Who’s Gonna Ride These Wild Horses?

March 8, 2012

In honor of International Women’s Day, this: a repurposing of an essay that I wrote for Canadian Family a couple of years ago, about my ambitions and frustrations in living up to my own self-assigned feminist mother bona fides. I still struggle with these questions, somewhat. Inasmuch as I don’t struggle anymore it’s because she’s defeated me. She’s my own wild horse (unstolen), and she throws me regularly. I’m mostly happy about that.

When I was 11 years old, I stole a horse. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that I borrowed the horse — I had every intention of returning it — but still: I took a horse that did not belong to me. There are laws against that. I stole the horse because I wanted to ride the horse. That I had no saddle or bridle or harness nor any real skill at riding was of as little concern to me as the fact that the horse was not mine to ride. I wanted to ride, and ride I did. I got on that horse and jabbed my heels into his flanks and we sped forward, through the paddock gate and out into the hayfield where we galloped for two or three breathtaking minutes until he bucked and tossed me to the ground. It was exhilarating. I had broken at least two laws — theft and trespassing — and had very nearly broken my neck, but all I could think was: when can I do this again?

I’ve never forgotten that feeling. I remember it every time that I do something exhilarating, something that makes me feel alive. I remember it every time I watch my daughter do pretty much anything.

My daughter, who is 6 going on 26, has a knack for turning every activity into a hair-raising, knuckle-whitening exercise in full-throttle adventure. Trees are for climbing, fences are for scaling and stair banisters are for sliding. Beds cannot be slept in until they have been bounced into submission, and kitchen stools are for facilitating raids on the cookie cupboard. I’m pretty certain – no, I’m entirely certain – that if there were horses anywhere near our home, she’d have already figured out how to steal one. She’d return it, I’m sure, but she’d ride the hell out of it before she did.

Her zeal for life is both awesome and terrifying to behold. It is awesome, because her confidence and her adventurousness hold every promise for a future of limitless possibility: my daughter, if she continues on this spirited path, will grow up expecting that she can and should pursue any ambition and that she will not and should not be held back by anything other than her own will and ability. But it is terrifying for exactly the same reasons: her confidence and her adventurousness may lead her to regard the world with all its fences, locked cupboards and laws of gravity as something to be conquered, and I’m not sure that “conquering” is the best pastime for a first grader.

So I’m torn. I’m torn between the impulse to rein her in, and the desire to let her run a little bit wild. I want her to understand and appreciate rules and boundaries, but I also want her to be the sort of girl who will not hesitate to push them. Which is the source of the problem, really: I want her to push boundaries, but I don’t want her to push all boundaries. I want my daughter to be rebellious, but within reasonable and socially sanctioned limits. I want her to grow up understanding that it is good and sometimes even necessary to challenge rules, but as a mother trying to manage a busy household, I often wish that she would just step in line and do as I say, no questions asked. And so I worry about the contradictions here. I want her to be her own girl. I want her to be a dream-chaser and a mountain-scaler and a rule-breaker and, yes, a horse-borrower. I don’t want to get in her way, except when I do.

I want, of course, for my children to be rebellious only in positive ways, in ways that respect the integrity of such larger-order social principles as co-operation and consideration for others and mindfulness of social norms and mores and, you know, laws. But for some reason I worry more about my daughter’s ability to do this on those terms than I do my three year old son. I simply don’t have anxieties about my boy growing into the sort of high-speed, rule-breaking adventurer that his sister is, to the extent that I’ve actually not given it much thought at all. I’ve assumed, I suppose, as he demonstrates the same levels of spiritedness as his sister, that that’s just what boys are often like. Aren’t boys supposed to steal horses? Doesn’t society, for better or for worse, expect that? Who cares if he grows up to be a rule-breaker, a maverick? That’s good, right? For boys?

