You’re sitting on the ground at the park, scanning the abundant, pickable grass. Above you, adults mingle, a canopy of legs; I’m nearby, the marigold hem of my dress distinct among jeans. The sun is warm. You spot a frog hopping along the grass. Hop, hop, hop, it goes.
You’re enraptured by the frog, watching it go, an unexpected guest here at your birthday picnic.
The frog is between hops when the face descends—a face broad like a cookie sheet, with unnaturally white teeth in a confrontationally straight row. Lips curl back, deep grooves erupting along cheeks framed by sand-bag jowls and a tiny forest of stumped whiskers, erect atop every curve of skin. The face belongs to a man, and it has plunged down in front of you from nowhere, its eyes fixed on yours.
Where is the frog?
The face moves. It honks—HAPPY BIRTHDAY—a phrase vaguely familiar, the face distinctly unfamiliar, the volume jolting, the journey of the frog lost, replaced by this face, this man.
I emerge from the canopy, my marigold dress the billowing sails of rescue. I sweep you into the air, apologize faintly to the man, who laughs it off, pivots, leaves us, taking his giant, loud face with him.
“It’s because of the beard,” the offending men say after incidents like this, clearly applying salve to their own wound. It’s not just beards, though. When we encounter men in public—at the park, at the store—you suddenly dilute, peer out with two cold eyes from the maw of your stroller.
What’s the root cause of this distaste? I search my mind: you have no reason I can think of to dislike men, unless I consider that the surgeon who performed my C-section was a man; perhaps you felt he interrupted your agenda that day (taking your time, getting stuck sunny-side up in my pelvis).
Nothing I try makes any difference.
“Daddy is a man, and you love him, right?” I argue.
“Yes,” you say, not raising your eyes from your coloring page. “But I don’t like other mans.”
“I just don’t,” you say, your voice like a doorbell, ding-dong, matter-of-fact, don’t-be-dense, Mom.
Could it be the way they loom? Maybe you don’t like their squared-off stances, the ones they can acquire from a lifetime of defending and being defensive. Perhaps they’re not as quick to get down on your level; maybe they’d do better to treat you like a very new and tender creature, to wait for you to approach them. Perhaps it’s their inane questions, the ones that aren’t their business, like how old are you? Or it could be their jarring outbursts that feel more like commands: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Maybe it’s the way men move about the world—like they own the place.
“Mom,” you say seconds later, and I’m hopeful for a big reveal.
“Can I have some cheese?”
Three. It’s the same number of years I’ve been a parent, and I’m still not sure what I’m doing. You’re the first child, the pioneer, your parents trailing along behind, ridiculously cajoling and banging pots and pans in your dust.
I want to be the clearest expression of feminism for you—by which I mean, seeing gender as fluid, seeing people as people. I was the kind of word-loving feminist who, when people asked my baby’s gender, avoided answering. I bought yellow things. Stripes, lots of stripes. I tried to remain neutral, remain open, to believe, as I do in my heart, that the roles imposed upon people are just made-up things, calcified by generations of culture.
But the world around you tells a different story, and it’s not one I can ultimately keep you from learning. Daddy leaves for work every morning; I stay home and make cookies. The boys at preschool play rough; the girls are given dolls. Babies—no matter how yellow and striped they may have been once—grow and seem to bifurcate pink and blue. I try to tell you different stories—about strong girls, brave women, not princesses pining after princes or a mermaid giving up her body. But you’ll learn the other stories eventually. You already are.
At the park, I watch you glare at a man from the top of the slide. He’s waiting for his daughter to slide down.
“Sweetie, can you slide?” I ask, knowing full well you won’t—not until this man is gone.
You shake your head.
The man’s daughter slides down ahead of you, and father and daughter move on to the swings. The effect of his distance is instant—your whole body un-bristles, the seething washes from your eyes, and you slide, bubbly, as before.
Sometimes I watch you—watch you watching men—and with a slow gush, our personhood melds for a moment, as the life of a mother and daughter can do, our shared anatomy projecting a shared past. Someday you’ll be in a bar and get a bad vibe. You’ll nod to your friends (you’ll move in packs to confuse the pursuers) putting them all on high alert. You will wait for the right moment, clutch bags and hands, and walk swiftly through the bar, froth onto the street and around the corner, laughing together because you’ve escaped—again—but also because you’re scared.
I worry you are not wrong. Women lose access to birth control. Women are compelled to carry babies. Women march on Washington in pink hats. Women die. And though I want to wear the marigold dress forever, I can only pray nothing will distract you—no hopping frog, no pickable grass—from assessing the threat that, all a woman’s life long, hovers like a wraith. “It’s because of the beard,” they will say, but it’s not, it’s not, it’s not.