Celebrating International Women's Day by Respecting my Girl's 'No'

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By Rhea St. Julien “Can you hold my hand to cross the street?” I implored, my arm stretched back behind me to my two year old, Olive.

Her hands were crammed in her peacoat like a mini Bob Dylan. “Not today.” she said, not looking up.

My husband and I cracked up in laughter, at how serious of a refusal she gave me, and since street safety is important, I grabbed one of her little hands out of her pocket to skip to the other side.

We retold the story several times that day, of how adorably earnest she was about not holding hands at that time. But I felt a ping of guilt, as all the feminist texts I read about raising a strong daughter tell me not to laugh at my girl’s “no”s, but to respect them.

It’s good advice. In my life, I have had people be shocked, offended, and outright dismissive of my no. I had my share of experiences in the young days of burgeoning sexuality in which boys did not listen to my no. But in many ways, I was able to get through those body manipulations less scarred than the times my no has been rebuffed in educational, professional, and personal settings. The power of a woman’s no. What is it worth?

I know the world Olive will grow up in is not much different than the one I did. And despite the fact that people are often appalled when I say no, I keep doing it. My parents can attest to the fact that I was born with a certain strain of defiance, a gene from my father, a steely commitment to protection, of myself and my loved ones, when that is needed. I want to impart this to my daughter as well, though I think all I’ll need to do is nurture what is already within her.

“Mama, can you not sing that right now?” She looks up at me, a concerned look on her face. I was grooving, but she’s asking me, seriously and politely, to stop. I let out a chuckle, at how much it means to her that I stop singing my silly little song in that moment, but I say, “Okay.”

I’m trying to cut out the laughter, and skip right to either telling her, “I hear that you don’t want to wear your coat, but you have to, it’s cold out!” or saying “Alright, you don’t have to go upstairs yet. We can wait here until you’re ready.” It’s hard, since she’s so flipping cute, her eyes big and imploring, her unibrow knitted into an expression of concern, or determination.

"No Mama, I don't want to smile right now." "Oh, alright.  No smiles."
“No Mama, I don’t want to smile right now.” “Oh, alright. No smiles.”

Today, that meant not getting a kiss goodbye when she left for preschool. I wanted one, and asked for one, but when she said no, I decided, in honor of International Women’s Day, I wouldn’t steal one. I’d let her no be no. And off she went.

This piece is also running on Rhea's blog Thirty Threadbare Mercies today.