My Unpretty Daughter

“Hey little man!”

“Does he want to go in the dressing room with you?”

“Your son’s face just lit up!”

“She’s actually a girl.”

“No, she’s fine out here.”

“That was my daughter.”

“I’m so sorry!!”

“Oh, it’s fine,” I assure them.

Emma doesn’t notice most of the time. And if she does, she’s unlikely to say anything. Sometimes she’ll look at me with a mischievous smile and put one finger in front of her lips. She shakes her head slightly and covers a laugh at the little secret we’re in on together.

The secret is that she’s a girl; she just looks like a boy.

“It’s fine,” I say. But I don’t feel like it’s fine. I feel at once protective and embarrassed, maybe even ashamed.

And I am definitely ashamed by my discomfort.

When Emma first announced about a month ago that she wanted to cut off all her hair, I cried. Not in front of her, of course. In front of her I asked why and then told her to find a picture on the Internet that she could show to a stylist.

And then I went into the shower and cried.

I cried not because she wanted to cut her long hair, but because she wanted to “cut it all off like a boy”. For some reason that was the straw that broke the dam.

Emma hasn’t worn dresses since she was two. She hates them. Now, at ten, she’s usually wearing mesh shorts and a Packers t-shirt or jersey – or something old and stained and acquired for free. When she’s “dressing up” she wears skinny jeans and a plaid button down with her black and green Converse hightops.

I admit her fashion sense has always made me a little sad. When I found out I was having a girl I ran home and painted the nursery two shades of pink while fantasies of girls’ weekends and shopping trips danced in my head. I’d teach her how to do her hair and paint her nails. I couldn’t wait to start the journey with my very own mini-me.

But it turns out you don’t give birth to dolls, and instead of a mini-me I got a completely separate and independent human being with ideas and dreams of her own. And yes, that made me a little sad.

It also made me extremely proud. I’ve always been in awe of my daughter’s strong sense of self and amazed at how early it developed. “She’s been refusing dresses since before she was verbal!” I’ve been known to brag.

I’ve fought hard against the label tomboy.

“She’s not a tomboy,” I would assert. “She’s a girl who doesn’t like pink or dresses or playing princess. Who she is doesn’t require another label. Girl can encompass all of that and more!”

I thought I was empowering her and teaching her to embrace and love all of who she is and would ever be. I wonder now if I was also holding space for the possible resurrection of a long-dead dream.

Because I cried in the shower when she told me she wanted to cut all her hair off.

“We’re never going to have grandkids!” I sobbed to my husband on the other side of the shower curtain. “And I’ll bet you money neither one of our kids even go to prom!”

Yeah, because not just one but both of my children are constantly resisting and avoiding social norms of all sorts, especially the gender ones. And you know what? Sometimes that is exhausting. Sometimes it gets hard to constantly have your expectations thwarted and be forced to re-examine the status quo.

“You have no idea what’s going to happen in the future,” my husband said. My mother repeated the sentiment when I got out of the shower and shared my emotional outburst with her.

“And by the way,” she reminded me, “you never thought you were going to be a parent.”

Right. The irony here is that I didn’t grow up with dreams of what parenthood would be like. I didn’t grow up wanting children at all, in fact, and it was only through one very bad financial decision (birth control is so expensive! I said) that I ended up presented with the choice to be a parent. My dreams for my kids – and for myself as a mother – are barely older than the kids themselves.

And there I was crying about unborn grandchildren.

It wasn’t about the grandkids, I told myself. In that moment, on that day, I just wanted very badly for one of my kids to be normal - because maybe that would just be easier.

Of course I pulled myself together. I reminded myself that my kids are amazing. Both Jared and my mother reminded me that any resistance they have to normal is completely my fault, because I have not in any way raised them to fall in line with blanket expectations.

I helped Emma pick out a haircut – one we found by searching “androgynous haircuts” – and took her in for the big chop.

I also had a quick little conversation with her about whether or not she might be transgender.

Hey, it’s 2015 and I read the Internet.

“Em, do you feel more like a boy than a girl?” I asked.

“Are you talking about that” – and here she holds up two fingers and moves them back and forth to illustrate her point – “gender switchy thing?”

“Uhhhh… yes? And how do you know about that?”

“I saw a show about a boy who was born a girl and a girl who was born a boy and they liked each other and then they had surgery and they still liked each other!”

Hey, it’s 2015 and she clearly has way too much access to the Internet.

“Yes,” I tell her, “that’s what I’m talking about.”

“No, Mom,” she insists, “I am not a boy on the inside. I am scared to death of surgery and would never do that!”

