat my kid. That bothers me.

Mommastantrum: she doesn't even have to push my buttons anymore...she has a direct psychic connection to my will, and she can wrap it around her mindgrapes whenever she wants.

My_dog_is_better: YOU turned out fine...I turned out to be obsessed with philosophy. :}

Christi: I hope I can figure out the "appropriately" part sooner rather than later.

Becky: Thanks, Aunt Becky. :}

Stacie: Thanks a ton. I can't even imagine what a little tyrant she'd grow into if I didn't give any limits. And I hope that I'll try to keep a boy from becoming a tyrant in the same way. I want them to have the world...I just don't want them to think they're entitled to it :}

Danielle: That's ok. I wasn't being very articulate...just meandering through my worrying mind...And now I need to get a bigger stroller. One that I can fit into :}

Redneck Mommy: No. There are not two people who read this thing who wrote dissertations involving Rousseau :} Stop skepping her ideas :} And pushing old people around! That's it. I'm taking Erin to a retirement community ASAP so she can get in on some of that wheelchair action. I'm sure they would love to be transported by a little one year old in a floppy hat who has no regard for where she's going :}

A Godforsaken Wasteland: The backpack is made for babies. There's a five-point harness inside and a little saddle and locking straps and everything. Deuter made mine (the Kangakids model), and Keilty makes another soft-sided one. I just hate the look of the frame packs, so I went with this one.

Scientist Mother: I'm feeling that "daddy's girl" thing pretty strongly. Especially because I'm a SAHD, and I might not be home as much when the next one is this age.

Patti Mayo said...

BPD....my husband talks about the shotgun or a baseball bat. The baseball bat is more of a possibility, but I also see the scene from Bill Engvall's act "pull the young man in close to you so only u and him can hear the convo... tell him, u see that little girl, she is my life.. so if u have any idea of huggin or kissing i want you to remeber this... i have no problem going back to jail"

I have also the thought in the back of my mind that maybe i will have to worry about a girlfriend for my girls or a boyfriend for my son....

Heather J. said...

I no longer feel guilty about the 20 dollar Giants pacifer we bought Madison two years ago...and then weened for fromthe paci, two days later.

MereCat said...

Your writings are so poignant. Such thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. Excellent.

Kim/2 Kids said...

I have felt guilty ever since my daughter, at age four, complained about the school bus she took in camp. "That bus, mommy, it is too hot and the ride too long!" This was the beginning of the realization that my little cherub lived in a different world. Most children ride school buses but I digress. I think children bring up so many of our own issues, just wait until she is excluded from a playdate. The reality is we all do the best we can and I am banking on it being good enough.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

You are definitely thinking way too hard about this. Which is okay for a little while, but then stop it and operate on instinct.

I'm assuming you take the stroller away because she will push it into other people and things. I think one of the most important things we can teach are kids is that THEY ARE NO MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THIS WORLD. Yes, they are wonderful and smart and beautiful, but so is everyone else. People that don't learn that early on (often through being twharted in their desires) are really awful to be around.

kittenpie said...

You know, I think we have to raise boys to look forward to some setbacks and hearing "no" too, because they have to do the same things girls do - go to school, have a boss, live in a society, etc, and there are limits. Simple.

That said, I do think girls have to be prepared for annoyances. Annoyances like periods and sultural pressure to look a ceratin way, tighter curfews in most cases, people presuming to get in their business as they get older and asking them when they are going to get married or breed, and annoyances as children like the expression "throws like a girl" or the immaturity of boys until later in life. Annoyances, all. But not necessarily relevant to how we raise them.