LAST NIGHT MY daughter graduated from elementary school. Today, as I write this, she’s at her first boy-girl party.
“Mo-om,” she’s been whinnying all week, each time with a different preteen inflection. “It is not my first boy-girl party!” Of course it isn’t, technically: Her preschool years were full of boy-girl parties, the sort where the interchangeably presexual little people played Duck, Duck, Goose and merrily unpeeled their swimsuits when the Slip ’N Slide got too hot.
Now we’re moving toward the years where the unpeeling of swimsuits bespeaks a different sort of hot. Now I get nervous when she does things like… pick up the phone.
“Who’re you calling?” I heard my voice asking with ridiculous casualness the other day.
“Just Pietro,” she replied. (Heaven help me if that were actually his name.)
Pietro?!? The class hottie all the moms suspect their daughters have crushes on?
“Ohhhh.” Was my ‘ohhhh’ too revealing? Too conclusive? “Okay. Mind if I ask why?” Oh geez…too curious?
“Mo-om,” she sighed, the verbal equivalent of an eye roll. “I call Riley and Leo and Eli all the time. You never ask why with them.”
Um, right. Lifelong friends. Raised like siblings. Calls them to ask how to grease skateboard wheels, or if sea monkeys are supposed to look dead. Maybe she’s calling Pietro…because she needs the humanities reading list for fall?
Or maybe she’s calling Pietro because she has a crush on him and has decided to do whatever it takes to plant herself in his sights. Oh my goodness…maybe my daughter is chasing a boy.
“Uh, honey…” I began, no clue where I would be taking this. “Here’s the thing about boys. Boys…they…don’t really…_want_ to be called. By girls. You know?” What on earth was I talking about?
“Mo-om…what are you talking about?”
I looked into her innocent eyes and saw genuine confusion there, and instantly I knew where I had taken us. The middle of a minefield.
Since the time she was old enough to make sense of words, I have crowed about her amazing fortune of being born at the first moment in recorded history where being female did not carry unique hardship. The very first moment! The first time a woman could earn her own financial independence, be fully the agent of her own body, freely pursue her own dreams. When, in her family, she could be more than a man’s chattel; more than his romantic ideal. When she could walk alongside a man as his partner.
Consequently, all this child has ever heard me articulate about boy-girl relationships has been in the rhapsodic context of blissful equality. Holy crap, I now realized with horror. What have I done to my little girl?
Because here at the threshold of puberty, it was suddenly clear that this message was, in practical terms, stupendously misleading. Yes, boys and girls are equal…but God help any girl who thinks the unwritten rules governing courtship are. Didn’t I need my girl to know that where the rubber hits the road—um, so to speak—the girls who make the advances are perceived as too needy, too aggressive, too fast? (And end up about 17 kinds of screwed?) Or that boys become men, those fabled seed-flingers, whose biological imperative all too often makes a mockery of monogamy? Where would she safely learn, if not from her mother, the painful truth that every young woman has to pick up somewhere along the rutted road to sexuality: That boys and girls might be equal…but that equal’s not the same as the same?
I grew up in the decades newly enlightened by The Feminine Mystique and thus sensitized to the dangers befalling a woman who founds her identity on a man. I was only a little older than my daughter is now when I sat spellbound in a movie theater, feeling my mind wrench open as I watched Jill Clayburgh get socked with this truth in An Unmarried Woman.
But the rhetoric of gender equality—for all its welcome liberation—gave us bubkes when it came to dating. (Oh wait—there was the Dutch treat. My mistake.) Feminism politely dwells in the salons and parlors of our psyches, evening up our notions of who should get the job and who should do the laundry. But the bedrooms are still the province of instincts more animal than civilized. Instincts informed by the combustion of testosterone and oxytocin and good old-fashioned raging lust. Instincts that don’t subscribe to Ms. magazine. Instincts that, in my experience, favor inequalities—like girls playing a little bit hard to get—over equalities.
Like girls calling boys.
“Wow, mom…you really are old-fashioned,” my daughter marveled, after I swallowed hard and gave her an age-appropriate version of the above. “Girls my age call boys all the time. They text them even more.”
She was right, of course. In my day, the barrier that kept me and my friends from calling our crushes—the mortifying likelihood of the guy’s mom answering the phone—was, in this age of personal communications devices, a bygone relic. As, I now considered, might be the feints and indirections of classic courtship. Much as I still didn’t buy their demise, if they truly were gone—I wasn’t going to miss them.
“So,” I mustered, lightly as possible, “did you ever call Pietro?”
“Oh…yeah. Marta likes him and wondered if I could do the best-friend thing and scope him out a little on it,” she chirped. “She felt dumb calling him herself until she knew if he liked her. You know?”
Oh yeah, I thought. I know.