Fear of Raising a Daughter
How do I teach her about the world without making her afraid?
|Jessica Valenti||Apr 30||55||46|
My daughter is getting to the age where men are starting to look at her on the street. The age when she’ll have to evade leers or comments as she walks to school on her own for the first time. The age when I need to thread a careful needle in teaching her how to protect herself without instilling too much fear.
She is 10.
When her babysitter asked how she should deal with people on the street who catcall, I thought she was talking about herself—but she meant Layla, who still sleeps with a family of teddy bears.
When she was eight or nine, we were on the subway and I felt certain that the man standing near us was angling his phone in a way to capture a picture of her. I couldn’t be sure, of course. But I was worried enough that I repositioned myself to stand in between him and Layla.
If I could, I’d stand there forever—putting my body in between her and what I know is coming.
My husband worries that I’m bringing too much of my work home with me; that after a decade of writing about the daily indignities and danger of being a woman, it’s difficult for me to see the world through any other lens. But I don’t think writing about feminism is driving my fear as much as having grown up female is.
That said, he’s right to be concerned—I don’t want to make our daughter overly-fearful, and I feel conflicted about giving her the impression that harassment or assault is inevitable. On one hand, believing that something bad happening to you is just a matter of time is a terrible way to live. On the other, not being prepared for it might be worse.
Because it’s not that I’m so afraid of the worst happening, the obvious violations—though those thoughts are there, too, rotting in the back of my brain. The fears that keep me up at night, literally, have to do with the everyday discomfort, the slow whittling away of your sense of safety and self. (An erosion that often starts at our most vulnerable age.)
I watched a TikTok last night of a young girl—a teenager I believe—who just happened to have her video camera on when a strange man approached her in a hotel courtyard. He asked if she was using the chair next to her and she said ‘no’, thinking he was going to take it. Instead he sat down.
You could see her breath quickening, the slow spread of red moving across her chest and cheeks as he asked seemingly innocuous questions that women know are anything but: What’s your name? Are you alone? You seem nervous, what are you worried about? It was only when the girl thought up a quick lie, saying she was on an Instagram live and motioned to her phone, that he left. Her hands were shaking.
It’s those interactions, the ones that leave you with a racing heart and heavy feet, that stuck with me most when I was a girl. You’re taught what to do if someone grabs or touches you, but not how to exit a conversation with a grown man whose smirk tells you he’s glad that you’re uncomfortable.
Those are the moments that put you in your place, reminding you that even in public you’re not really safe—that there is no such thing as just sitting and enjoying yourself. That some men will see your mere existence as an opportunity.
I’m open to the criticism that I’m overdoing it; that telling my daughter to expect moments like this is a mistake, a message that will unfairly color the way she sees the world. But here’s the thing: She’s already being taught how to interact with sexism, and I’m pretty sure my lessons are better.*
No matter what I tell Layla, she will learn how to deal with the strange man who sits next to her, or the classmate who makes a sexist jab. She’ll figure out what she wants to do in that moment, and what she’s capable of. There’s no alternative. There’s only so long I can reposition myself to stand between her and the world.
Still, I’m furious. Because I know that the cumulative effect of all of this, the daily bullshit, is weighty beyond measure.
I don’t want Layla to be afraid. I don’t want her to be untrusting. But I also never want her to have that churning pit of uncertainty in her stomach. I want her to trust herself. Most of all, I want her to know what trusting herself feels like—because for a lot of us, it took a lifetime to learn.
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