The Price of “Having a Voice”

On being a girl in 2017

Image via Pixabay

“Mom? What do you think about all the chatter going around about Harvey Weinstein? Don’t you find it awfully suspicious the way ALL OF A SUDDEN and ALL AT ONCE, tons of women are saying he assaulted them? I mean, why wouldn’t any of them have spoken up before now, if it was really true?”

— Alaina, 15 years-old , October 11th, 2017

USE YOUR WORDS

The pregnancy books tell us babies can hear sounds outside the womb at around 18 weeks gestational age, and that most begin to respond in various ways somewhere between 25–27 weeks. If most mothers-to-be are anything like I was (fathers, too), those unborn babies are probably on the receiving end of all sorts of information — from family secrets to international headlines; from feelings to facts — way before 18 weeks pass.
And that’s the way it goes.
Our kids learn about the world from us first. They learn by observing:
The way we speak to them
The way we speak to, and about, each other
The way we speak to the other cars on the road
The programs we watch on the television
The answers we provide to every, single, “Why?”

Early on, before sex organs are detectable, we just talk to our baby like we talk to each other (maybe we lay off the f-bombs). In my case, that didn’t change until birth, because we decided on the surprise package behind door number three. After that, though — whether or not I made a conscious decision — the tone and word choice when interacting with each of my children was decidedly gendered. Not in any way I would have believed harmful back then…the most obvious example would be simply my chosen nicknames for the kids: Alaina heard mostly Pooh, Punkin, Sweet Pea. Alex was often “the dude”, Big Guy (though he was more than a pound lighter at birth than his sister), and, when he became mobile, Tank. My tone was more sing-songy with my daughter and rough-and-tumble with my son.

I don’t figure this sort of thing is uncommon, and I don’t feel like my kids were affected by these things in any large way. In fact, today, eleven and fifteen years later, I would definitely say my daughter is much more rough-and -tumble than my son. He is more empathetic, and sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings. They have really just grown up to be who they are. So maybe pushing the gender stereotypes in the beginning isn’t too big a deal, as long as we grow up in parenthood enough to figure out how to start just treating each child as the unique person they are becoming.
But when my daughter asked me the question about the Weinstein accusations, I flashed back.

To when she started dressing herself, and refused to wear anything but t-shirts, sweatpants, and baseball caps from the boy’s section of the store (I don’t know how, but if I cheated and sneaked something in from the girl’s side of the store, even just a t-shirt and sweats, SHE KNEW).
(She didn’t relent on the wardrobe until around sixth-grade, by the way. And even then, it was only to add basketball shorts. Which she wore every day of eighth and ninth grade, except for game days. On those days she wore her ONE dress. No matter how many times I tried to take her shopping for at least ONE MORE. :) )
Anyhow, one morning, like most kids I know, four year-old Lainie-pooh cut all her hair off. She looked equally as adorable as she had before the scissors, if you ask me. She decided to keep it short for a year or so.
And things were a-okay until Kindergarten.

Suddenly everyone thought she was a boy and this devastated her. I tried to explain to her that if she wanted very short hair, and to dress in “boy” clothes, people would probably assume she was a boy until they met her and found out differently. No one was saying it to hurt her. They weren’t being mean. Her dad said, “It’s not like there is something wrong with being a boy, right? So don’t feel bad. Just let them know you are Alaina, and you are a girl. Eventually, they’ll all know.” Sure enough, after about a week at school, it was all worked out.

We figured things were fine.

To when she was seven and the only girl on her Little League team, and also the youngest, tiniest teammate(she was and remains an outstanding ball player). And the boys on the team bullied her so relentlessly and ruthlessly she quit baseball, and didn’t play ball again until her ninth-grade softball tryouts.
Interestingly, the boy who treated her the most cruelly was the coach’s son.
Not a word about it from the coach — not once all season.

Her dad and I talked extensively to her about it, and how it wasn’t fair, and we were so sorry. We hugged her, and we loved her, and we moved on. The kids on that team had played together for years. Their parents were camping buddies. They had shared birthday parties for their kids and openly badmouthed the other teams on social media. We knew that if we made waves, it would be Alaina who paid the price, so we walked away, without saying a word.

