My daughter is standing in the hallway, a shoe in one hand, pointing at the door with the other. “Bye’m?” she repeats. “Bye’m? Bye’m?”
“Would you like to go bye-bye?” I ask, reaching for her other shoe as I anticipate the answer. “Maybe go to the library?”
“Yeah!” she cheers. “Books! Go bye’m, bye’m.”
“Bye-bye,” I repeat, with just a slight emphasis. She’s said “bye’m” ever since she started talking, and even though other baby words have since corrected themselves, bye’m is somehow stuck. It’s worn a deep groove into her neural net, being such a nice, all-purpose word. In her mind, “Bye’m” not only means bye-bye, but also indicates a desire for change in situation: “Bye’m,” I don’t want my diaper changed. “Bye’m,” get me out of the bathtub. “Bye’m,” daddy stop playing that song on the guitar and play Old MacDonald instead.
I scoop her up, two shoes on her feet, and we head off to the library.
We spend a lot of time at libraries; we have about a dozen within short driving distance and we claim them all as ours. Today we pick a children’s library and enter to find a librarian reading a story, holding court for a wobbly circle of young children and their parents. I sit down on the floor, cross-legged, and my daughter settles herself into my lap.
The librarian holds up a big book at the front of the room, moving it in a slow circle so the few toddlers who are actually paying attention can all have a turn to see. “Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater!” she reads out, ending her sentence with an implied exclamation point. “Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!” She pauses for effect before turning the page. “He put her in a pumpkin shell!” Page turn. “And there he kept her very well!”
My daughter is rapt, drinking in the words. This just will not do, I think. I bend down until my lips brush against the curl of her ear.
“And feminists had a field day ever after with that one,” I whisper to her. “We’ll talk more about patriarchy later.”
The woman on my left looks at me oddly, shifting herself just an inch or so further away. I must have spoken a shade louder than I realized.
When I tell people I’m a feminist, reactions are varied. My more conservative friends blanch, their eyes flutter open widely for just a fraction of a second, as if I’ve said a dirty word. Other friends give me quizzical looks: of course I’m a feminist. I’m a feminist, you’re a feminist, we’re all feminists. Aren’t we?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, it means to me to be both a Christian and a feminist. I picture Christianity and feminism as overlapping circles — a Venn diagram, if you will — with my personal ethos falling firmly into the center of the overlap. Being a feminist means I try to stand up for women’s rights, whether they be the right to equal pay for equal work or the right to stay home with a family. It means I try to keep my eyes peeled for injustice, speak up for the voiceless whenever I can, and do my best to bring about justice and peace on the earth. That last bit is a line from the Book of Common Prayer, actually. My faith and my feminism go hand in hand as I search the Scriptures and see over and over again: feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Look after the poor, the widowed, the orphaned.
My center in this Venn diagram is rooted in a prayer that I love, attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Being this body requires that I reach out from the spiritual into the physical world, reach out to show love, to give comfort, to effect change. I am a feminist because, more often than not, the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed are disproportionately women. I call myself a feminist because I believe that social justice needs to transpire right from the very start: with the children. And the bodies that birth, feed, and sustain the children are the bodies of women.
This ethos is so inscribed into the marrow of my bones that it’s sometimes hard to articulate. Especially when I’m trying to explain it to a one and a half year old who’d rather hear Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater without my revisionist commentary.
The librarian’s story over, my daughter toddles off to get a book and returns to my lap. I glance down to see what she is offering me, it’s a glossy picture book called Monster Trucks. And the publisher — no lie — is called Big Guy Publishing. My lips twist into a wry smile, and we start to read.
Suddenly I’m distracted by a commotion not far away, where a man is sitting next to a little boy. The boy’s been throwing his book up in the air and catching it again, and now the man — his father, I presume — grabs the book away from the child.
“Stop that!” he yells, and throws the book angrily to the floor. “Didn’t I tell you to knock it off?” He grabs the child roughly by the shoulders and starts shaking him.
I freeze, Monster Trucks now forgotten in my lap, my arm tightening protectively around my daughter. I hate it when she sees something like this; I want to keep her secure, for as long as I possibly can, in a magical place where big people are never unkind to little people. I watch her face from the side as she sits on my lap. She’s concerned. I can see it in the profile of her face and feel it in the tightness of her shoulders.
Time unspirals slowly as I take in the man, the boy, my daughter. Should I do something? I’m never quite sure where minding my own business ends and standing up for someone else begins. And besides — the guy is huge.
My daughter is breathing faster. “It’s okay,” I bend down to whisper in her ear. It’ll be all right.” I rub her shoulder, still equivocating, but not her. She acts. She stands up from my lap with a decisive look on her face. I reach out for her, then change my mind and let her go. Maybe she’s going to go sit somewhere else in the room and remove herself from the scene. To my surprise, however, she walks straight over to the man and the boy. She bends down and picks up the thrown book, and hands it back to the child. I catch my breath as he mumbles a surprised “thanks,” looking at this tiny girl running interference.
