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It's a (Good) Girl
posted by Sheri

A Blog Review of It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, edited by Andrea J. Buchanan

By Phoebe Varinia DeMund

When mamazine.com editor Sheri Reed asked if I would review It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, edited by Andrea J. Buchanan, I eagerly agreed. I've had a special appetite for women's writing on motherhood ever since my daughter was born 10 months ago. And collections of essays have been the best, read in snatches, during my daughter's naps or the longest bathroom breaks I've ever taken, a new habit born of the increased need for moments to myself as myself that don't count toward the time my husband is "on duty" as the primary parent.

But I was unprepared for the depth of my response to the essays in It's a Girl, the words of which I drank in greedily and gratefully as much for their artfulness as their insight. I set the book down several times to add names to the list of people I plan to encourage to read it, not least of all my own mother, for the insight it gave me into her experience of raising me and in honor of the fact that she was the mother of a daughter first (not to mention her own mother's daughter).

The book is divided into four sections. The first, "Shining, Shimmering, Splendid," consists of essays exploring the nature of girlishness and how much to encourage, or discourage, traditional expressions of it in daughters who range from extreme girlishness to tomboys. The next section, "On Beauty and a Daughter" grapples with how to prepare a daughter for our society's oppressive definition and expectation of beauty. The section titled "Garden City," focuses specifically on the mother-daughter relationship, either with a backwards glance at the authors' own mothers and how those relationships inform their relationships with their daughters, or about how mothering presents opportunities to re-examine one's own childhood more generally. And finally, the essays in the section titled "Passing It On," address the competing needs for daughters to bond with and separate from their mothers.

Each essay added to my anticipation and experience of mothering a daughter, whether by chastening, exciting, tickling, or inspiring me. Further, with the delicious effect of a good personal essay, nearly all of them—and often when I least expected it—gave me an electric jolt of self-recognition in the story of someone else. To touch on just a few: "Ladylike," by Gabrielle Smith-Dluha described concerns about whether her tomboy daughter is too rough and aggressive and whether she needs to be teaching her to be more feminine. Smith-Dluha captures well the ambivalence of being proud and worried at the same time about a daughter who isn't particularly demure.

The essays in the second section "On Beauty and a Daughter" hit home in a different way. I was alternately heartened and terrified to read about daughters escaping or inheriting their mothers' personal demons with regard to body image and self-esteem. Jenny Block's essay "On Being Barbie," grapples with a recognition that her own choices (in this case for several cosmetic surgeries) will serve as guideposts to her daughter's navigation of issues of self-esteem and feeling beautiful and the need to make those choices consciously and deliberately.

The title essay from the section, "Garden City," by Jessica Berger Gross, is particularly eloquent on the pre-baby longing for a child and the way it is, in part, a longing for a chance to heal scars in one's own childhood. Another gem in this section was Kelly H. Johnson's essay "Park-Bench Epiphany," in which while watching her daughter face the possibility of playground rejection, she realizes that she had spent her adult life wishing to be who she is without the pain of her own childhood. "All this time," she writes, "I had been asking to be a tulip that grew from a daisy seed or a diamond that wasn't once a lump of coal. All this time, I had wanted to be me—without actually having been me." The realization makes it possible for her to watch rather than intercede on her daughter's behalf, to let her daughter have her own childhood.

In "Twenty Minutes," Jill Siler writes about driving her 18-year-old daughter to school and the depth and poignancy of her description of those few, rare minutes of connection is elegiac.

These words by Barbara Card Atkinson in "Isolation," nailed me to the wall: "No man is an island, but every new mother is a sandbar, with regular tidal flooding and the occasional threat of submersion."

Reading Katharine Weber's "The Boy We Didn't Have," I choked on my water laughing at, "I also felt philosophical during my pregnancies, in a dopey way, prone to profound insights such as, Oh my god! This is where people come from." And then cried with painful anticipation of someday in, "[W]hen my husband and daughters are immersed in their father-daughter intensities and I feel like the wallflower at the dance, the one without a date, the one who watches all the other couples having a good time."

The last essay, "Passing It On," about a mother raising her daughter among professional salmon-fishers on a remote Alaskan island, was a stand-alone read, a story from a different world. But it was no less moving an experience and no less insightful about this job of preparing a daughter for the world, for herself.

In her introduction to the book, Andrea Buchanan specifies that this essay collection, and its companion book It's a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons, are meant to be literary explorations of what it means to mother a daughter or son, and not instructional tomes or guidebooks. Personally, I find this particular literary exploration a very fine guidebook. I'll be recommending both books to all the new (and more experienced) parents I know.

Phoebe Varinia DeMund is a stay-away-from-the-office mama living in Sacramento. She's a writer, citizen activist, and her new daughter's delighted mother. She lives with her husband, daughter, and dog. Read Phoebe's recent essay.

For more on It's a Girl or Andi's Blog Book Tour, visit Andi's blog. Or read our previous interviews with Andi Buchanan and reviews of her other books:

Mother Shock Interview With Andi
It's a Boy Review and Interview With Andi
Literary Mama Interview With Andi