And we figured things were fine.

Recently divorced, I stayed for a month or so with a 23 year-old co-worker who was very good friend of mine, and her 48 year-old husband. They met when she was sixteen and he gave me the creeps but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. One night Alaina tells me he had taken out his deck of “adult” playing cards with her and was smiling at her weird and it made her uncomfortable (I was just in the next room cleaning; I did not feel safe leaving him alone with my children. But he had never actually DONE anything overt until that moment. )

I called my friend Jan and told her we had to relocate immediately. Maybe I was overreacting but I didn’t care. She picked and packed us up and we stayed with her for the next year.
Alaina and I talked about the time we lived with my co-worker (no longer my friend) for a couple of years, until she stopped bringing up the subject.

I assumed she’d moved on,
and just figured things were fine.

And her best friends are two brothers in her dad’s neighborhood; in fact, most all of her friends have always been boys. But the older brother has caught her attention in a new way. Still innocent, she is starting to grasp the concept of pairing up. I meet the boy, and am immediately uneasy without knowing why. My next three custodial weeks in a row, she has a story about one falling out or another with this boy. When she tells me about the last fight, she’s crying. She wants to know what a cunt is.

I tell her what the word means, and I tell her how he intended it. Then I tell her she is not to talk to this boy again. Not just because of the word…words are just words, after all…but because he consistently degrades and embarrasses her. He does not value her. And I try to get her to understand that this is not what friendship looks like.

Her father doesn’t enforce the new rule, even though I’ve spoken with him and asked him to please follow through on this for her sake and he’s said he would.
Because he does not value me, either.

She sees this.
She points it out to me when she’s angry about a decision I’ve made.
She uses it to hurt me.
Again, and again, and again.

I’m not so sure things are fine, anymore.

When she tells me the boys on her wrestling team constantly stare at and make comments about the volleyball girls’ butts, and that the coaches laugh about it.

After all, boys will be boys, right? It’s all in good fun!
And if the school district didn’t want the girls’ asses to be a focal point, they wouldn’t dress them in shorts no longer than bikinis, right?

I don’t even know what to do about that. It’s wrong, but once again, I’m afraid that if I make noise, she will pay the price. One of only three girls on the team, I think, she’s got enough to deal with already.

I tell her it’s bullshit, the coaches reinforcing that behavior, but I do nothing.
I hope she forgets about wrestling when the season ends, and she does.

But I no longer assume that everything’s fine.

Her ex-friend claims to have been sexually assaulted and Alaina mutters under her breath while in a group containing friends of the both of them, “Yeah, right!”

No one will talk to her for weeks.
She is distraught; inconsolable.

I try to explain the sensitive nature of assault accusations, and how no matter a girl/woman’s character, or reputation, or past behavior, we never assume she’s lying about being assaulted. If we really, really can’t get ourselves to believe her, we keep our damned mouths shut. Because unless we were there, we don’t know.

She claims to understand now, but I’m not sure. I guess time will tell.
I start worrying about her social awkwardness a little more now.

She says she’s just fine.

Her first big high school presentation is assigned. She tells me she has decided to present on United States sexual assault statistics and facts. And she does. I get a preview, and she’s articulate and well-researched. I sense some disconnect from the topic and can only assume it’s there at least partly because she has no real personal experience with the subject at hand. As I consider this, I hope to God she never gets better connected to the reality of sexual assault.

I feel a bit more hopeful about the fineness of things.

She has a fight with her coach and walks out of practice. Her father and I are experiencing more and more typical “teen” behavior from her; she’s testing the waters a lot lately and tends to bend the truth to suit her current needs. This behavior troubles me. I don’t know if I am more or less concerned than I should be, but when she tries to tell me her side of the story in regards to her conflict with the coach, she suddenly blurts out how he “stares at all the girls’ boobs and butts and totally freaks them all out” and that “the other day he leaned over and kissed one of the players…just on the cheek and everything but still, ewww!” …and that because of this, she wants to quit.

This is the first time she’s mentioned any inappropriate behavior from the coach.
I launch into a lecture on never accusing a man of doing anything he didn’t do, for any reason. Not if you’re mad, or trying to stay out of trouble. Not for any reason.

