Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Precipitous Girl

On Having a Daughter Who Is Not Like Me, or The Precipitous Girl

by Anne Panning

My daughter is high-waisted and low-voiced. Already when she bends down to pull on pajamas, I can see she will not have flared bat wing hips like mine but will stand solid and narrow like a Greek column, and as strong. She will be tall, trim, singularly herself. At six, she wears skinny jeans and tissue tees. She wears her soccer medal to school. For breakfast she likes Nutella on bread, untoasted, with orange juice, no pulp. I cut her bangs very short like my own until recently she told me she wanted to cut her bangs off, which I only realized later meant to grow them out. I will allow it, begrudgingly.

On the day of her birth, I ate an apple on the couch and my water broke. I could feel it ping inside me like a rubber band. It was 1:00 p.m. on a Friday in May. “But no one has a baby during banker’s hours!” I said to my husband, who was in the kitchen fixing a sandwich. But she came very quickly in what would later be called in my medical file, “a precipitous birth.” Mark drove wildly along the thin curved stretch of the Erie Canal; I couldn’t speak. I’d like to say I remember looking out at the water and seeing how sunshine sparkled upon it, but the fact was I had to squeeze my eyes shut against tears of pain.

At the hospital, I crawled out of the elevator on my hands and knees. Because of the unseasonably warm May we’d been having, I was wearing a red t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. In photos taken just minutes later, holding my daughter in my arms, I would still be wearing the red t-shirt, my hair and glasses not even mussed since the birth was so fast there was no time to get into the requisite hospital gown. Later, the red t-shirt would be passed down to other pregnant friends and deemed Lucky. When it came to tortuous pain, we all agreed, speed was the talisman.

My first child had been a boy, so when I was pregnant the second time, I was desperate for a girl and said so, publicly. This made people uncomfortable. “Listen,” I said, “there’s an important distinction here. I won’t be unhappy if I have another son. But I will be unhappy never to have had a daughter.” Still, people thought it inappropriate, including my own mother, who I think worried about how to handle my disappointment if I had another boy. “No, no!” I kept trying to explain. “I won’t mourn what I have. I’ll mourn what I don’t have.”

We chose not to know the gender of the baby beforehand, even though people—sometimes total strangers —would react with unveiled hostility to our decision to wait.

For months before I had my daughter, I knew I would name her Lucy. Like my son, she would have two middle names: one Hawaiian, and the other, my husband’s last name. She would be called Lucy Kahala Rice Panning. We thought it very elegant and lyrical. But when she emerged so frantically fast, our thoughts pinballed to indecision and chaos.

There was a dry erase board on the wall in my hospital room, and Mark wrote “Lucy” on it in his tiny scrawl. I have always been shamelessly proud of my handwriting, and wished very much I’d written the name on the board. It didn’t look right. Plus, this baby girl in my arms was already so intense, I could see, yet so delicate, too. She could not be named Lucy. My grandmother, a tall, willowy redhead who’d been a nurse in the 1940s, had been a Lucille. But not a Lucy. Lucy. Lucy was bawdy, crass, a little pushy maybe and—listen to the word—“loose-y”: loose.

“It isn’t right,” I said to Mark. “Write ‘Lily’ up there.”

He did. Lily Kahala Rice Panning. I’d always loved the Victorian era gem and flower names: Pearl, Rose, Ruby, Violet, Opal. But I also knew lilies to be hearty and resilient flowers, not prone to easy wilting or fragile stems. A lily was a perennial, would grow independently, wildly, regardless of conditions. A lily stood up tall, announced itself loudly like a trumpet. That was the kind of daughter I wanted.

* * * * *

When Lily was just two years old, she hid cans of 7-UP in her dresser drawers. At age two and a half, she potty-trained in Vietnam. Knowing we’d be living there for 6 months, we’d shipped cartons of diapers over beforehand, but they arrived too late. Lily learned to go over pits, holes and squat toilets. Later, we gave the diapers away to our Vietnamese neighbors, who used them for floor mopping.

Lily is now six and has an ipod, and on it there is Jonas Brothers, Katie Perry’s “California Girls,” Queen’s Greatest Hits, “Soul Sister,” and some Jason Mraz. She likes to pretend she’s a pop star and will sometimes break dance on her brother’s bedroom floor while he shines the Halloween strobe light on her. She is always the performer and he is her techie crew. Lately she has been writing her own song lyrics, and here are some I found the other day written in blue magic marker: I want to be a pop star! I want to be a rock star. Yeah. I have a microphone. And I can dance. Yeah. When you are a pop star.

At six, Lily possesses a feistiness I don’t know that I ever had or ever will. When I was a first-grader, I wore calico dresses and tights with tennis shoes and clung to my mother’s leg when we’d go out. I was shy, quiet, had a very difficult time raising my hand in class (something that followed me all the way through college). At a recent parent-teacher conference, the report said of Lily: reads above grade level - exceeds academic expectations - friendly – a bit too talkative at quiet work times – could work neater –- a pleasure to have in class. It was a good report, academically speaking, but as an educator myself, I knew her kind—the chatty pleasant student that you like having in class but who can’t seem to turn it off and sometimes bothers with her exuberance and eagerness to entertain others. She’d be the one I’d have to bust for texting in class.

