Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

By Chantal Panozzo


As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.


“Look at my house, Mommy!”

My three-year-old daughter grinned and cast her arms wide in front of a pile of big foam blocks. Then two four-year-old boys from the local day camp ran into the park district gym and knocked down her masterpiece.

“Don’t do that!” my daughter said, putting her hands on her hips. “That’s my house!” But the boys continued their destruction despite her protests.

The park district camp counselor walked over to me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s ok. Don’t apologize. Or do anything. They’re kids. They’ll work it out,” I replied.

Two minutes later, the two boys and my daughter were rebuilding the house together. Then the three of them played for the next hour, riding Bobby Cars to and from the house, as if they had always been the best of friends.

My daughter and her new friends had just remodeled their home for a third time when another child entered the gym and began the next episode in home destruction.

“Don’t knock down our house!” my daughter said. She wagged her finger at the newcomer. The two boys repeated her words and antics.

“She’s mean,” the newcomer said to her grandmother.

The grandmother stepped into what had been my daughter’s house.

“You need to be nice!” she told my daughter. “Say you’re sorry!”

Observing, I shook my head at the grandmother’s interference. Despite advice to love your kids, keep them safe, but get out of their way from parenting experts like Kathy Masarie, MD Parent and Life Coach, this helicopter parenting (or grand-parenting) happens a few times a week when we’re out and about in our Chicago suburb: my daughter stands up for herself only to be “corrected” for her assertiveness by other caretakers. Since we’ve moved back to the United States from Switzerland in October, my daughter has been called “mean” and been told to “be nice” more times than I care to count.

But as I observe her, at least through the eyes of an American mother versed in European parenting styles, I see nothing mean (can a three-year-old even be mean?) about my daughter. Is it mean to defend a house you’ve spent an eternity building—since for a toddler, ten minutes is an eternity? And should you have to say you’re sorry for being upset in front of the very person who knocked your house down?

As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.

In Switzerland, where my daughter was born, and where we lived until she was three, I learned to parent as she learned to play. Swiss children are taught to work things out for themselves and parents don’t interfere with play unless there is danger of someone getting hurt. Since moving “home” I’ve considered the hovering and interfering American parenting approach, but I just can’t do it.

Instead, as the other American caretakers correct and hover and instruct, I sit back with a beverage and wonder: Why can’t we let our children work things out amongst themselves? And why are we teaching our children to be sorry for their assertiveness by making them apologize to others for defending something they built and believed in—even if it’s something as simple as a foam block house?

Because here’s the thing: If we don’t allow our daughters to defend their foam block houses, then how will they learn to stand up for themselves later in life when it comes to salary increases, fair pay, and equal treatment? If we don’t allow our children to work things out for themselves as toddlers, how will they learn to work out disagreements as adults?

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, writes, “When children learn to resolve their own conflicts, without Mom or Dad swooping in to the rescue, they build grit, self-confidence, and the creative problem-solving skills that lead to higher achievement.”

Luckily, my daughter has no problem standing up for herself—even in front of other adults. She isn’t “nice” in the way that the grandmother wants her to be. She doesn’t apologize and for that I am grateful.

Then the camp counselor tells the boys that it’s time to go.

The grandmother looks relieved, but my daughter looks like someone knocked her house down again. She runs to the boys and hugs the bigger one.

“You’re so nice,” says the boy.

Nice? I want to hug that boy too, but since he is being escorted away I hang on to his words instead. Then I embrace my daughter, because she is everything I could want in a daughter, and also because she is crying. Her home destructors-turned-friends are now gone, but hopefully her assertive spirit never will be.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.

Photo: dreamstime.com

Learning to Love Motherhood

Learning to Love Motherhood

By Chantal Panozzo 

Girl enjoying snowtimeRecently, both my two-year-old and I had “aha!” moments. Hers was: “Snow is cold.” Mine was: “Oh, so this is why people have children.”

I was never one of those women who felt born to breed. I didn’t have dreams about bridal gowns or babies. Even though I met my future husband when we were both 19, we felt no particular rush to do anything but enjoy our lives. We got master’s degrees at 25. We got married at 26. We moved to Switzerland at 28. When I wasn’t working, I concentrated on one thing: seeing the world’s wonders.

My husband and I were DINKS (double income, no kids). And we lived like it. We traveled when and where the spirit (and great airfare deals) took us. Warsaw for the weekend? France on a Friday? Notting Hill next week? Takoui, and sign us up. I printed out a map of the world and hung it on our fridge. After every trip, I colored in the countries I had visited.

Thirty-two years and 32 countries later, my biological clock began dinging and donging as much as the medieval clock tower across the street. The possibility to add a little bundle of joy to my life was slowly announcing its expiration date. Didn’t babies define happiness? I loved happiness. And even though I had plenty, I got greedy; I wanted more. So a year later, I was pregnant. When “joy” arrived I took her home, jubilant. But it wasn’t long—maybe 72 hours—before “joy” made me feel something else: sorrow. Instead of seeing the world, I was seeing spit up. I couldn’t help it; I missed my old life.

Did I have a mental disorder? Everyone I knew was congratulating me, saying how wonderful a baby was and how I should enjoy every moment. But all I could do was smile and nod and silently wonder, which moment did they mean?

