I have never been well-versed in the ways of girls.
Despite having been born, and subsequently raised, a girl, I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on the planet completely clueless by what it means to navigate through the world as a member of the female sex.
Because I was of Advanced Maternal Age when we got pregnant – which basically means, I think, that my 34-year-old womb up until that point was a cavernous, cob-webby, House of Horrors and I needed to be Handled with Care – I had to undergo this incredibly gnarly and invasive procedure where a highly trained doctor, possessing no sense of humor at all, stuck a large needle into my uterus, within close proximity of our still-cooking fetus, to withdraw fluid and tissue to tell us whether or not there were myriad things wrong with our child.
The bonus to this awful experience, they told us, is that the testing also would tell us the sex of our unborn child waaaay before we’d traditionally learn such things. This I took to mean as the cushion we were given as we waited to learn whether our life’s path of first marriages, grad school and careers, instead of meeting each other in college and getting pregnant right away, equaled the blow of having a child with an extra chromosome and the attendant challenges that come with that. Not that it would have mattered to us, but anyway.
Where normal, socially conversant people would have spent this time deep in contemplation as to whether their much-wanted baby had a genetic disorder, I spent it in a panic that we were having a girl. When the doctor called me to tell me that the tests came back showing no abnormalities, and, by the way, you’re having a girl, I slunk away to a team meeting at work, disappointed and sad in the way only a truly blessed and selfish middle-class person can. I always knew there was a chance we’d have a girl, of course, but if I had to own up to that fact, I’d have to own up and reconcile my own bougie little problems with the sort of woman that I am. Or, as is more appropriate, the woman I am not.
If I’m honest, this sadness was rooted in the same place where in first grade I somehow found the gumption to try and convince Emily Jandura, the only girl I’d managed to befriend, not to join Brownies with the other girls and instead stay my friend alone. It’s rooted in the same place that prompted me to waste my entire summer between 8th grade and freshman year dieting, going to cheerleading camp and taking tumbling classes and subsequently trying out for the dance squad – never mind that 1) if you want try out for the state’s champion dance squad you should not only know how to dance (which, surprise, surprise, I didn’t) but 2) not waste your parents’ money on cheerleading and tumbling, neither of which will prepare you to make your way through the choreography set to MC Hammer’s “Here Comes The Hammer.”
None of this mattered, of course, because as far as I was concerned, being on the dance squad was the key that unlocked knowing how to be a girl, and I needed to figure that out so badly. Being that girl meant knowing how to do your hair, how to be liked by boys and how to be popular, how to not be me – someone who, at that moment in time, loved video games, reading books about apartheid in her dad’s hammock and running her neighborhood lawn care business.
It’s not as though my evolution as a woman, as a human being for that matter, has suffered some arrested development. By college I learned that women like me attracted the most interesting people and we still got to call ourselves “girl,” even with a penchant for comic books and video games. I’m not filled with self-loathing over my double-x chromosomes, but I have subsequently blacked out most of the years between the ages seven and 13 to do so, which means that the prospect of raising a girl rendered me a wreck.
I bought books about girls. I looked at frilly onesies. I entertained the color pink. And then my daughter, Abigail Grace, was born and by the time she was one I found myself feeling very sorry for everyone who is not the parent of a girl. All of those external sex organs! Who needs ‘em anyway? Girls are awesome! Girls do crazily awesome shit like grab your face and plant a gigantic smooch on your lips! Girls play with dinosaurs while wearing dresses and superhero capes! Girls … well, I suppose boys do all of that, too, but somehow by virtue of having this kid, this girl, raising one didn’t seem like such an awful fate. Among friends, with a casual swagger I’d assure that the garment-rendering terror I’d exhibited two years ago was long gone.
Girls? Pish. Bring it.
