Author’s note: I wrote this over four years ago, in April 2016, but never had it published. At the time, I wrote it to make sense of these interesting conversations that I would have with my former neighbour’s then seven-year-old daughter—a remarkable young girl who I still think of often. In view of a recent article that I wrote and the response to that, I decided it would be worth publishing this—to nudge us to reflect on how we socialize our girls, which in turn leads to some of the attitudes and pressures that I described in my previous article.
I’ll start this with a quote from one of my favourite authors, the brilliant Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi:
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…”
I’ve always loved this quote, but lately, it has taken on an even different meaning as a result of my interactions with an amazing seven-year-old girl who clearly thinks that my life is somehow curious, awkward, and insufficient.
This is an example of the nature of our conversations:
Seven-year-old: Auntie Kui, do you have a husband?
Me: No, I don’t.
Seven: So, you just live in this big house of yours all alone? You don’t get lonely? You should get a husband…
I can’t quite remember what my response to her was, but I remember fumbling for something intelligent sounding to say, and eventually being grateful that I had some chocolate nearby that I could distract her with.
This was another one of our more recent conversations:
Seven-year-old: How old are you Auntie Kui?
Me: Old enough.
Seven: Are you, like, in your 30s?
Seven: And you don’t have a baby yet? (Then she proceeds to tell me…) When I am 30, my [first] baby will already be six.
Me: (Slightly taken aback and wondering how to proceed with this conversation…) You’ve even already planned it?
Seven: (Ignores my above question, because really, Auntie Kui, who would not have already planned for something like that by the time they were seven years old?! She probably inwardly rolled her eyes at me at this stage.)
Me: (In an attempt to kill the conversation, I say in my most adult-like voice…) You’re too young to be thinking about babies. Having babies is not a bad thing, but you should be thinking about other things like your education. (At this point, I’m feeling sufficiently pleased with myself, thinking that I’ve, of course, ended this conversation—but alas!)
Seven: What if you get to, like, 110 years old and you don’t have babies?
Me: (Stifling a chuckle and unsure how to respond…) Have you ever heard of anyone who died because they didn’t have babies? (Surely this must have now killed this conversation, but nooo, miss seven-year-old is a smarty-pants and always has a comeback!)
Seven: Well, I don’t know! (Said in that tone of: Duh?! I’m only seven, how do you expect me to have such information?)
Fair enough. Maybe there are people who have died because they never had children—even I, in my 30s—do not have this information.
Whenever I interact with this young girl, I am simply amazed at her confidence, and I often think to myself, “One day, she will make a phenomenal leader or trail-blazer in whatever field she chooses.” But seemingly, her greatest and primary aspiration in life is to get a husband and have some babies. Whilst her aspirations are fair, and she is certainly entitled to make her own life choices without others (including me) imposing our views and values on her, this saddens me.
I am no stranger to these sorts of views about marriage and babies. I get them all the time from the older generation and from some of my (misguided) peers.
However, when it comes from a seven-year-old girl, it simply saddens me.
What does it say about our society that young girls—who have not yet even reached puberty—are already worrying about having husbands and children? More importantly, that they perceive those who do not have these things as somehow lacking or “abnormal?” It is saddening that we are teaching our girls that their self-worth is pegged (only or primarily) on being either a wife or a mother. That these girls will not grow up to view themselves as worthy human beings in and of themselves, unless their identity is attached to having a husband and/or children.
I imagine that marriage (with the right partner) and motherhood can be sources of immense joy and fulfilment. However, these two things cannot and should not be the yardstick with which we measure women’s worth.
To quote Chimamanda again, “[We] speak of the title Mrs. as though those who are not Mrs. have somehow failed at something. Mrs. can be a choice, but to infuse it with as much value as our culture does, is disturbing.”
Perhaps, even more frustrating is that, all too often, it is women themselves who propagate this flawed way of thinking. We are a long way from achieving gender equity in many aspects, both in my country Kenya and globally. Nonetheless, many women have gone ahead of us and fought tireless battles—sometimes at great personal cost—to improve our status. It is because of them that we enjoy many (previously unavailable) opportunities, such as equal access to education, improved political agency, better access to leadership spaces, the ability to work outside the home, to own businesses, and so much more.
Yet we, women who are fortunate enough to enjoy these and many other opportunities, make a mockery of the sacrifices and efforts of our predecessors, by reducing women’s worth solely to their ability to “snag a man and have babies.”
So, this is my plea to all people out there raising daughters (and sons):
Teach your children that girls (and women) are worthy human beings in and of themselves; and whilst marriage and motherhood can be great things, it is ultimately a choice. Let them know that choosing a different path does not make them any less worthy nor does it invalidate their contribution to society. Teach them that (in addition to being mothers and wives should they so choose), they can be so much more. That they can go against the grain and be anything that they want to be in whichever field they choose.
But mostly, teach them to value themselves just as they are, so that they do not rely on external factors to define their self-worth.