A Letter to My Daughters, as the Patriarchy Tantrums Around Us
A sermon on safety and risk, delivered September 30, 2018 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Missouri.
My dearest daughters,
An old cliché says that the body is a temple. I’m not sure about this claim, because it’s so often linked with some expectation of purity and control, tools of the patriarchy.
But I do know that my body has been a sanctuary, because it has sheltered both of you, for forty weeks, at least, before you came into this world, and in fleeting moments of comfort since then. And I do know that your bodies are sacred, as every body is.
I never had much control over your safety… there’s so much that can go wrong in a pregnancy, in a life… but the moment you left the sanctuary of my body, any illusion of that control began to dissolve.
Nora, your toddler years have further disabused me of the notion that I have much control over your life. At two and a half, you are fierce and bright, full of sass and so totally free.
As the world forces me to reckon once more with the experience of life under patriarchy (we reckon with it all our lives, no wonder we are exhausted), I weep at the beauty of your whirling, wild freedom, because I worry intensely about my capacity to help you maintain it.
I worry about the way the world will mute your shine, and I worry even more about the lessons I will teach you to try and keep you safe, and the way those lessons will make you less free.
I worry about the mantle of fear that I am so tempted to lay across your shoulders for your own good.
Every mother of a daughter knows this deal with the devil. Black mothers and native mothers, migrant mothers and brown mothers know it even more deeply and systematically, even more terribly… The awful calculus of how much freedom, how much self-possession, how much personhood we fear must be traded in exchange for your safety.
I was not very old at all when I began to learn from cultural messaging all around me about dressing the right way to be safe, and walking the right way to be safe, and speaking the right way to be safe, and socializing the right way to be safe, and don’t move your body this way or that way, and be smaller and duller, so maybe you can be safe.
As every woman and every marginalized person does, I learned early, deeply, viscerally, each part of myself I had to suppress, in order to be safe. I learned the chains that I was to put on myself, in order to be safe.
AND I also learned, deeply, viscerally that I was never safe… so hold your keys in your hand like a claw, and ask the grocery bagger to walk you to the car when you are stalked through the store, and always check the back seat before you get in, and make eye contact and smile dammit, But make sure it’s not an invitation.
Margot, your smile at six months can light up the whole room, and you are so quick to smile. And I wonder, will you be safe, with that quick smile?
My body was a sanctuary for you, but you are in the world now and it was not made for you. I want to be your shelter, but I don’t think I’ll do you any favors to bring you up sheltered.
For you and even more so for your black, brown, native, migrant, queer peers of every gender… there are no promises of safe passage, only a list of qualities you’re not allowed to bring with you.
My daughters, I want you both to know this in your bones: You deserve to be safe and free. Both at once. You deserve to be safe and free. We all do.
And while I rage knowing that the patriarchy will make you both un-safe and un-free, I also bow down in worry knowing that if I am not careful, my fear for your safety will make you unfree too, reinforcing the patriarchal structures of fear and control in my grasping to protect.
A wise teacher, poet, activist, Audre Lorde, knew that the violence of patriarchy and white supremacy is not only wanton cruelty but is also (perhaps even more centrally) a precise tool of control. These systems do not blink at sacrificing our wellbeing or even our lives, but in the end they don’t want to hurt us so much as they want to control us. And the way they control us is by terrorizing, by making us rightfully afraid.
In a poem, she wrote that we: “[learn] to be afraid with our mother’s milk/for by this weapon/ this illusion of some safety to be found/ the heavy-footed hoped to silence us”
Fear can be a wise teacher, but it can also be a weapon of systems of domination, and the illusion of some safety to be found if only we will act right — that illusion is the tool that oppressive systems use to keep us in line.
My girls, today I’m just about through with staying in the lines. I am finished putting on my own chains. And I am sure as hell done smiling reflexively. If I’m scowling a bit this week you should know it is just my face re-arranging itself into some new assumptions.
And here’s the promise I want to make to you. I will work so, so hard to avoid sacrificing your freedom at the illusory altar of security.
I will grapple at the line between the wise fear that helps us be canny and wily to survive and the frantic fear that keeps us small and easy to manage, and I will help you grapple with it too.
I will try to remember, and to teach you, that we are all at risk the moment we leave the womb, and that our deepest task is to encounter that risk wisely, bravely, and with love.
I will cheer you on when you are fierce and when you are vulnerable, and I will try to be both of those things too, for my own sake as well as yours.
I will take up more space, and choose fierce love over being nice, in the hopes of creating a larger, wider path for your future.
Our home will be a sanctuary for you, not because we can promise security, but because together we will create a sacred space where you can try and fail and build up your courage, recognizing that we cannot be sanctuary for one another when fear and grasping are at the center of the act, but only when we can approach the role with the open hands of love and trust.
I will sink in to the experience of joy and delight in your personhood, and I will model doing this for everyone I love, because I know it will be our unbridled delight in each other and in this life that will cause the structures of patriarchy to crumble away.
Most of all, I will stay in this liberation struggle for you and for me and for all people, knowing that the only way I can ensure your safety is to ensure your freedom, and the only way I can ensure your freedom is to fight like hell for all of our freedom.
My girls, stay fierce and free, be unmanageable, even to me, and do it all in the service of love for yourself, your fellow human, and this wild world we all share.
With fierce faith,