Of course my response is, “what if you weren’t afraid of surgery?”

“No, I’m a girl, I just want boy hair.”

And so we give her boy hair, and she is thrilled.

Thrilled.

She comes home from school the first day and tells me that she gave “the best answer ever to a practice question! My teacher says I’m a whole new person with this hair!” She also credits her new ‘do for a stellar performance at baseball practice. The kid is glowing practically all the time now, and there’s no hair behind which to hide her radiant happiness.

I can’t believe I ever doubted this stupid haircut, I tell myself.

She comes to work with me on Take Your Kid to Work Day, and everyone thinks she is a boy.

I gently correct them, she is oblivious, and I want to cry all over again.

And that’s how it’s been for the last month or so. I’m riding a rollercoaster of emotions about what my daughter looks like – or rather how others perceive what she looks like – and about how I feel about how I feel about it.

I suggest she wears earrings so people can tell she’s a girl. She concedes she’d like to remember to put her earrings in more often, but reminds me she doesn’t care what people think.

“You said it doesn’t matter what other people think.”

I tell her she’s amazing, and I apologize for having such a hard time with it.

“I don’t know why it bothers me, Emma,” I confess, “but I am so, so proud of you for being able to be who you are no matter how I handle it.”

“You just think people think you’re failing at raising a daughter,” she says matter-of-factly.

“You are so smart.”

“Yeah, I should probably be a therapist or something.”

How can I not be bursting with pride about her?

I wonder if therein lies the problem, or at least part of it.

As mothers, so many of us have a horrible habit of linking our children with ourselves far beyond the cutting of the umbilical cord. Their successes are our successes; their failures are our failures. How you see my child is, by extension, how you see me. We are proud of our children – or ashamed of them – as if who they are is a direct reflection of us.

The bigger problem, the real revelation for me, is that what I was placing value in was how pretty my daughter was.

Pretty matters.

I would have said that it didn’t. I would have been adamant that pretty is pointless. But I also have often asserted that we are all beautiful, which suggesst that it is important for us to be so.

Maybe Emma already knows something that I don’t: the difference between pretty and beautiful.

She is an artist, and she loves to be surrounded by color and light and luxury. “I can’t help it,” she once told me from the balcony of a five-star hotel room, “I feel better when I’m surrounded by beautiful things!” But she has no interest in pretty.

I admit that I do. I don’t want to keep beating myself up about that; shame is no good. I like to feel pretty and I am conditioned by a particular set of norms about what pretty is. That’s where I’m at right now.

But I’m also at:

…learning to separate my children from my reflection.

…wanting to keep expanding my own definition of pretty.

…examining the value I place on pretty.

…continuing to let go, let go, let go when it comes to my kids.

2015-04-23 16.05.06

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  1. This is a wonderful post, Britt.

    This is what bothers me the most about campaigns like the Dove one telling us all that we should consider ourselves beautiful. It makes an assumption that beauty is a value that is important to all of us.

    I’ll admit that it does feel nice when I look nice, but that is nowhere near as important to me as being smart and kind and strong.

    I think society has to stop telling us that beauty is important for girls and women.
    Annie @ Ethical Thinker’s most recent post: I can’t just look at the Grand Canyon

    • Britt Reints says:

      Thanks, Annie. It’s true – and Emma and I were talking about this last night when I had this “pretty” revelation. I said “we’re taught that pretty is important” and she said, “I doubt Nana ever told you it was important to be pretty.” And she’s right, my mom would have never SAID that – but holy COW is marketing and society pervasive. “Society can go to hell,” she said. lol

  2. steph says:

    I was often mistaken for a boy and am still not “girly.” But I can be pretty feminine in some ways. I also have a dear cousin who cut off her hair and wanted to look like a boy. She came out recently. Either way, we’re both happy and healthy and loved. The loved part is important…and it seems your girl is. Don’t sweat the rest. People’s judgments are their problem, not yours or your beautiful daughter’s.

    • Britt Reints says:

      With both of the kids I’ve often wondered if they are gay – which drives Jared nuts because he says I’m making too much out of everything. I think part of the reason I obsess over it isn’t because it would bother me, but because I HAAAATE the unknown. Like, I just want them each to just come on and tell me already, “hey, Mom, this is who I am and what I want and what you can expect for me for the rest of me life.” Is that too much to ask? lol

  3. Terri says:

    Thank you for this! This perfectly describes me and my 6 yr old daughter. I am dealing with the same feelings and it’s nice to know i’m not alone.

