A full year before your first Communion, you started shopping for your dress. Inspired by the girls' attire at your brother's first Eucharist, you begged me to Google "first Communion dress" and oohed and ahhed at the selection. The more lace, doodads and bling, the better.
"I like this," you said, pointing to one that was almost as pouffy wide as you are tall. "I could be a princess."
Ouch. I was horrified at the anti-feminist message of a veil and white clothing that emphasized your purity (while not requiring the same of boys, as in baptism) — not to mention the price tags.
As the months went on and you began to prepare for your First Communion, we talked about how this would bring you closer to God. But it was mostly about the dress. And the veil. And the possibility of your first pair of dangly earrings.
I plead guilty to contributing to the cultural expectation that girls' looks are important. I color my hair, accessorize with jewelry and have a rather extensive shoe collection. "Mama, why do you wear makeup?" you ask me as I apply blush in the bathroom, and I struggle to try to explain that somehow I "need" it, while Daddy doesn't.
Still, your father and I have always treated you the same as your brother, telling you "girls can do anything" and remembering to call you "smart," not just "pretty." If your brother was into Nerf guns, then you wanted and got one, too. And you have a dad who is more involved in parenting — and cooking and cleaning — than most. Studies show this bodes well for girl children.
The serious gender stereotyping didn't really kick in until you went off to school — and started watching TV. Then came Shopkins (God, help me!) and fairy books. Still, it wasn't until you turned 8 this past year, that you casually asked me one day: "What's an American Girl doll?" I thought we had dodged that bullet.
I yearn for you to grow up without the gender baggage that I had. Mine wasn't the pre-1960s message that I could only be a mother or a secretary. Instead, I was told I could "bring home the bacon" and "fry it up in a pan." Be strong. Be smart. Be pretty. Get into a good school. Get a good husband. It was a lot of pressure.
And it came from the church, too. "Be perfect, like Mary, but stop complaining about not being able to become a priest. Above all, avoid anything that has to do with sexual sin."
I'm afraid society — and the Catholic Church — still send these messages to girls and women. And I worry that I'm not doing enough to counteract them. We occasionally attend the neighborhood Protestant church, in part so you can see a woman on the altar. For now, you actually think women are better than men, since they can have babies and boys cannot.
That you are somewhat shy may have more to do with your personality (or your biological parents' genes) than your gender, but I was still proud that you were chosen to be a reader at the first Communion Mass. "She really wanted to do it," your teacher said, though I had a hard time believing it. You bravely went first in a line of petition readers and remembered to say, "We pray to the Lord."
You are not the skeptic that your brother is; it never seemed to dawn on you to question whether God exists. I wish you had more questions, quite honestly. Instead, you accept at face value what you learn at religious ed and sing the Vacation Bible School praise music at the top of your lungs in the car — while I sing along and change the God pronouns to the feminine.
But you are generous and thoughtful, and especially concerned about the poor. For your sixth birthday, you requested donations to a charity that helps kids in China in lieu of presents. And you keep your hard-saved money (and some granola bars) in the pocket of the car door by your seat and hand them out to people begging between cars at stop lights. "Why don't we invite them home for dinner?" you ask, nudging me out of my charity comfort zone.
Perhaps social justice will be more important to you than spirituality or theology — as is the case with so many in the generation just before you. Every night you pray for "the poor people who are hungry" — but your kicker is always: "And I pray that someday I get to go to the American Girl doll store."
At one point, I mentioned to you that a girl who was also adopted from China at Grandma's church had worn a white Chinese dress for her first Communion. Like that, it was decided. You wanted to honor your birth culture by wearing a Chinese dress — even if it had little bling or pouf.
In the pew during Mass, you practiced your one-hand-on-top-of-the-other, while still debating whether to actually take a sip of the wine, or just pretend to. "How many more songs till I get the bread?" you asked, wiggling with excitement. In the end, it wasn't all about the dress, after all.
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University and is the author of Elizabeth Johnson: Questing for God.]
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