Was it the moment when I dripped from every orifice in my body (orifices that before giving birth I didn’t even know existed)? Was it the moment at 3 a.m. when I was reminded I wasn’t a woman, but a cow?  Was it the moment when poop became the main topic of conversation at breakfast? (That is, if I even remembered to eat?)

The truth is, after I had a baby, my life as I had known it took a free fall. Warsaw on the weekend? I had taken less baggage to Warsaw than I did now to go across the street. Work out? Even if my husband was home, I felt like I had to ask his permission to leave the house. Go back to work? Great. I could feel guilty. Stay at home? Fantastic. I could feel like I had wasted my education.

The worst part was my dining room table. Where the silver candlestick holders had once been was a big, yellow electric breast pump slowly sucking the life out of me every time I looked at it—never mind when I used it.

I don’t know what I expected, but as a member of the Google Generation with everything from instant coffee to instant answers for “what airline flies direct to East Timor?” perhaps I assumed I’d also be graced with an instant love of motherhood. But instead I found myself silently regretting it.

Why did you want a baby? Stop. I wanted to stop asking myself that. But since that thought usually happened at the same moment I was sleep deprived and spilling some preciously pumped breast milk, it only egged on other troubling questions, especially if I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror. I had bags under my eyes and an extra ten pounds around my hips. My God, what did you do to your life? Stop. I didn’t want to ask myself that either. Especially when my daughter finally began smiling. But my protests did no good. My thoughts babbled more than my baby. And since they were mean and selfish thoughts, I didn’t share them with anyone. Instead, I let them ferment inside me like a Swiss Gruyere. For two years.

Then it snowed.

Of course, this particular snow was hardly my daughter’s first snow, but at 25 months, it was the first snow she registered. We watched it from our window. “Snow!” she yelled, “Pretty!” She remained mesmerized for at least nine minutes, practically an eternity for a toddler. “Out,” she said, “go!”

We prepared to go outside. That took approximately one decade. She wanted to wear her dirty diaper. She wanted to put her rain pants on backwards. And she wanted to wear her sandals. I tried not to remember my old life, when I left the house exactly eight minutes before the train to the airport was coming, tantrum-free and perfectly dressed for the weather.

Practically a lifetime later, which included several bribes in the form of Saltines, we were at the park. I took my daughter out of her stroller and set her in the snow. I was sweating from the effort it had taken to go two whole blocks from the apartment. Do something, I willed my daughter. Do something to make all the effort in getting here worth it. But she didn’t do anything except stand there as frozen as an ice sculpture. Then, to remind me she wasn’t a sculpture, she whined. And held up her arms for me to pick her up.

I sighed and held her for a few moments, debating whether we should just go grocery shopping instead. But something—let’s call it renewed patience—made me set her down in the snow again.

I began making little snowballs as she stood there. First I threw them. As her frown began to melt, I handed her little snowballs and she threw them. “More!” she said, until we had made so many snowballs that a patch of grass surrounded us.

“Walk,” she said. She took a hesitant step. “Snow,” she kept saying, as her pace quickened

When we reached the park’s fountain, that mercifully, was finally turned off, we made more snowballs and threw them into it. Each time a snowball self-destructed at the bottom of the fountain, my daughter shrieked with joy. “Snow!” she sang, her face registering total bliss, as if snow were the most amazing thing ever.

At that moment, I realized it was. Snow was amazing. It was white and cold and beautiful and I loved it. And that’s when I realized how much I loved my daughter for making me remember that.

I felt nothing but peace and happiness then. Thanks to my daughter, a new way of appreciating life had opened before my eyes like a flower. It was a world where small things were big and wonderful. It was a world where an airline ticket to an exotic country wasn’t necessary to find wonder. Instead, wonder was right in front of me, waiting to be discovered. It was in the form of my little girl in an over-sized pink coat and pink boots. She was going to make sure I didn’t miss a minute of it.

“Walk! Snow,” she said.

Inspired by her words, I began to sing a song I had sung as a child, with a newfound sense of awe floating along with the melody: “Let us walk in the white snow, in a soundless place. With footsteps quiet and slow, at a tranquil pace…”

My daughter smiled. “Mommy. Snow,” she said. She couldn’t have summed up the moment better—even with a verb. We threw another snowball in celebration of her 35-year-old mother’s ability to finally see snow as clearly as a two-year-old. I held her close, my lips warm on her cold cheek.

Then she decided to take off her gloves and my newfound love of motherhood took a commercial break.

“Aren’t you going to put your gloves back on?” I asked.

“No!” she said.

I shrugged, feigning indifference and made her another snowball, which she took with her bare hands.

“Oh,” she said, “cold!” She dropped the snowball like a hot potato and looked at me with the most wonderful expression: as if she had just watched a horror film.

“Snow is cold. That’s why Mommy wants you to wear your gloves,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Then she cocked her head and looked up at me like I maybe, actually, might have had a few words of wisdom to offer.

Now there was something to love in a daughter. So as she held out her hands for me to re-mitten, I was smitten. Her tiny appreciation for my common sense was yet another reason, two years after becoming a mother, that I finally loved my new and wonder-filled life.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.