The one girl was a brunette, curly long hair, riddled with flyaways, suggesting she’d spent the day alternating between herky jumps through an old sprinkler in the back yard and post-mac-and-cheese naps on her grandmother’s couch. The other was blonde, and clearly the alpha of the two, sporting the sort of stretchy pink, polka dotted pants I was never allowed to wear – too expensive, too impractical – skin tanned from the summer sun. And the coolest part about her, and probably the reason people like me are so intimidated by girls like her, was that she recklessly positioned stickers all over herself – a frog near her left eye, a heart between the first and second knuckle of her right hand, a princess clinging for dear life on her calf. Neither of them could have been more than ten.
Abigail and I had just sat down to enjoy our ice cream. A mountain of sugary goodness that included five flavors. This is the sort of cone that melts the moment the kid behind the counter passes it off to you. You can’t eat them in the store, so you try you luck for seating outside, and this is where we encountered them.
I first found myself dodging left to try our luck on a table set further from them, but on closer inspection it was clear that wouldn’t work. Never one to make a scene, I led us toward these two girls, their table, the bench opposite them and hoped for the best. I am a woman nearing 40, after all. I can sit wherever the fuck I want. This ain’t the cafeteria, you little bitches.
And it all started so quickly, or at least it seemed. In one minute they’d been dangling their tanned legs over their own side of the table, racing to finish their own cones, and the next they launched a full, pre-teen assault of whispers and giggles and sidelong glances.
At my kid.
I tried not to care. I let Abigail clumsily lick from our melty, shared cone, trying to dampen every voice in me that wanted to implore my toddler – my toddler – to eat the cone in a cooler fashion. I just want to let that hang there for a second: the fact that such a thing entered my brain space is suspect, let alone in context of my child. But there I was, simultaneously self-conscious and scared and pissed, trying to figure out a way to reposition ourselves and our ice-cream-eating cone endeavor so they’d stop paying attention to us – these two little tween girls.
“Hi gurls!” said Abigail, happily. “What you doing?”
More giggling. Like a fucking geyser out of them, the giggling. The whispering.
“What you doing, gurls?” she asked again, chin out. “I’m eating ice cream!”
“Girls,” I finally said, firmly, grasping for some way to get them to shut the hell up but also remain an adult, albeit a poor excuse for one. “She’s two.”
I wanted to cut them both.
The blonde whispered to the brunette. “What’s her name?” The brunette spoke.
“Sigh. Abigail,” I said, assuming they’d figured this out since Abigail wanted to wear the Sesame Street shirt with her name on it.
“I knew it!” Giggles.
Abigail then smiled at them and dunked her entire face into what was left of our ice cream cone, stuck out her tongue, and then smiled at the girls.
Moments later the girls’ adult – who’d been pretty much ignoring them the entire time – collected them to leave.
“GURLS! Where you going? You come back here, gurls!” said my child. “Gurls! Come back here! Where they going, Mommy?”
I’ve seen this before from Abigail, this complete disregard for how irritatingly, pointlessly, naturally mean kids can be. As an only child and only two, her interactions with other kids are hit-or-miss, but primarily she is unabashed in whether she wants to play or engage or not. I’ve seen her generally act as project manager with other kids her age. One of her favorite books at the moment is called “All About Fears” and when we asked her if she has any, she looks us square in the eye and says, “No. I don’t.”
And I believe her. She is, quite simply, the most fearless person I have ever met and if you had to two fucks she could not give them. And because when it comes to socialization and making friends, I clearly have always given all of the fucks in the world to the point of feeling-eating and panic attacks, the only person who has a problem with navigating the world is me, not Abigail.
Later that weekend in Oak Park, during a free concert in Scofield Park, among my closest girlfriends and our husbands and our children, I watched as Abigail bolted to the front of the stage to dance, which for her meant spinning around and around and around in a circle, rocking out to a cheesy cover band. Within a minute she was grabbing my hand to join her. “Come on, Mommy! Dance!”
And so I did. In front of hundreds of people, all alone, together, spinning in circle after circle till we became dizzy, choreographed only by the sound of our laughter and a really bad song from the 90s.