I ran away when I was five years old. I packed my teddy bear, and my skates, and headed down the street to a nearby family with five children. The mother, Mindy, (which she allowed me to call her), called my mom and let me stay through dinner. I don’t remember why I ran away, but, I do remember how powerful I felt taking that control. That was the first of many acts of defiance that would continue throughout my childhood, and cause my mother to feel ashamed and embarrassed.
My mother is the oldest child in a pretty traditional Italian family. Women and men had clear and distinct roles. Women didn’t speak their minds in public, and men could say pretty much anything that they were thinking. My parents parented the way most did back then, and raised my sister and me to “respect” our elders. We were to do what we were told, not to talk back, and be basically compliant to anyone older than us. My mother thought acts of defiance were considered rude and disrespectful. This is how she was raised, and this was what she knew. I think she felt as though having a daughter that didn’t fit that mold was a reflection on her parenting, and that it was her responsibility to control my actions, which was an impossible feat. That mindset, paired with my natural willfulness, made for a challenging mother-daughter relationship.
I don’t know what ever gave me the instinct to challenge the things that felt wrong or unjust. I really believe I was just born that way. I could always feel when something was off or unfair and felt a responsibility to say something, to make a change. If I disagreed with someone, it was rare that I could stay quiet about it.
There was one incident in high school that I remember distinctly. I was taking an Honors Spanish class. It was taught by a man, who I figured out quickly, preferred men over women. He constantly belittled the girls in class and praised the boys, often segueing into personal manly stories that only the guys in class appreciated. He did not appreciate my quick wit and smart remarks that I used to voice my objection to his prejudice, and he would often call me out to try to humiliate me to the class. Eventually, I began to skip his class. I always completed my homework and did well on tests. Going into the grading period, on paper, I was earning an A. When report cards came out that semester, this instructor gave me a D citing excessive absenteeism. My mother lost her mind. I explained why I didn’t want to attend his class, which at that time was not an acceptable excuse in her mind. She arranged a meeting with the teacher, where she expected me to apologize in an effort to change my grade. When we arrived in the office to discuss my situation, my teacher wouldn’t even look in my direction. He started challenging my mother on parenting such a disobedient girl. Wrong thing to do. He hit a nerve with her and she unleashed a fire storm of suppressed feelings that nearly knocked him back in his seat. I had never seen my mom react that way before. It was liberating, I felt justified, and he changed my grade.
Recently, I read a post written by a friend of a friend. She recalled an incident where she was in a store, and there was a mother with two young girls. The mother was expressing her worry over eventually having to raise teen daughters because everyone tells her what a problem they are. This woman explained to the mother that she had two teenaged daughters, and raising them is a wonderful experience. She was the first person to say this to the mother in four years.
Having two adult daughters of my own, I can attest, raising daughters has been such an incredible gift. Yes, in their teens they tested the boundaries, voiced their opinions, and questioned authority. They are supposed to. It’s not a personal attack, they are transforming into the adults they will become. As a mother, I felt it was important to let them have those moments where they were free to speak their minds. I believe it gives women the strength to speak up for the rest of their lives.
There is so much happening right now with women finally speaking out against everything from sexual harassment to rape. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck and recently Matt Lauer are having their dirty secrets brought into light because of the bravery of women coming together and speaking out in the #metoo movement. As mothers of daughters, we should see this time in history as one where we can embrace and encourage the willful, robust period of the teen years. We can set the example of strength and grace by allowing our young women to be who they are and empower them by listening to what they have to say.