    • Britt Reints says:

      Thank YOU. I debated writing this because I’ve been embarrassed by many of these feelings, but I thought maybe I wasn’t alone and someone else would need to hear it. I’m glad it made a difference to hit publish – and that you took the time to let me know I’m not alone either. xo

  4. Amy says:

    Sounds like you’re doing a great job of owning how you feel about it AND at letting your kid be herself.

    I was also a kid who chopped off all of my hair at ten and spent a good bit of high school wearing my dad’s borrowed clothes- it was the 90′s and I was grungy. The hair grew out to my waist and now it’s just hair. But, I also went to prom and now I’m sort of prissy and frilly. My sporty girlfriend had long hair through high school (and also went to prom in a dress) and now she has short half-purple/ half-grey hair and lives in T-shirts and jeans. (And now that I think about it, the lesbians I went to high school with- who came out later- all had super long hair).

    I guess what I’m saying is, hair doesn’t foretell the future. Emma could wear a dress or a tux or a leotard made of duct tape to prom and still go, and judging by my friend group, all kinds of people make grand-babies if they want to these days. You’re on the right track- feel all the feels on your own, but keep raising your great kid and life will surprise you. Just saying, from a former “son” on several occasions, you’re doing a good job.

  5. daniel says:

    See, this is why you are an inspiration. The absolute HONESTY you convey. You aren’t afraid to open up.

    It isn’t just mother daughters who have this. While it isn’t the same thing, fathers also need to learn to step back and allow their children to be autonomous. It is so hard to straddle that line of “be your own person” and then you share what you liked as a kid and still enjoy and want them to share in it.

    Outward appearances can be such a lightning rod for identity issues, especially today, so it’s good in a way that you are sensitive about it. The trick, which you are obviously aware of, is to not let your own preconcieved notions and societal pressures dictate your reactions. Emma is going to be a much stronger person for this experience regardless of how she ends up (gay, straight, trans, whatever) simply because of the support that she has. I’m not saying she could wind up being one thing or another because of this, what I’m saying is instead that she will be able to face greater challenges in her life because you are helping her through this period of her life where gender and identity are coming to the forefront.

    The two of you are raising, by what I can tell from social media and your blog, a very strong daughter. Congratulations. (and condolences for when she is a teenager)
    daniel’s most recent post: Sleep Is For Babies

  6. Liz Hover says:

    Hey Britt – I have super short boy hair too and I cut it all off two years ago because it was just EASIER to maintain. I know this isn’t the issue here but it was a practical choice for me and maybe it was the same for Emma.

    I was also mistaken for a boy when I was a child. And I was called a tomboy.

    I’m 40 now and I don’t give a damn.

    Emma sounds like an incredibly astute young lady. Looks like you’ve raised a good ‘un there! I only wish there were more mums like you and daughters like Emma.

    And remember, pretty comes in many forms.
    Liz Hover’s most recent post: OPI nail polish in Kiss Me or Elf

  7. Great post, Britt. A few thoughts, I’d like to share.

    First and foremost, the fact that your kids don’t conform to gender norms is indicative of you being an amazing mom. And not to be forgotten, your husband is doing a great job as well.

    Most would probably say that doesn’t make sense, so let me expound even though I feel like I’ve said this to you before. Emma seems to be a happy, secure kid. Most kids aren’t. Then there are kids who play happy but are miserable because they can’t be themselves. Emma knows you and Jared love her for who she is. That’s something an unfortunately large number of people don’t have.

    Emma can be who Emma is because she’s not worried about disappointing you or hurting you or losing your love.

    Now, just a few other thoughts.

    Could it be the real reason you are so bothered by what’s going on is because you know how harsh society can be and you’re afraid of your kids being anything outside of the norm because you want them to be accepted? Being rejected for something as silly as a haircut is exactly what we would expect from society.

    Finally, because she hasn’t been through puberty yet, there’s still a chance she’ll look more female than male. You have to remember that things like broad shoulders in men and wide hips in women develop with age. So for as easy as it can be for some adults to pass for the opposite sex, it’s almost impossible to tell a girl from a boy during childhood. And generally speaking, as adults, people don’t wear loose-fitting unisex clothing. She probably won’t have to wear a dress to work, but she likely won’t get to wear jeans and a t-shirt with Chucks either.
    Michael Lombardi’s most recent post: Extremism in Parenting

  8. This is such a powerful and moving post, thank you for sharing it, for sharing these feelings and hurdles. I don’t have any real experience relating to this, I hated dresses and frills with a passion but my waist-length hair precluded me from being mistaken for a boy. But I was (and in many ways still am) a tomboy, a badge I personally wear with pride, although I totally understand how many people don’t like that label, and that’s a-okay too.

