Out cross country skiing the other morning, I came upon this mother-daughter scene at the intersection leading to one of my favourite trails, a winding climb:
Frustrated daughter, who looked about nine-years-old, laying in the snow across the classic ski track (that’s the two parallel grooves), scuffing one ski into the track. Exasperated mother on skis, standing a couple feet away on the corduroy groomed trail.
As I made the right turn onto my favoured trail, the mother shot me a look of complicity, saying, “…” I don’t know what. I couldn’t hear her, because I wasn’t expecting her to speak to me and my ears were focused on the podcast in my ears. On another day, I might have just smiled, as if I’d heard and carried on with my ski. Instead, I felt myself in the girl’s insistent scuffing. The intensity with which she was destroying the track resonated with my own inner girl’s desire to be and do more. I stopped.
Me: “Pardon me? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
Mother: “I just don’t understand why she’s upset. She can’t ski up this trail. It’s too steep. I can barely ski it.”
Me (interior monologue): “The trail’s not that steep. Oh Mina, stop being so judgy. Also, the trail is actually pretty steep right at the top.”
Me: “Couldn’t she do the herringbone?”
Mother: “No. She can’t do it. It’s only her third day skiing.”
Hearing this, the daughter’s ski scuffing gets more vigorous and defiant.
Me (interior monologue): “What’s the harm in letting her try?”
Me (to the daughter): “Great skis. Look, they’re the same design as mine.”
I extended one leg and put one ski next to the daughter’s much shorter one, highlighting our matching black and red Atomics. The daughter glanced at me briefly with curiosity and then continued scuffing. With that, I smiled in what I hope was a consoling way at the mother and carried on with my ski.
For the rest of my time on the snow, the feminist brigade inside my head talked over each other in increasingly louder voices.
Why can’t the daughter at least try? What the worst that will happen if she tries and fails? That she will be discouraged? That she will never want to ski again? Never want to go outside again? Well, that seems unlikely. And why do I feel certain that this scene would not be playing out this way if the daughter was a son? Or if the mother were a father? A father would tell his son that he could climb the hill. Yes, true, sometimes that goes too far in the other direction. I don’t think the whole boot camp desensitization approach is the right way either. But isn’t there a supportive, middle ground? Somewhere between get-the-fuck-up-the-hill-on-the-double and oh-no-this-is-too-hard-to-even-try. Are we so fragile as girls that we can’t even be allowed to attempt something seemingly insurmountable? Why can’t she be allowed to try and be frustrated and defeated and supported in that struggle? How will she grow her resilience?
I so wanted to encourage that little girl to take on the hill. I wanted to contradict her mother, take the girl’s hand and let her know that she had all the courage she needed to take on this hill and that I’d be right behind her. And if she didn’t make it, so what, she’d have tried and that’s what counted and next time she’d probably make it.
There were other voices in my head, who told me that I had no right to even weigh in on the topic, because I’m not a mother, so what do I know about daughters; plus the just plain civil voice who pointed out it was not my place to say anything.
I still know a little something about girls. I was once a girl who encountered frustrations. And I am a woman who has learned a lot of new things, some of which I’ve failed at and some of which seemed insurmountable when I took them on, and at which I did okay. I don’t have specific memories of my parents preventing me from or encouraging me to take on difficult tasks. There was a general ethos of try-and-try-again throughout my childhood. My parents also sent to me to an all-girls summer camp, run by a fierce woman who both cared about our safety and encouraged us to try hard things. I balk at lots of things, but I want to make my own decision about when I choose not to try or to stop trying. When I look around, I see how, even now, boys have bigger self-confidence than girls. Boys are quicker to claim that they are good at something (even when they aren’t really). I really (really) want this for girls, too.
I dream of a world where all genders are offered equal opportunity to fall down (literally and metaphorically) and be supported as they get back on their feet. So, I dare to write this piece, as a non-mother, to ask mothers: “Please give your daughters a shot at the hill, even if it feels too steep, even for you.”