Walk into my daughter’s room and there’s an obvious message. Above her bed hangs a sign that reads, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Another reads, “She believed she could, so she did.” Next to her bed is a stack of books like “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls,” “Shaking Things Up,” and “She Persisted.”
My boys’ room has a different aesthetic. On the walls hang pictures of their adventures together: Sweaty afternoons, hanging from trees, slurping snoballs, or ready for combat in Spiderman and Superman masks. The books stacked next to their beds are “Harry Potter,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” They are the tales of boys, but they don’t deliver the same message my daughter is getting next door.
It’s not that my boys don’t need motivation. It’s that for their sex, empowerment was always readily available. Girl power in my day was Nancy Drew.
One night Fiona was reading aloud a book about Sally Ride, the first woman in space. When she got to the end, she read to herself silently before continuing.
“Mom, listen to this,” she looked up. “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing these jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
She then read the last sentence again slowly, taking it in.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she looked again. “I love that. That goes on my wall next.”
I smiled at my ambitious girl with all the dreams. Michael was passed out, drooling on my chest, unaware of Fiona’s newfound clarity and blissfully apart from a moment that will undoubtedly pop up time and again throughout his sister’s life.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
He and his brother have seen lots: Presidents, sports stars, astronauts, entrepreneurs, movie directors, you name it. They’re aware of stories like those of Drew Brees, written off because of a shoulder injury only to make a comeback as a Saint; George Lucas, who invented the technology himself that he needed to have Star Wars green-lighted; and Walt Disney, who was told he had no talent only to prove that he had all the talent. I remind my sons of these stories as examples of defying the odds, but I do so without the underlying message I give Fiona. My sons’ icons were disregarded because their potential was in question, not their sex.
Fiona feels through her books and in the writings on her walls a current that runs through any group or culture who was discounted, demoted, and discredited. She won’t experience that judgement to the same extreme, I hope to God, but I’m encouraging her to see what she needs to see in order to pick up the torch of progress.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
I couldn’t help but wonder as Michael drifted into a deeper slumber on my chest that night, what do my boys see?
My boys see me—their first example of a woman—as the benchmark from which all other women will be measured. My story, my heritage, the underlying current that rips through me when I see fellow women shatter ceilings isn’t for Fiona’s eyes only to see with me. My sons should be part of this, too. The stories, the movements, the progression must include our sons; otherwise the battle cry will always be sounded from one voice, and consequently, never fully understood and never fully resolved. It starts at home and it starts with me, the mother. People can’t be the change they must be if they can’t first see.
What do I want my boys to see?
I want them to see that the chatter of sexism was and is an important conversation. History has triumphed over some ignorance and fear, but “herstory” isn’t complete without sons who embrace the truth that all people are entitled to the inalienable right of using their potential to its fullest.
I want them to see that tradition is not an excuse for biases. I work from home. I attend school committee meetings, volunteer on field trips, make their meals, and tuck them in at night. When their father is home early he’s right alongside us in those moments, but I am the constant. I am their traditional nurturer. I owe it to them to see more of me though: My work, my opinions, my involvement—my total worth. In doing so, I eliminate the assumption of others.
I want them to see why their sister, why their friends’ sisters, and the girls beside them in school are given a more ignited message. I want them to see this exception and not resent it but rather, pick up the torch, too, because they understand that all people are worth the same fight.
I know enough to know that my sons may never experience what it means to see someone who looks like them change history, alter tradition, and break the barriers of backward thinking for the first time. But I know that they will recognize the importance of it when it happens for others because I’ve made them see it.
Because I’ve taught them that it won’t be, if it isn’t seen.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.