What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

By Liz Henry


Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the ‘right’ answers.


“What would you consider a successful future for this student?” The question comes with checkboxes for college and technical school, high school and a blank space for me to expand upon my thoughts. I skip it and keep going.

It seems odd I’d be asked to whittle down my 12-year-old’s future into one sentence within a packet to be scanned by a computer. But then again, finding a link between not reading so good and prenatal vitamin intake during pregnancy is like turning a hair dryer on and calling it a key factor in global warming. When it comes to the success or failure of our children, it’s always the mothers who face the firing squad of empty bubbles demanding a filled-in answer and other people’s opinions.

As I make my way through the packet of questions from my daughter’s middle school, I can’t locate the answers. What age were her first words? First sentence? First steps? I remember bits and pieces, I didn’t keep a detailed log or scrapbook. I was in college, when she was a newborn. I was twenty-one, forgive me.

I know for sure she was almost walking by her first birthday, but crawling was steady and reliable so she was prone to do that. There were two cakes and almost a hundred guests at her first birthday party, this I remember. The tiny, free cake from the grocery store was for her to sink her hands into and make buttercream gloves. The adults nibbled on massacred Sesame Street characters in primary colors.

I haven’t thought much about what I want for my daughter beyond what she wants for herself. When she was young, her father and I would drive her to the soccer field, softball diamond and basketball court; before that he lifted her high in the air and sang terrible songs with women in paisley bathing suits at the YMCA so she’d know how to swim.

My daughter hated sports. She’s not a fan of competition; we figured this out later, and didn’t push her because what would be the point? She’d be playing to make us happy, and we only had her in sports because that’s what you do in the suburbs when you have children—you make them play even if they aren’t very good and don’t particularly like it.

She does love swimming, we got that right.

I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, so how could I possibly write it down when she just turned twelve? Right now her favorite heroine is Ripley from “Aliens” and there doesn’t seem to be an end to Build-a-Bear extorting us. A few years ago, she was obsessed with “Titanic” and I read her the books, we watched the movie, bought the Blu-Ray and I took her to the theater to see it in 3-D. And then we went to an exhibit of Titanic artifacts where we were both humbled by the sadness of lost lives and chilled to the core after touching a block of ice the size of a paddle boat.

Yesterday “Titanic” was on TV and she didn’t want to watch it. That’s the thing about watching your child grow up, the last day of once beloved things never comes with a celebration, they end before you know it, and you’re left with the memories.

The question, however, demands an answer and leaving it blank seems neglectful. I check off high school and college, and technical school. I write, “I would like for my daughter to do whatever makes her happy and sustains her lifestyle.” The implication: do what you like, kid, try and fail. Go and live! Don’t send me a bill.

“Today at school we were talking about what color we would be if we could be colors,” she tells me. “Purple, that’s my color. It’s my birthstone and the color of royalty.”

“Ah,” I say.

I know the royalty part isn’t a big deal to her, but it doesn’t hurt to have something aristocratic associated with her birth.

“Mom, what color do you think I am?”

“I think you’re a rainbow,” I say. “I know that’s all the colors, but when someone sees a rainbow they stop and look because it’s unique. A rainbow rarely happens, but when it does, it gives people a lot of joy. That’s you.”

I know as a mother I’m supposed to say these things to encourage my daughter, but my words don’t define her. Or, anyone else.

Fuck it, I want to tell her. Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the “right” answers. The only test my daughter needs to pass is the one she’s written for herself. Have I made myself available to the ones I love? Do I bring them joy? Have I made myself happy, first? If my daughter can do these things, she’ll be successful.

Liz Henry’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and she’s a contributor to The Good Mother Myth from Seal Press. Follow her on Facebook.

Photo: gettyimages.com

No Dress Code For Young Girls

No Dress Code For Young Girls

By Liz Henry

dress code for girls shorts_Liz_Henry

Middle school dress codes were not made for the respectability of boys, they were made to send crystal clear messages to girls: your body makes us uncomfortable.


Let me start with this, and then I’ll get to why I’m asking, are leggings pants or are they tights? It’s the philosophical question of our age.