I tell her that her words have the power to ruin innocent lives if they are lies.

We talk about consent: what it is, and what it isn’t.
It’s harder to explain than I expected it to be.

Then I continue, “Now, I’m not sure anything can really be proven about how someone looks at you. I can try to find out, if you think it’s necessary. But I need your word from this moment on, you will never say someone has assaulted you unless it’s absolutely true. Because if you tell me that has happened, I am going to call the authorities and that person will be charged with a crime. It will not be a small thing, and it will be a long and difficult road for you. The road needs to be traveled if you’ve been assaulted. But I promise, it’s no place you want to be if you’re being untruthful.”

She says she promises to never cry wolf about this.
I ask her again about the coach and she doesn’t back down on the ogling, but I hear nothing else about any contact.

I don’t know whether to believe her or not. I ask if she wants me to confront him and she says absolutely not and I want to believe this is because she’s making the whole thing up,

so I do.
I let it go.

And just figure things are fine.

“Mom? What do you think about all the chatter going around about Harvey Weinstein? Don’t you find it awfully suspicious the way ALL OF A SUDDEN and ALL AT ONCE, tons of women are saying he assaulted them? I mean, why wouldn’t any of them have spoken up before now, if it was really true?”

I’ve read extensively about the current scandal — another entitled, white, American man who on his own merit couldn’t seduce a soul, using his considerable influence to coerce one young Hollywood hopeful after another into performing acts that make her want to vomit. In no way do I believe the narrative is a fabrication. I don’t know enough to say each accusation is a legitimate one, but I don’t believe there is any possibility, either, that all the accusations have been falsified. And personally for me, it’s as bad if he committed the crime once as it is if he committed it a thousand times.

If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…
yep.
and by the way,

Goddamned if I don’t hate the word “coerce”. It’s like saying, “gently forced”.
FOR REAL????
Please.

I think back to her fight with the coach and allow the other possibility to fully form in my head. I had pushed it away that night, to be honest, because the idea of confronting this man about this assertion terrifies me to my core.
But now, I can’t help but wonder,

Did she beg me to say nothing because nothing took place, or because the idea of confronting it terrified her too?

Does she really believe what she said, or have my non-confrontational choices in these situations taught her that the costs of exercising the female voice still far outweigh the benefits?

Have I given the impression that speaking up will stir up more trouble for the person doing the speaking than it could ever be worth?

We talk a lot about how far we’ve come, baby.
But from where I stand, we seem to be standing still.

I think back to all the times, when she was little and got in a spat with one little boy or another; how I made her hug them and make up, even though she so obviously did NOT want to be hugged.

(To this day, she shies away from physical contact. She just doesn’t like to be touched, and for her, this is totally normal. It’s not some trauma reaction. It is HER. And yet, back then, I completely disregarded her feelings about it. Not my proudest moment as a mom.)

Or how I’ve excused my brother’s condescending, misogynistic behavior, towards her in particular, with, “It’s just the way he is. Just ignore it and say ‘Yes, sir’ and he’ll ease up.”
Without once holding him accountable.
As if this is just our burden to bear for being born without the requisite penis.

It’s like,

NOPE. So we’ll just sit over here and remember we’re less important than men, then, okay?

I mean, it’s straight bullshit, yet here I still sit. My daughter has heard me tell HER that certain behaviors she’s witnessed from the men in her life are inappropriate. I have always validated her in that way, and in that way I thought I was sending the right message. But I realized today that I haven’t ever — NOT ONCE — let her see me tell the misbehaving man that what he was doing was wrong.

I feel like that was my experience, too: men behave badly, and women whisper about it to each other, but they don’t address those men directly. I understand now that my reaction was a learned one, and now it is one I have taught.

And I am reminded once again that I have to change before I can expect to start seeing change anywhere else.
When I witness injustice, I have to push past the fear and use the voice God gave me to call it out, no matter the cost. The price of silence is just too steep in a world where my children will forge their lives.

Because it’s not fine.
It needs to change.

And the world will just have to get used to it.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know I want it to be spelled right and punctuated correctly. I guess that’s something.