I was going through my morning “get ready” routine while she and Devin waited patiently for me to take them to school.
“Yep,” I replied.
“What’s it do?” she asked.
“It takes your hair off,” I told her. And causes chemical burns like a motherfucker, I thought.
“Ohhhhhhh,” she nodded, impressed with her own understanding, “so this is why Lil’ Papa doesn’t have his hair anymore.”
Devin sighed and I tried not to giggle. “Well, no, actually,” I said. “Sometimes when people get older their hair just comes out on its own.”
I watched in the mirror as a look of horror flashed across her tiny face. She instinctively put a hand up to her own blond head.
“It’s usually just men,” I assured her. “And not all men,” I assured Devin, who was failing miserably at hiding his disdain for the ridiculousness of this entire conversation.
“So you put this on your head?” she asked, obviously confused.
“No, not my head. It takes the hair off my legs,” I told her. And the skin off my cooter, I reminded myself. Never. Again.
She was sitting on the edge of the tub now beside her brother. She held out her arms and I watched as she swept her gaze up and down each limb.
“And your arms, too?”
“No, not my arms. Just my legs.”
“But I have hair on my arms,” she insisted.
“Emma,” Devin couldn’t stand it anymore and his exasperation burst out of him in a huff, “look at your legs. You have hair. On your legs. When you grow up, you’ll take the hair off your legs. Nobody cares that you have hair on your arms.”
“Devin,” I cautioned.
“Mama, I don’t wanna take the hair off,” Emma said.
“It’s OK, baby. You don’t have to take the hair off anything. That’s just for Mommy.”
“But, do I have to when I grow up? When I grow up do I have to take my hair off, too?” she asked.
Her voice was confused and whimpering and pleading. I looked at her and saw a little girl trying to resign herself to marching down the path towards womanhood, a path that had already been laid out, built and decided for her. She looked scared and unsure, and looking to me to tell her if this was the way. I had the unnerving sensation that she was embarking on a death march.
“No, baby,” I turned to face her, determined to make my words etch themselves into her soul. “No. You do not ever, ever have to take any hair off at all if you don’t want to.”
“Not even when I’m a grown up?” she asked again.
“Not even when you’re a grown up.”
I thought of Emma and my bizarre surge of feminism while I showered this morning. I felt the prickle of hair under my arms and instinctively reached for my shaving cream.
What am I doing? Why am I doing this?
I thought of how many decisions I made – big and small – because the rest of the world told me that I should. I thought of how I let strangers define my idea of beauty and sensuality. I thought of how desperately I wanted to protect my little girl, my daughter, from the uncertainty of a predetermined path.
And then I thought about wanting to wear a sundress today and my tendency to lean back and put my hands behind my head.
I lathered up and grabbed my razor.
Yeah, I don’t have the stones to be a feminist, I thought. Arm pit hair is gross.
I got out of the shower and put on the sundress. I kissed Devin goodbye and sent him off to the bus stop before retreating back to my own bathroom to apply my makeup and blow dry my hair.
Emma followed me in, as she usually does once her brother is out of the house.
“Do you have makeup for me, Mom?” she asked.
“You have your own makeup up, Emma,” I reminded her, sliding my expensive brushes and eye shadow pots away from the edge of the bathroom counter.
“Oh, right,” she giggled. She giggles for nonsensical reasons, just because it’s what she does. “Do you have a thing for me?”
“What’s a thing?”
“A thing, like that,” she pointed at one of prized makeup brushes.
“Of course. Remember?” I pulled out the less expensive brushes I’d recently handed down to her and set them next to her bubble gum pink lip gloss and glittery face goo. “These are just for you.”
“I’m going to make my face like a tiger,” she gushed.
“That’s fantastic,” I gushed back.
“Why do you put this in this?” she asked.
“I don’t know what this is.”
“This,” she waved a tube of squeezable lip gloss in my face. My God, we have a lot of lip gloss in this house.
“This what?” I pressed. “Use your words.”
“I am using words!” she insisted.
Well, yes. There was that. I laughed. “Then use better words,” I said. “I don’t know what this is, or what this it is in.”
She sighed and I watched her brain work behind her eyes. “This… stuff.” I said nothing. “This… lip… stuff.”
“Lip gloss? That stuff is called lip gloss.”
“Why is the lip gloss in what?” I asked again.
She tapped on the plastic tube with her tiny fingertips. “Here, see? This thing that you put it in.”
“The tube? The bottle?”
“Yes! Why do you put this lip gloss in a tube?” she asked, finally.
“I think so you don’t have to get it on your fingers.”
I walked to the mirror that hangs on the wall to apply my mascara.
“Mommy, I can’t reach. I need a thing so I can reach my makeup!”
“You can reach,” I said, watching her stick her fingers into the pot of pink goo.
“I want to reach better.”
I want to reach better. Her words bounced around in my head. I thought of telling her she could reach just fine, and my stomach turned at the idea of condemning her to adequacy. It was so easy for her to insist that merely reaching was not enough. I rolled her clarity and determination around in my mouth and tested how it would feel to hold them as my own.
“Then you need a step stool,” I said.
“Go get one,” I nodded my permission and she bounced out of the room. I rolled a Q-tip across my eyelids to remove the tiny black spots my mascara had left.
She reappeared with a clang in the doorway of the bathroom. She held in her arms the biggest, baddest fucking step stool we had in the house, the three stepped one whose metal frame was as tall as she was. She hoisted it up against the cabinet, unfolded it, and marched to the top step.
She turned to me and smiled, at once triumphant and waiting for permission or disapproval.
“There you go,” I said. “Now you can reach better.”
I’ve written 1200 words here thus far, and I know that a better writer would split these stories into two separate posts. I’m sure you started reading this and thought “oh, lighthearted kid humor, got it”.
And it could be just that and nothing more.
Except that it’s not.
For the last few days, everything I say to my children, and to my daughter especially, has been thrown against a mirror and reflected back at me. I’m suddenly hyper aware of what I’m teaching them and what I want to teach them.
I feel like I’m teaching them and me at the same time.
Like when I told Emma that we had to brush her hair, even if it hurt. “You can’t leave the tangles in just because it hurts to get them out,” I said. And I said it slowly and carefully, choosing my words with purpose in the hopes that someday she would understood just how much they meant.
I want to prevent them – and especially her (only because she will be a woman someday, and not at all because I love her more) – from ever getting here. I want to prepare them for the eventuality that they might.
I want to give myself permission to reach better.