When I became a first time mother, I remember reading an endless amount of parenting books about the very rudimentary elements of caretaking for infants: feeding, bathing, sleeping, and eating. All of these books left me with a wealth of knowledge about the mechanics of childcare, but did nothing to relieve the isolation and confusion I felt as a new mother.
And then I read Andrea Buchanan’s first book, and realized that every other mother probably felt the same way I did. Andrea was one of the first mother-writers to initiate a much-needed open and honest dialogue about the reality of motherhood in MotherShock, Loving Every (Other Minute of It), 2003. She has continued to provide a forum for the emotions and feelings brought about by motherhood as editor of two recent anthologies, It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons, and It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters. (A third anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, is a collection of pieces from the website for which she is managing editor, www.literarymama.com.)
In It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, Buchanan intricately weaves tales from mother-writers about the joys, fears, and frustrations inherent in raising a child of the same gender. As a mother of two girls myself, I couldn’t wait to read It’s a Girl and talk with Andrea about her own personal experiences raising a girl.
Anjali: What was different in your experience of reading, compiling and editing essays written by mother-writers about girls, versus essays about boys?
Andrea: The most striking difference, to me, in these essays by mothers of sons and mothers of daughters was how although both sets of writers expressed anxiety about gender, the Boy writers were apprehensive because they felt they had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and the Girl writers were nervous because they knew exactly what they were getting into.
Anjali: Many of the authors in It's a Girl, struggle with how to shelter their daughters from damaging feminine stereotypes. Miriam Peskowitz, in "Cheerleader," confronts teachers at her daughter's school when she discovers that in gym class, the boys are actively engaging in sports while the girls stand at the sidelines to cheer the boys on. Kim Fischer in "Shining, Shimmering, Splendor," grapples with the fact that her triplet girls enjoy dressing up as princesses. Do you find that this need for mothers to redefine femininity is a big part of the mother-daughter relationship in the post-women's movement era?
Andrea: I think it's a part of it, certainly. I think what all of these writers wrestle with is their own conflicting feelings about femininity and gender -- seeing their daughters enter a world that still markets a certain way to girls and women, that still compensates females differently, that still is weighted against girls and women in a sense, forces them to examine their own experience as young girls and now contemporary women in our society.
Anjali: Along the same lines, many of the authors in the book are former tomboys who are shocked when their daughters end up preferring pink, lace, and ballet shoes over blue jeans, cleats, and sports. What, if anything, do you think this says about the nature versus nurture arguments when it comes to raising girls verses raising boys?
Andrea: I think it's another great example of how our children come to us as they are. When they are born we have all kinds of big plans and ideas about the kind of people they'll be eventually, but the truth is a lot of who they are is already there, right from the start. (And as anyone who has parented a toddler knows first-hand, they can be pretty vocal about their preferences!)
Anjali: Another complex issue the writers confront is the how their own body images affect their relationships with their daughters. Ann Douglas, in her essay, "The Food Rules," touchingly writes "I had to learn to forgive myself for passing along genes that may have contributed to my daughter's eating disorder, for being a less-than-perfect parent, and for not being able to protect my daughter from a culture that sends girls some seriously messed up messages about food and what it means to look good and feel good about yourself." How do we as mothers resolve our insecurities about our own bodies in order to teach our girls to be secure about their bodies?
Andrea: I think all of the writers who tackle this subject in one way or another in the book speak to it as a kind of work-in-progress. Catherine Newman looks at her roly-poly toddler's "chubalicious" belly and sees it as an opportunity to resolve to be kinder to herself and her own body. Ann Douglas's shock at discovering her daughter's eating disorder is a wake-up call for her to look at the "food rules" in her own life and how she's thought about body image and size. It's such a huge and complicated issue -- the insecurities and conflicts we have about our bodies -- that I think it's a constant effort, a constant practice to work towards some kind of resolution. Having a younger, more impressionable version of ourselves there to watch us grimace at ourselves in a swimsuit or overhear us talking about the Shangri-La Diet on the phone is a good motivator for checking in with ourselves about where we are with all of this, so that we can do a better job of mentoring our girls.
Anjali: In "Park-Bench Epiphany," Kelly Johnson admits, "It is so hard not to superimpose my own childhood struggles onto my daughter. And later, "But it has proven impossible to resist the sway of gender, its siren song that calls to mind my own experience as my daughter makes her way on the path to womanhood." Do you think many of the challenges in raising daughters stem from the fact that it causes us to confront our most painful memories as children, and, in a sense, re-raise ourselves? Do you think this makes raising girls easier or harder than raising boys?
Andrea: Absolutely. I think the main difference I learned from putting these books together in regards to mothering sons versus mothering daughters is that in mothering girls, we are forced, in a way, to revisit parts of our own girlhood we thought we had safely left behind. Our past lives on in the experience of our daughters, and as Kelly Johnson writes, it's very difficult to separate our own childhood issues from those our daughters face. I think this, combined with the specter of our relationship with our own mother looming over the relationship we have with our daughters, makes the experience of raising girls a little more intense than raising boys.
Anjali: In your piece, "Learning to Write," you talk about how your daughter, Emi, uses her newfound ability to write words as a means to understand her emotional relationship with you. Do you think that this is a common rite of passage in the evolution of mother-daughter relationships?
Andrea: I think the common rite of passage at the heart of the essay is the delicate balance between attachment and separation -- the daughter's need to enmesh and her need for independence, and the way those needs compete with each other.
Anjali: When you realized you were having a girl, did you have any fears about mothering a daughter?
Andrea: I was really excited to have a girl, so I didn't have specific fears due to concerns about gender. I saw having a girl as a chance to "do it right," a chance at having a good mother-daughter relationship.
Anjali: The writers in It's a Girl are simply trying to raise happy, strong, and self-confident women. Why, at times, does this seem like such an impossible task? What can we as mothers, or as a society, do to make this easier?
Andrea: I think it's really important to be able to respond to your child, in the moment. To give them what they need when they need it. If we're responding to our ideas of what's frightening about femininity or gender roles, then maybe we're missing the point of what our actual children are experiencing. I remember when Emi was three, she was trying to jump from our low coffee table to the couch, and after a couple of failed attempts, she sighed and said, "Mommy, I can't do it! I'm just a girl." I immediately went into “Girls Can Do Anything Boys Can Do” mode, launching into what I hoped was an empowering lecture -- only to have Emi tell me, with a confused look on her face, "Mommy, I just meant I'm not a CAT." I think all you can do is respond to them in the moment, and take it a day at a time, a moment at a time, and make your choices based on what's needed in that moment. That is, parent where you are.
Anjali: I've had the privilege of attending a few of the MotherTalk salons that you organize with fellow author Miriam Peskowitz, where mothers discuss the emotional, physical, and political aspects of being a mother in today's world. And I have to ask, when Emi is older, do you think you'll ever hold MotherTalk salons for mothers and their grown up daughters?
Andrea: I think that's an excellent idea. Actually, there's a mother-daughter team that has already started doing that called MotherU-- their aim is to bridge the distance between mothers and daughters, especially once those daughters have become mothers themselves. They have what's called a "diablog" where women of different generations can talk about these kinds of things. There are also real-time discussion groups. Also, mamazine did something they called a Grand(Mama) Mother Talk featuring women and their mothers. So it's definitely an idea that's out there right now!
Anjali: Thanks so much, Andrea. We look forward to reading more of your writing in the future!
It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters was provided free to DotMoms for review. This interview took place via email and was edited for space and clarity.
Anjali lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two girls.