She glances back at me, and I give her a shaky smile. I beckon for her to come back, but she turns instead to face the man. The big one. The one who was just shaking his son. I lunge for her and then stop myself: I don’t honestly think this man is going to hurt my kid. Do I?
As I’m watching, she draws herself up to her full height. “Bye’m!” she accosts the man as he towers over her. “Bye’m! Bye’m! Bye’m!”
I feel my eyes widen. She’s telling him off. She barely even has a vocabulary of her own, yet she’s using it to speak up for the voiceless.
The man looks up at her, laughs. “Aw, isn’t she cute?” he asks me.
I nod, wordlessly. He has no idea what she’s trying to communicate, he has no idea what “bye’m” means. Bye’m, don’t you shake your son. Bye’m, we don’t treat people that way. Bye’m, one word that means change for the better.
“Bye’m,” she says to him one more time, her voice a sliver of ice, her red hair all but crackling. Then she turns abruptly and toddles back to me, resettles herself again on my lap. She hands me Monster Trucks. “Read?” she asks. And I do.
As we turn the pages to look at car-crushing stompers, I marvel at my own little stomper, endowed with the courage to do as a toddler what I was too scared to do as an adult. She saw something she perceived as wrong; she confronted the offender and tried to make it right. She was the hands, the feet, the body, the voice of Christ.
I hold her to my chest. “May you never lose that courage to make a difference,” I murmur in her ear. My beautiful, feminist, Christ-like daughter. And may God give me the grace to follow in your tiny footsteps.
11 replies on “Bye’m”
This is a lovely story! I wish we could all keep true to our inner voice the way little ones are.
I found your blog here by way of Grandmere Mimi’s. What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing it.
As a Christian feminist, I find myself in the same position—and for the same reasons.
Another great column, Elrena!
I really appreciate that you are able to find universal ways of explaining your faith, feminism and everyday experiences of motherhood. I’m a feminist and a mom, but not a Christian, and I still can relate to you throughout this and your other columns. You take a personal enough approach that I can relate my own spiritual values to yours. Thank you for that.
And I think this little girl has a bright future ahead of her! You go, girls!
Elrena, this is beautiful, beautiful! What a brave, strong girl is being raised by your brave, strong self.
What a beautiful and important piece. What an amazing little girl. This brings tears to my eyes. Thank you!!
Elrena, from another feminist Christian mom, thank you for an inspiring story. I am glad you were able to allow your daughter to follow her instincts!
I, too, love the universal way you have found of explaining your faith and your feminism. I am not a Christian, but I have a deep respect for the values expressed in the Teresa of Avila prayer and in the example of the person of Jesus. After seeing a lot of adult-child incidents similar to the one you described, as if they were sent to me all in one week for a reason, I have begun to try to find ways to respond that shifted things and perhaps made the adult think, even if they still went away angry at my intereference. While I don’t think I’ve ever been as effective as your daughter, I don’t plan to give up. Had a dream recently in which a wise friend patted me on the back and told me to keep it up, that an injustice to a child will always be “a sour lemon.” Often the perpetrators do it unconciously–they are repeating what was done to them and may not even be aware that it’s not acceptable. They probably will not appreciate being “spoken up” to, but maybe they it will make them go home and think about their behavior.
I loved this story. Your little girl has all the right instincts. We could all follow those instincts. In fact, I would like to make a suggestion to you, as her mother — and to all of us as parents — something we could do when we find ourselves in the difficult position of witnessing abuse in public.
Instead of telling your daughter it’s OK, which is actually not true and could train her to accept and ignore other people’s distress and abuse, you could let her know that what she sees is true and distressing. You could just say, “Yes, I see that. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’m sorry. That family is having a hard time.” You don’t have to have the answers, but even though you want to reassure her, you don’t have to tell her that what she sees is OK. Her human heart already tells her it isn’t.
What if we all stayed as open as your beautiful little girl? As courageous in offering help to the helpless and standing up to the abusers?
The image of your daughter’s integrity will stay with me. I hope you can keep her this open and healthy. Thank you for your piece.
What a beautiful column! Like one of the pp, I don’t identify as Christian, but I found this inspiring and touching, and I can relate to the question of how we as mothers can/should live out our own values and help our children do the same. It really is humbling sometimes to see what our children can do.
I feel so sad when I see people freaking out with their children and yelling at them and I hate myself when I lose my temper with my own kids (which god knows I do often, though almost never in public). I once saw a mom slap her 4-year-old across the face and I just froze. I was so angry I wanted to call the police but before I could react at all she had gone down a different aisle. Then I think of how Shari bravely confronted a jerk on an airplane (you can read about it in her column) and wish I had had the nerve to cry: “Kids are not for hitting!” or SOMETHING to that mom. Your daughter is an inspiration to everyone. Thanks for writing such a beautiful column.
Thank you so much for all the comments! I’m so happy to read all your responses.
Kass, I really like your suggestion — in fact, I’ve implemented it already. I wish I could say I haven’t had the chance, but unfortunately, I have. And I think you’re right — far better to acknowledge that what we are seeing is wrong, even though I still don’t always know what to do.
Thanks again, so much! We read Monster Trucks at the library again today, and I just couldn’t keep from smiling.