Updated: Jan 11, 2020
Ever since my daughter was born her father and I have decided on some very basic quotes, rules or lessons that we can repeat, hoping to hardline some life concepts with her. Some might call it a Jonestown thing or maybe a Manson family thing - but I call it sweet. Because that’s actually her last name and it doesn’t sound anything like a cult. So it hides what we’re doing. Anyway - we tell her things like “It’s ok to fall, it’s not ok to give up.” Sometimes we give it to her in the Batman version (which is so badass when she responds to it properly) “What do we do when we fall?” “we get back up,” she’ll say. Then we beam like the biggest nerd parents on the planet. The other one we use is “it’s ok to be scared. It’s what we do when we’re scared that counts.”
One that’s become very important to me is “it’s ok to change your mind.” Now this might seem like a lot of power to give a 4 year old - but that was actually the point. And I want her to have this power for the rest of her life.
If you’re already a parent with a less than perfect past or just have any level of intelligence at all - you will have guessed that this is an attempt to shield my daughter from suffering a similar pattern of torture I experienced growing up. This torture came in the form of being taught the idea that when we commit to something, there is no going back. Not for anything.
My first memory of this was soccer. There was a morning when I was between 5 and 7. I woke up not wanting to go to my soccer game. It was cold and wet out. I was tired. For some reason, I really didn’t want to get out of bed. I remember being miserable. I also remember my mother coming in my room and pulling me out of bed then wrenching leggings on me for under my shorts (to combat the argument of it being cold.) I squirmed and fought her; until I was eventually flipped over and spanked. The one and only time this ever happened. The discussion in the car was that I had committed to the year, she and Dad had paid for it, so I was to attend every game and every practice. No matter what. I don’t remember there being any discussion about me possibly having a cold, or a bad sleep the night before or being up too late reading. Any explanation about ‘why’ I didn’t want to go to soccer that morning wasn’t part of the discussion. Just that I was going.
This became a running theme into my adolescence. Any time I expressed displeasure in attending something or following through, I was reminded of the commitment I had made or agreed to. From events, to volunteer groups, purchases, trips, everything. I also turned this on myself. I turned my mother’s words into weapons on myself. If I felt that I had stretched myself to thin, or filled my schedule too much - there was no room for discussion. I never believed that backing out of anything was an option. I developed fear and anxiety around the thought of explaining to someone “I’m sorry, I’ve accidentally taken on too much in my schedule, I’m unable to make it. Can we do this some other time?” That - was unacceptable. I begrudgingly followed through on commitments. I resented the people involved. And I would burn bridges and sabotage connections on purpose, to make the destruction of the commitment appear to be out of my control or not my fault.
The danger of this can be greater than some could fathom. As young women get into bedrooms with boys who goad “but we’ve already come this far…” An initial ‘yes’ becomes an aggressor’s ally. It becomes easy to convince an unsure participant that their past yes, solidifies the present and commits them to every proceeding future moment until the entire situation has played out. Changing your mind part way through - is just rude. So any proposed sexual experience simply becomes a trap you’ve willingly wandered into.
I don’t think my mother could have ever imagined this enforced life lesson would cost her $60,000 when I was in my early 20s. After my first year of university in a rather exclusive program I worked very hard to get into, I called and said I wanted to change my educational direction. After many polite but firm points delivered on either side, the final nail in the coffin came from her “Julia, if you stop this program all the money will stop.” Basically, if I change courses, she’s not paying for university any more. I could have changed to be a doctor and it wouldn’t have mattered. I had chosen this, worked hard to get in, and I was sticking to it. Whether I liked it or not. If I wanted to change, it meant student loans and getting a job to pay my own living expenses.
Every year after, we would have the end of year ‘check in’ chat about how that year went. Every summer I would tell her I still don’t like it, and still want to stop going. She would give me the count - how many years I had now completed, and how many years I had left. It was supposed to be comforting or congratulatory of how much more I had completed and how little I had left to go. Finally when I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Interior Design, my mother’s oldest sister asked me which Interior Design companies I was thinking of applying to. I looked at her with snide rebellion, having waited for this moment for 3 years. I said loudly at the dinner table, full of family and right in front of my mother “None, because I don’t want to be an interior designer and Jane just wasted $60,000 on a degree I told her I didn’t want.” The silence and shock at the table was the sweetest nectar I had ever tasted.
So yes. I tell my daughter that she’s allowed to change her mind. We have open discussions about the results of her changing her mind. We discuss the consequences, both good and bad. We talk about the ‘next step.’ But I am creating a young woman that will develop power and confidence behind her own words. I will encourage her to develop autonomy and self control. My job as her parent isn’t to be in charge of her - it’s to teach her how to be in charge of herself.
So can see this lesson as one that comes back to bite me. But I see it as an opportunity for her and I to teach each other. And I’m comfortable with that.
So the other day we’re driving in the car and I ask what she wants for dinner. She tells me she doesn’t know. I say “well, Pesto pasta and pesto chicken are on the menu, so we’ll do that and a veggie. How about broccoli.” She says “yuck, I don’t want broccoli.” I’m shocked. This girl has been eating broccoli without complaint since she was 6 months old. In all 3 forms of puree, steamed and raw. So I say “What?! But you were eating broccoli last week! You LOVE Broccoli!”
“I’m allowed to change my mind” she yells at me from her car seat.
Alas - have no fear. I’ve been a mother for 4 years now. And I have some tricks up my sleeve. I can pull rules and life lessons out of places you didn’t even know existed.
“You’re right bubbie. You ARE allowed to change your mind. But if you’re getting rid of one green vegetable from your diet, you need to replace it with another. We have green beans, peas, cucumber, green pepper or zucchini. Which one do you want with dinner?”