    Anyway, mostly what I wanted to say was thank you for posting this.

    xox
    Feisty Harriet’s most recent post: A Few Things I Love: The Nerd Edition

  9. joanne briefs says:

    Britt i love your writing as always. i have a daughter who for the second year in a row shaved her had for St. Baldricks in support of cancer research. Everywhere we go people think she is a boy and it cracks her up. I dont even bother correcting them any more. I tell my daughter that she is pretty AMAZING, pretty SMART, pretty TALENTED and beautiful in the eyes of her parents and God and that is all that matters!!

  10. Melissa F. says:

    Wow. Just … wow. Such a powerful, strong post. I’ll be sharing.

  11. Jack says:

    Hey Britt,

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed this. Raising children is a never ending adventure that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

  12. Carly says:

    YES! I am navigating a different set of battles around appearance with Dags, but have many of the same feelings, doubts, fears, and tears. I’m growing and reevaluating my critical thinking skills after several Facebook convos about the Dove campaign, and others. I wish I lived closer enough for wine & convos on the regular. I admire you so much for whatever you did that allowed Emma the confidence to not only honor herself, but also to discuss it with you. I’m feeling all inspired to go watch my positive parenting videos! This post is awesomely brave and inspiring and validating.

  13. Amy says:

    GREAT post. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability with us. I can’t wait to share this.

  14. hello haha narf says:

    emma has a great attitude!! and she is so very smart. man, i knew i loved that kid for a reason.
    (my hair was short in middle and high school. so much easier to maintain!)

  15. Karen says:

    Your daughter is me when I was a kid. :) She is very lucky to have a Mom like you. I grew up in fundamentalist Christian environment that really did not allow me to just be myself.

    You’ll be closer to your daughter because of this. And don’t scratch of prom and grand kids, just yet! It may not be how you imagined things, but it may turn out even better!

  16. sara says:

    Whoa!! Slow down sweetie, just because your daughter likes to wear comfortable clothes and play in the dirt doesn’t mean she’s a boy. She’s not ugly, she’s beautiful. She will grow into a lovely young lady. The media has got parents in a frenzy about sex identity.

    My 11 yr old daughter is a “tomboy”, just like I was. We hate shoes, we like to be comfortable, I even buy mens shirts now because they are longer, more comfortable, and quite honestly, made with thicker fabric! My daughter likes boy stuff but as she has grown, she’s gotten a little more girly and found herself to be kinda country. Loves horses, animals, etc. You see? She was figuring out what her passion was.

    My 8 yr old is VERY girly but started out refusing to wear jeans or dresses. Leggings only because they were comfortable.

    Point is, right now she’s just a kid and there’s no need to be freaking out because she hasn’t gotten to her puberty-want-to-wear-makeup stage yet. Tell her she’s beautiful, be proud of her passions, and let go of your fears.

  17. Hammo says:

    Wow!. I wasn’t expecting that. Thanks for being so open.

    As a loving father of two beautiful girls, I’ve certainly got a lot of home truths coming my way.

    Secretly, I wish my daughters would cut their hair shorter so I wouldn’t need to know so much about styling girls hair.

    Hey, I’m a guy and we tend to be practical and honestly don’t make as big a fuss about beauty and pretty as much as women think.

    It’s great that your daughter is comfortable with herself, just be sure any insecurities you may have may rub off on her.
    Hammo’s most recent post: I hate my WordPress themes provider for being too awesome!

  18. IA says:

    I was just the same; short hair and dressed pretty much as a boy all the time. I played football, basketball and went fishing in my spare time. I’m glad my parents allowed me to dress the way I wanted, and never gave a me hard time about it. Well done them, and well done you! I have never thought I was a boy, or wanted to be one. I’m not lesbian or bi- sexual. It’s just practical to not worry about your hair, make – up and clothing. More time for fun, and to be happy with your own self. I think your daughter has got things sorted out :-)

    By the way: now my hair is one meter long, I have a son and a husband – and a job I love. I still dress in outdoorsy clothes most of the time, but that has become a part of my image – and people always accept me for it. And: the few times I put on a dress – I always get loads of attention just for wearing it ;-)

  19. Mal says:

    i was just like her when I was young. I also wanted a boys-haircut, I drove a motorcycle and I became an electrician. But I have never felt like a boy, I grew out to be an adult woman that wears makeupm dresses and so on. Just keep on encuraging her to be who she is! <3

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