Herein resides the problem: my anxieties about Emilia’s high-spiritedness are really kind of sexist. But they’re also rooted in very real concerns, I think. As a girl, my daughter faces more entrenched expectations of good behavior. She just does. I want the world and the culture to change in this regard, I really do – and I do everything that I can to contribute to that change. But those gendered expectations are still there, for now. I worry that if she can’t find the balance between being the good girl who understands that it is sometimes safest and smartest to follow the rules and expectations of social life, and the bad girl who grabs social expectations by the mane and kicks her heels in hard, she might find herself getting thrown and hurt. Again, it’s sexist of me to worry about this more for her than I do for my son, but I do. And I hate that it’s sexist of me.

But this is my battle, not hers.

Which is why I make, and make again, and again, and again, every day, this commitment to her: that I will respect her spirit, always, even when it causes me to worry. I will remember to simply be proud and encouraging of my bright, independent girl, to cheer her as she seeks out her horses and rides them until she’s thrown. And I will, in those moments, just help her pick herself up, brush herself off and whisper, go on, go ahead — do it again.

And then maybe hand her a saddle.

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    Gappy March 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Thank you for that. You’ve just put into rather beautiful words, the exact same contradictory feelings I have for my own bright daughter.

    I told her today that she was clever and beautiful and brave. She said, ‘well obviously I’m brave because dinosaurs don’t even exist anymore.’ I think she thinks she fronted them out of existence!

    Corinne March 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Your daughter is rad.

    Lucy March 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    It’s in a mother’s nature to worry. I commend your recognition that this worry may not serve your daughter’s greatest good.

    Holly from 300 Pounds Down March 9, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I have 4 kids and 3 of them are girls. I am pretty overprotective. Maybe even overboard by many’s standards. But in comparison to how I was raised, I’m slack!! I went to an all girls school and even an all girls college! My mom really worried all the time something would happen to me. Little did she realize that just as many crazy things happen at those all girl schools than anywhere else ! Lol but as a mom I struggle too with reining them in and letting them be free. I want to teach my children to take risks and not be afraid. And as much as it kills me, I have to let them fall of the bike sometimes and then get back up again so they know how to survive. I just still find myself with that knee jerk reaction of running to them and saying “no don’t do it!” I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    Jaime O. March 11, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Beautiful written…

    Lo March 15, 2012 at 5:55 am

    Beautifully written and very true…it really captures the essence of what i feel about my daughter and son too…

    Sleeping Mom March 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve always believed that parents need to honor kids’ impulses and independence first. Yes there are boundaries and consequences to be doled out, but most kids when they misbehave (in our eyes), are doing so out of curiosity or a desire to learn or feel happy, not so much to blatantly eschew the rules. I love how you respect your daughter’s spirit!

    Marian March 16, 2012 at 9:21 am

    15 years ago I drove out west by myself. I only found out last night that my mother was scared to death for me, but, at the time, she only gave me good advice: Take a hotel room on the second, or above, floor; give her a call each day to say hello; have a nice trip.

    I was fearless, and confident, because my mother pretended to know as little about the darkness of the world as I did.

    I just love my mother’s strength and wisdom, and yours, and the other mothers who comment here.

    Christine @ Quasi Agitato March 16, 2012 at 11:29 am

    I’ve had thoughts much like this about my 4yo daughter. Very spirited, strong-willed. I just keep saying ‘it will serve her well. It will be a challenge in our relationship, but it will serve her well in the long run.’ What I take from this post is that, at times, it won’t. Which, of course, is true.

    What I don’t share is the comparison with my son. My son is and has always been cautious. Which, at times, will serve him well and at times will hold him back.

    Their challenges will be interesting to observe because they run a bit against their respective gender ‘norms.’

    Miriam March 19, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    I think the trick is distinguishing between rebelling for a reason, and rebelling for rebellion’s sake. The more you clamp down, the more likely kids are to rebel just for its own sake.

    Jess March 24, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I hope for the courage when I am a mother to do the same. Love this post.

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