It never occurred to me that I would have a daughter since my first-born was a son. It seemed preposterous when people patted my pregnant belly and said, ”I hope you get your girl now.” When Ellie was born, I was thrilled to have a healthy baby who happened to be my daughter.
Pink boxes arrived swathed in lacy bows holding bonnets and dresses with pinafores. Welcoming cards depicted girls dressed in outfits resembling Little Bo Peep with seraph wings and halos. Stereotypes were evident even at birth: Cards for David (and then Ben, the third child) were decorated with ballplayers and railroad engineers in striped overalls. Their gifts, firefighter hats and footballs, were wrapped in paper with sport motifs and rockets. Ellie got ballet slippers and pocketbooks wrapped in floral foils.
Perhaps even more daunting were the warnings about the inevitability of the tempestuous mother/daughter relationship that would ensue as Ellie grew older. She’ll leave you when she’s around 12, the soothsayers said, but she’ll return years later when her estrogen storm calms down and your levels are waning. And don’t forget how competitive it will be, they warned. Exert damage control: One day she could write a bestseller akin to Mommy Dearest.
I often protest when distinctions are drawn between boys and girls/sons and daughters, though I also concede that there are differences. Boys don’t keep lotions and potions and perfumes on their dressers, and their bathrooms smell like gyms after a big game. Ellie’s bathroom smells like a spa. Boys bound down the stairs like herds of elephants and use their shirts as handkerchiefs. Ellie moves with hesitant grace, and carries small packets of tissues. My sons will ask me to dance in the kitchen, and my daughter will tell me that the necklace and earrings I’m wearing are “too much.” But really, other than these olfactory differences and physical and verbal displays of what is true affection, their differences are based more upon personality than gender.
As a little girl, I always wanted a pink and white canopy bed. I ordered dolls from the backs of cereal boxes. Ellie never wanted a canopy bed, and has an aversion to pink in general. I liked nightgowns trimmed in lace and Ellie prefers flannel pajamas worn with her brothers T-shirts.
When David was little, he took Ellie’s doll which she had tossed unceremoniously in a corner of the play room and gently placed it in its cradle, though he made me swear not to tell his friends. Ben is a clothes horse who spends a good 30 minutes styling his hair in the morning. David loves to babysit, and Ellie has little tolerance for toddlers. Ben wants to have two daughters and wants his wife to look like Pamela Lee. There’s no gender rhyme or reason to any of my three kids.
At 12, when I first needed a bra, my mother gave me $5.00 and sent me alone to the Five and Dime on the corner and said,”Go get one.” I was mortified and terrified. I loitered in the “lingerie department” until the rest of the shoppers cleared out, and started to poke through the cardboard boxes marked “youth bras.” If not for the blue-haired lady in the red apron who worked in the department, I would have been lost. She took me into a corner, eyed me up and down, and handed me the right box pictured with the demure brassiere clad girl. I waited on line to pay, the box hidden under my coat, my face flushing as the cashier placed it in a brown paper bag.
When Ellie’s time came for a bra, I was determined to undo the pitiful experience of my youth. I made it an event. We drove to the lingerie boutique on Main Street where I summoned a silver-haired saleswoman with a cloth measuring tape hanging around her neck: MY daughter would be properly fit with what was best in the confines of the velvet-draped dressing room. Ah, I thought, Ellie will have such a fond memory of this momentous day! The bonding, the closeness, that special mother/daughter memory all wrapped up in a Playtex encumbrance! I was all choked up. And then Ellie turned to me and said, “Mom, please leave. This is not a big deal. This is just a normal stage in development and you’re really embarrassing me. What is WRONG with you?”
Except for the dolls in my youth, things stereotypically girlie were absent like canopy beds, cosmetics and scents. My mother scoffed at my requests for seasonal wardrobes, and forbade me to paint my nails or wear make-up until I was 18. Until recently, it didn’t occur to me that maybe my mother in an awkward attempt was trying to steer me away from the stereotypes. After all, when my boys needed athletic supporters, I didn’t make it a Big Event or suggest that their father take them shopping. Looking back, I realize that my father bought me gaudy floral headbands but also taught me plumbing and building skills. My mother rarely (ever?) took me shopping and although she taught me how to cook, she urged me not to marry too young. It was my mother-in-law who insisted I have a bridal shower and insisted upon taking me shopping for wedding china and it drove my mother crazy. “Why should you have a bridal shower where you get pots and pans?” my mother asked angrily. And when my mother attended my shower (clearly against her wishes), I was shocked as I opened her gift to me: Three peignoir ensembles that could have come from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I guess it was the anti-Farberware statement.
Is this why I married a man who openly cried at the end of Titanic and makes sure that he introduces me with my last name and not his?
Perhaps when my mother sent me to the Five and Dime she knew that Little Bo Peep, canopy beds, and cosmetics were not the only ingredients in the recipe for mother/daughter bonds and womanhood. Although I wish she’d come with me to buy the bra.