I drop my daughter off at her new middle school. She’s a sixth grader, which means she’s like an embryo in the hierarchy of middle school. There are locker combinations to master, class schedules to remember and, rules, a lot of rules to follow. As her mother, I forget this. I remember middle school as my favorite years of rebellion: first party, first boyfriend, discovering Courtney Love. I would never be the same.

My daughter is a sweet girl, shy, hilarious, artistic; likes basketball shorts and wearing t-shirts with movie logos. She doesn’t like attention and no one would ever mistake her for a rebel. The latter has always worried me, but nonetheless she doesn’t rock any boat. I’ve worked hard to be the body-positive mother I never had; I think I’ve done a good job. So far, anyway.

Driving away from the school, I’m only a mile away when my phone rings. It’s her, in tears. “Mom, I need you to bring me different clothes. Bring me jeans.” I don’t have a chance to ask why.

I arrive back at the school with jeans in a plastic bag and a few pads tucked into a makeup bag, just in case. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I know whatever happened she’s embarrassed, mortified. I feel for her and if it’s her period—why else would she need new shorts—I struggle before I get to the office to stir a pitcher of lemonade. In front of her, I know I’ll pull something out that helps her not think that being a girl is a disaster.

She’s in the office waiting, and I hand her the plastic bag. We walk out into the hallway and I pull her close, grab the makeup bag with the pads, and tell her I brought them just in case. She hurries away and asks me to wait until she’s done.

I walk into the front office and take a seat. “How embarrassing,” the secretary says to me.

“I don’t exactly know what happened. She’ll tell me when she comes out of the bathroom,” I say.

“Oh, it was her shorts. They were too short.”

I was not expecting this. The secretary tells me an 8th grade teacher pulled her aside and sent her to the principal’s office. I sit there, enraged, but quiet. I’m a feminist, I’m a body-positive feminist, I’m shaking my mental fist at the commoners and their stupidity for toeing the line on policing girls’ bodies and disguising it as a “dress code” when what they really mean is “slut indicator.”

“I think they’re being a little ridiculous,” the secretary says. “If they have all these rules, why not have the kids wear uniforms?”

Well, because that’s not really the point, I think, but I understand her sentiment of frustration. Apparently she has a daughter, too. And then she drops a bombshell: leggings are not allowed, either.

“That’s not in the handbook,” I say, “because I specifically read it.”

I don’t say that I sometimes read things I know will piss me off so I can feel superior and self-righteous. I also don’t say I know for a fact the shorts my daughter was wearing fall below her extended hands. Anything shorter, the dress code marks as an eleven on the slut indicator of driving little, uncontrollable penises mad.

“Well, it’s a rule. No leggings unless a girl is wearing a dress or shorts on top of them. They’re considered tights.”

I want to ask her for a withdraw form. This school, three days in, is already too much. I tell her I know she’s just the messenger, but I’m having a hard time understanding how leggings are not pants. I tell her, the messenger, who quite frankly couldn’t give a damn, that leggings are a body equalizer; that no matter your size, every girl and woman can wear them. I continue—because I’ve given myself a mental podium and I’m going to use it—that leggings are also a socio-economic equalizer; no matter your family’s income, black, stretchy cotton means you can fit in.

She doesn’t say anything.

What is there to say? That middle school, for most girls, is an introduction to the way their bodies are not their own, and that now they’re defined by the way other people, in particular boys, may or may not respond. Boys are to be protected and girls are to comply. The burden of consequence, girls begin to understand in middle school, is on them. That’s not to say that boys don’t have their own problems to deal with—like closing off their hearts to emotions for muscles—but dress codes were not made for the respectability of boys, they were made to send crystal clear messages to girls: your body makes us uncomfortable.

None of this is new, I know that. But it is new for the girls among us and that infuriates me; that girls—my girl in particular—are still asked to put their value not in how they see themselves, but in how teachers, adults, boys, view them. On that particular day it didn’t matter that my daughter was comfortable with her body in motion, that she was so proud to have found denim shorts that didn’t guillotine her middle; an arbitrary rule was broken and for that it was worth it to the educators to hold off on teaching math and language arts and instead give a girl a lesson on why rebellion isn’t so bad, after all.


Liz Henry is a contributor The Good Mother Myth, available from Seal Press. Find her on Twitter.