On a sunny day on South Congress in Austin, Texas, my 21-month-old daughter fell in love. He was the same age as her, the same size, and with the same shaggy mop of dark brown hair. They stood around checking each other out when my daughter reached out for his hand. She was rewarded with a hug. It was love at first sight, but don't twist it: it was pure, innocent, platonic, unadulterated, mutual toddler admiration. Call me a feminist (no, really), but I have my reasons why I won't let my daughter have a "boyfriend."
Chimamanda Adichie is a personal hero of mine, so when I saw she'd written a letter to her friend about raising a feminist daughter, I lost my damn mind. Feminist manifesto for moms? Count me in. Among her 15 suggestions are to teach your daughter that gender roles are nonsense, to reject likability, and to question language. This last one really got me thinking.
As a toddler mom, I'm puzzled when grown-ass women refer to their baby's "future wife" or "future husband," or when a relative asks how many boyfriends my infant has. Why, in American culture, is it acceptable to apply adult romantic labels to babies? The answer is, of course: it's not. It is inappropriate to impose adult social behaviors and motivations on children, but let's at least explore why.
Who says my daughter is going to be romantically attracted to men? Maybe she'll have a girlfriend. Maybe she'll be asexual or polyamorous.
When we assume the heterosexuality of our children, we send them a message about what kinds of relationships we value. It sets up straight as "normal." No wonder it's so difficult for LGBTQ folks to come out to their families. I want my child to know through my words and actions that whoever she is and whomever she loves, I will love her unconditionally.
She's 2 Years Old
Methinks the lady is a little young for romantic entanglements. Besides, she's busy plotting world domination. And coloring.
Women Shouldn't Be Defined By Their Relationships
Characterizing women based on their relationship status is rampant. Adichie notes that the first descriptor on Hillary Clinton's Twitter account is "Wife." During the Rio Olympics, the Chicago Tribune tweeted, "Wife of Bears lineman wins a bronze medal." For all her accomplishments, Amal Clooney is still best known for her marriage to a movie star.
It always infuriated me as a young woman that, while I was busy kicking academic ass and taking extracurricular names, all my uncle could think to ask me was, "You got a boyfriend, yet?" Like that's the most important thing to which I could aspire. Well, I have a daughter now, and I'm not having that crap. Not for her.
It Sexualizes Her
I take issue with the sexual overtones of boyfriend/girlfriend talk for little ones. Think about it: that kind of language implies that she's a sexual being. She'll have plenty of time for that later, but right now, she's a baby. When my daughter gives her friends kisses she's expressing affection, not trying to attract a mate.
It Sets Up Marital Expectations
Adichie urges her friend to never speak of marriage as an achievement. Referring to a female child's "future husband" or "first boyfriend" is part of the conditioning that leads an obsession with marriage. I don't want my daughter to think she cannot live a fulfilling life without walking down the aisle, nor do I want her to compromise what she really wants from a partner in order "settle down."
She's Already Growing Up Too Quickly
Seriously, slow down baby girl. The other day, she was in the bathtub and she started counting in Spanish as she put her toys away. This is the kid who can't feed herself rice without plastering a curry-soaked grain to the bridge of her nose. She has the rest of her life for affairs of the heart, but she'll never get to be a kid again.
Sorry, but the idea of my toddler having a boyfriend is icky. I don't think it's cute. I never understood why those black and white posters of little children as couples (you know, the ones where just the flowers are colored) were so popular in the '90s. I think it's all a little creepy, and frankly, no me gusta.
My child is capable and valuable on her own merits. She is more than the sum of her parts, and she is certainly more than just somebody's girlfriend. She's more than, to quote Adichie, "an object to be liked or disliked." She matters all by herself. "Boyfriend" be damned.