My daughter stood on the wrestling mat in stocking feet, rocking side to side on her toes. Across from her stood a boy her same age and size. They’d been paired off for a match at a wrestling club open house, and the look on her face as she waited for the ref’s whistle said far more than I’m sure she, being just 10, could have imagined.
She grinned slyly. Her eyes sparkled with determination. Not only was she ready and unafraid to take on that boy; she looked utterly immune to the notion that her being a girl and he a boy might matter in the least. To her, he was simply an opponent who needed to be thrown to the mat. Which is exactly what she proceeded to do.
While reading the stories in this month’s women’s package, especially Polly Rosenwaike’s essay, “What I Wish I’d Known Then,” I couldn’t help but reflect on the look I saw in Natalie’s eyes that afternoon. It occurred to me how easily that fire could be extinguished — or even merely dimmed — by the world around her as she slips from carefree childhood into the tumultuous tween and teen years ahead. What a loss that would be.
But it wasn’t just her fierceness (with her mother as a role model, I have no doubt that will survive into adulthood). It was something more subtle and, I’m afraid, more fragile. It was her exuberant obliviousness to societal expectations about gender, a freedom from having to expend any of her precious spirit considering her own sex in ways her male counterparts need not. Helping her retain that into adulthood in the face of a culture seemingly determined to crush it will be no easy task.
Still, while there’s plenty to be cynical about these days, I find myself feeling surprisingly optimistic on this front. Natalie is growing up at a time when her elders are fighting important battles — against sexual harassment, for equal pay and opportunity, against gender-based expectations in general — from which she will surely benefit. But broader, quieter cultural shifts are happening too as we absorb the lessons of #MeToo. Perhaps none are more meaningful than those I see in fathers I know who are thinking more carefully about the signals we send our girls — and, just as important, our boys — about gender by the way we carry ourselves in the world.
I’m not so naive as to think society will miraculously achieve gender enlightenment by the time Natalie leaves the nest, but I am hopeful that she will at least enter adulthood in a world that has healthier attitudes about the sexes than it does now — and that she and her little brothers will be ready to pick up where our generation leaves off.