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. 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 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 8 going on 18, has a knack for turning every activity into a hair-raising, knuckle-whitening exercise in full-throttle adventuring. Trees are for climbing, fences are for scaling and stair banisters are for sliding. 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 third grader.
But my ambivalence here is telling: why shouldn’t she be a conquerer? I don’t worry about my son being conquerer, because, let’s face it, we kind of expect boys to be conquerers. We live in a culture that doesn’t encourage questioning high-spiritedness in boys, but does encourage it with girls. Even if we’re more inclined to do it in positive ways, and to celebrate spiritedness in girls, we still single it out, mark it as extraordinary. And we code it as un-girly – such a girl is, still, a tomboy. She’s different. She’s kinda like a boy.
How do we change that?
(Note: This piece is a reworking of a reworking of a reworking – a post that was an article that was a talk that was an idea scrawled on a napkin. Because I keep coming back to these questions, and to worrying over these questions, and they always take me back to my girlhood – and this horse-nabbing moment in particular – because this is the struggle, isn’t it? We want better for our girls. But sometimes we aren’t quite sure what better looks like. And figuring that out matters, for our girls, and for our boys, because better should better all-around. Which means that I’ll be worrying about this for, oh, forever. Or until we solve it, whichever comes first.)