Lily walks with confidence and conviction. In the mornings, we can always tell if it’s Lily coming downstairs or Hudson because she stomps loudly and announces herself from several rooms away before entering: “Everybody! I’m up!” She expects a lot out of the world, and assumes it will freely give her what she needs and wants. She can be bitchy and irate when her expectations aren’t met. “But why can’t Santa get me the Wonder Jet Flight Simulator from the catalogue?” When I tell her it’s $200 dollars, which is a lot, even for Santa, she resists. “But what about that he has elves who can make it, or who could just go shopping and buy it for him?”

Often, though, it’s an intangible desire, some sought after quality or trait that she dreams of inhabiting. We were watching football the other night when the Dallas Cowboys made an amazing 101-yard interception and touchdown. I never watch football, but found myself cheering aloud at such an amazing feat. “Do you think I could that?” Lily asked. I said, “Oh my god. Of course you could.” But she seemed worried. “But what if I couldn’t catch the ball?” she asked. “You would,” I said. “You’d practice a lot and learn, just like these guys.” She sat back and crossed her arms, confident that the deal was sealed: yes, she could absolutely be a millionaire NFL football player someday. If she so chose.

Her “go-getterness” is not always so heartwarming, though. She can be snarly and surly and borderline mean. I once overheard her berating her older brother for a very slight misdeed—something Nintendo-related involving a SpongeBob game—but the vitriolic tone of her voice made me stop what I was doing and put my hand to my mouth. It was pure venom. She can also be cocky and inflated in her assumptions about herself. Recently her brother had a friend over and they made an elaborate fort. Two nine year old boys, they didn’t want a little sister hanging around. But she wouldn’t relent.

Later we found a letter she’d written to them and shoved under their door.

It read:
I want to go in your room and go in your fort so one of you has to choose. I feel sad. So write to me that says what you want to do. Write it on the back.

When they wrote back and said she could come in the room but not in the fort, she was pissed. She wrote them again:
But I never get to go in the fort. P.S. I am mad at both of you.

Later, she spent hours with them in the fort.

Still, this is the complicated part: I celebrate all of these traits in Lily because she is a girl, just as I celebrate the way my son loves to cuddle in velvet and fleece blankets, or the way he notices a new pair of earrings I’m wearing, or the way he loves to browse through the dollar store with me, leisurely humming his pleasure and comfort beside me as we look. I want a strong girl and a sensitive boy, and realize that everything we do, everything we don’t do, whether consciously or subconsciously, feeds this. Soccer for Lily. Piano for her brother. No football paraphernalia clothing for her brother. No princess pink froo-froo for Lily. In fact, when Lily was enrolled, at age 4, in a local dance class and was required to clip and spray her bangs back for both uniformity’s sake and to emulate a true “ballerina,” we pulled her from the class and brought her to Garth Fagan where boys and girls both danced in a tough physical way without gender distinction.

My mother, were she alive, would roll her eyes at so many of our battles. “You two overanalyze everything!” she’d say. And it’s true. When we suspected Lily was lying one day about how many Pez candies she’d eaten, we sent her upstairs so we could rally about it and brainstorm a proper response. “It’s just PEZ, for god’s sake!” my mother would say. But it’s so much more than that, I’d argue.

My mother expected so little from the world, and got exactly that much. Instead of a decent kitchen or respect or a solid paycheck, she got a husband who played the lottery and hid scratch-offs in his underwear drawer. She got two sons who could wait for hours in sub-degree cold to kill a deer but not remember to call her on Mother’s Day. She got two daughters, one who would stay close to her and live nearby, and me, who would find ways to get what I wanted, but sometimes at great cost. My daughter must never know this, how hard it was, how hard it is, how much struggle is ahead of her.

But here’s another complicated part: I, female, love to shop. Mark, male, loves to watch football: Okay. But we both love to cook. Mark does all the laundry. I mow the lawn. Together we make all the big financial decisions. These are the good examples. Our children will also, however, experience us in all our contradictions and flaws and hypocrisies. We both probably drink too much wine in front of them, which I was reminded of the other day when Mark came home with a case of pinot noir and both kids argued over whose turn it was to fill the wine rack. One day Mark wants to throw them in the air and wrestle, and the next day he says, “Not now. I have to finish this chapter.” I will go on a spree of ice cream buying and let them have dessert every night until one day I find it too much and say, “No dessert! You don’t need to have dessert every night!” I’ll want to be alone and go hide in my study. Mark will disappear for 10-mile runs and come back only to check his email and ignore them. None of these behaviors are particularly gendered, or so we like to think.

But Lily, as my daughter, looks at me differently than my son. She is watching me closely with her dark brown eyes. She is waiting for a sign, a nod of permission to follow, an admonition to keep up with me, and then, pumping her arms—to race ahead of me with precipitous speed.


  1. Anne. I love this post so much. (Also, I really miss you.)

  2. Thank You! A mixed batch of outright guffaws and sweet tears as I read this . . .
    Viva Lily!

  3. i remember that red shirt. i wore it many times while pregnant with ethan hoping, praying for a quick labor.

    and this gender thing with the kids is so hard, huh? i feel like i think about it constantly, hoping the we are doing the right thing by them.

  4. A great tribute to a remarkable girl. Lily certainly will be able to do anything she wants in this life -- struggle or no struggle. Wish we had plans to see you soon.

  5. This was such a needed antidote for my current feelings of who are these short, costly, desperately needy people who have made my house even messier?

    Miss you and wish our kids could play together!

    xo June

  6. Wonderful! Lucky girl to have you as a mom.