“Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.”
What a load of old nonsense.
Girls are mean. All girls have the potential to be mean. Why? Why do we do it to ourselves?
It’s horrid. It’s uncalled for. It’s unnecessary.
I had a pretty tough time as a teenage girl, probably no worse than most others, but I thought the feelings of exclusion, unworthiness, shame and of feeling unimportant were far behind me. I am now a very strong girl (I can’t call myself a woman, I don’t feel old enough!); I simply don’t mind if someone doesn’t like me anymore. That is their prerogative. I certainly don’t like everyone I meet, so it’s fine. It’s part of life. I have a handful of incredible friends and a wider circle of lovely friends and acquaintances and of course, I have my family. They love me for who I am. They love me despite my failings and so I am perfectly comfortable with who I am now. If I’m good enough for them, I’m good enough for me.
But I haven’t always been comfortable with me.
And recently, I have been transported back to those days when a look or a cold shoulder could shatter my insides into little pieces. When I would bite back the tears for fear of goading my tormentors even more. When I felt like there was nothing I could do to be accepted or liked.
It happened last week, when Martha, my 8-year old daughter turned to me and stated very sadly, “I don’t think XXXX likes me anymore.”
My reaction? Well, I wanted to tell her that XXXX is a spoilt little shit and she should be glad she doesn’t have to talk to her ever again, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath as my own teenage feelings of inadequacy and loneliness almost overwhelmed me and I told my beautiful, gentle, kind daughter that sometimes, girls can be mean. All girls. Really mean. I also told her that at times she will no doubt be mean to other girls, but that she should be mindful of it and try at all times to be kind. I told her that I understood how she felt and that it feels awful. I told her she needed to try and rise above it and ignore it.
And she seemed, well….. pretty underwhelmed by my advice and so I kept repeating myself. “Be strong, darling. It’s probably jealously. Girls can be very mean to each other, next week she’ll probably be your friend again. Just try and ignore her, go and play with the boys instead. Smile and rise above it. Don’t lower yourself to her level.”
She smiled and nodded and remained quiet and sad for the rest of the day.
Then it happened again. It is clearly just the age her and her friends are getting to. And, what did I do? I went through it all again. I talked to her and belittled her concerns by telling her it happens to us all and it gets better when you’re about 18. And, then I watched her face crumple and I was so disappointed in myself. In me as a mother and in me as a girl. I mean, is that it? Is that all the advice I can give, without telling her to throw her pork loin and gravy school dinner over her adversary’s head? Is the best advice I can give me 8-year old daughter, just to “man-up”?
I was at Mabel’s swimming lesson a few months back and I overheard one of the other mothers trying to convince her 3-year old son to get in the water. “Don’t be such a big girl!” she told him. I smiled at her as she tried to negotiate with her toddler (and wondered momentarily whether I should share my own tactic of simply picking the child up and throwing it in – safely of course. I didn’t. I can still remember the shocked gasps as little Archie splashed in the water and the swimming teacher caught him. He never did it again!)
That mother’s words echoed round my brain for days. “Don’t be such a girl!” It was a derogatory term. She was labelling him weak, feeble and pathetic, by likening him to a girl. By likening him to my 3-year old daughter (who was in the pool and swimming like a dolphin). She was likening his fear (or insubordination) to being like me and her.
When I watched Martha’s face crumple in pain earlier this week as yet another girl snubbed her, turning away as Martha tried to talk to her, I remembered that mother’s words and wished she could see how strong my girl is. I wished that woman could have met my mum; then she would have known who my beautiful daughter has inherited her strength from.
Being a girl is not easy. To reach adulthood unscathed – or certainly unscathed enough that it hasn’t ruined your life – means you have to be tough, strong, resilient, brave and build an armour around yourself to protect your heart from breaking into a million pieces each time you are ignored.
Because, I don’t think it’s the words or even the fists that hurt the most. I believe it is the silence; the shuns, the blank looks and the disparaging glances. Words would be better – you can fight words with words, hurl them back at your attacker with venom and intent. But silence? You just end up feeling embarrassed, unworthy, ashamed and really bloody sad.
It has all come flooding back and I am struggling to know how to help my daughter through it. My words are not enough. They offer no comfort, not really.
My mother didn’t know everything I went through at school. I didn’t tell her. And I have a feeling that my mother also had a tough time at school.
I remember once many years ago she drove my sister and I through her old village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It was a tiny village and once upon a time everyone knew everyone else who lived there. We saw the playground my mother played in and the road she once fell in, scarring her legs for the rest of her life. She showed us the ditch of nettles she fell in off her bike, when she was 7 years old. Then she went quiet and we noticed her looking down the road at a lady who was getting into a car. “What is it, Mum?” my sister and I asked. “Who’s that lady?”
I can’t remember the lady’s name now, but Mum replied that she thought it was XXX and that she went to school with her. “Go and say hello!” we were very excited as we tried to encourage her to walk down the road and introduce herself to her old school friend. For a few seconds, she looked like she was considering it. But, then she didn’t. She just climbed back in the car and we didn’t speak about it again.
I always wondered why she chose not to say hello to that lady and now….. well, if I could put myself in her position, I would probably have done exactly the same thing. I would have risen above it, not lowered myself to their standards, ignored it….. done all those things we are taught as girls in order to cope with the natural meanness of girls.
I wonder why we don’t teach girls to be kind instead. Surely that would be better? Surely teaching girls that they don’t have to be mean to get the boy, or to be the most popular, that kindness also gets the boy and that kind girls can also be popular would be better for all our girls.
I remember vowing to myself at the age of probably 14 or 15 that I would not be mean to anyone, ever. I remember it clearly, promising to myself that I would not laugh at someone who was weaker than me, join in with slagging someone off, or pick on someone just to make myself feel stronger. I knew how it felt to be on the receiving end and I knew I didn’t want to put anyone else through that. It was too mean. There was no need.
I told Martha this the other day. I told her that one day when she’s a lot older if she can look back and know she was never mean, she will feel a sense of pride and strength that those other girls will never be able to feel.
She liked that idea. She promised me she would always be kind.
I just have to believe that my mother taught me all I need to know and trust myself to do the best by my kids. So, I told my daughter to keep talking to me. That I might not have the answers, but that she should always feel like she could talk to me about how she’s feeling. I reckoned that simply knowing your mother is on your side is empowering.
So, next time this comes up (and I expect it to be not too far in the future) I will offer my daughter the normal advice – to ignore it, to rise above it, to play with someone else, to remember that it passes and all girls go through it. But, I will also offer her an extra piece of advice:
“Don’t just be a girl, Martha. Be the best, kindest girl you can possibly be.”
Miss you, Mum x