The “Girl Power” Lie and How Motherhood Freed Me From It

I am a nineties baby. As a young girl, I proudly learnt about things like “girl power” and feminism.

I was a little, multiracial sponge, moving through childhood absorbing messages about race, identity and gender. I learnt how to be attractive (aspire to be white and appeal to men’s whims, whatever they might be), how to identify (strong, protective, funny, exotic), how to be strong (read: reject things perceived as feminine) and how not to be weak (read: be openly feminine). Friends, society really did a number on me.

This messaging also affected how I showed up in my family. I have two younger brothers. As the eldest sibling, I believed that I had to be my brothers’ protector. In my mind, this equated to physical strength. Based off of the lessons I was unwittingly absorbing from society, media and family, my child‘s brain did the maths and came to the conclusion that feminine equalled weak, and masculine equalled strong. It seemed simple enough. I suppressed the part of myself that was intrigued by pink, that wanted to be “pretty”, that liked cooking, that really wanted to learn to knit, and instead tried to emulate Action Man. We had the same scar on our left cheek after all, so that had to be a sign.

I learnt how to impress my family and friends by doing twenty press ups in a row, and I was the undisputed mercy mercy champion.

Wikipedia describes Mercy as:

…a game of strength, skill, endurance, and pain tolerance popular in Britain, Canada, Pakistan, India, the United States, and elsewhere. The game is played by two players who grasp each other’s hands (with interlocked fingers). The aim is to twist the opponents hands or bend the fingers until the opponent surrenders.

My then-twisted understanding of “girl power” and feminism warped gender into a one way street. Writing in Time Magazine, Allison Yarrow noted how the nineties had done a number on her too.

The “Girl Power” movement promised that progress for women would trickle down to girls…In the end, the 1990s didn’t advance women and girls; rather, the decade was marked by a shocking, accelerating effort to subordinate them. As women gained power, or simply showed up in public, society pushed back by reducing them to gruesome sexual fantasies and misogynistic stereotypes. Women’s careers, clothes, bodies, and families were skewered. (90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality (Harper Perennial, 2018).)

Fast forward a few decades and I’m on the verge of thirty. As I look my third decade in the eye, I realise that I have finally been freed from vehemently resisting the qualities, traits and interests which I deemed “girly” and weak as a child. I am embarrassed to say that this shift is a relatively recent one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a bloody lifetime of working on gender and identity to figure out who and what I am, but the true shift finally occurred when I had my daughter. Giving birth opened the door to the things that I turned my back on as a child, and welcomed them back in.

Pregnancy, labour and motherhood have taught me lessons that have left me flat on my back. I have learnt that it is impossible to parent without humility and grace. As I’ve leaned more and more into motherhood, I’ve come to understand that to be soft is to be strong. I know that sounds like an Instagram caption, but hear me out. The physical strength which saw me become the Mercy champion of my prepubescent peers did nothing for me during labour when I had to relax, release and relent. The upper arm capabilities which allowed me to do twenty press ups didn’t help me when my daughter would not stop crying and required patience and softness. I have learnt to be a great mother by slowly allowing pieces of myself to return back to me.

As my life has shifted into rhythms of breastfeeding, care-taking, cooking and cleaning (just joking, my house is a shit show), tasks which I watched my mother do, but never actually saw and appreciated, I’ve realised that all the things that I thought were weaknesses, are today my super powers.

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