How I Almost Perpetuated a Cycle by Trying to Break It

I was a tomboy—the only daughter of a very feminine woman who prayed for a little girl she could play dress-up with. I couldn’t have been farther from what she was hoping for.

We still had a lovely relationship. Her desire to have a “girly girl” had nothing to do with her ability to love me, and she loved me fiercely for exactly who I was. But like us all, she was human. Prone to projecting her interests and desires onto me. And from time to time, she did manage to pressure me about my clothing, and I would feel bad for not wanting to be dressed in the ruffles and frills she so adored. It took us well into my teenage years to establish a truce—an understanding that I was never going to be her pink princess daughter.

When I had my own daughter, I vowed I wouldn’t try to force her to be a girly girl. I was going to “break that cycle.” I use that term loosely, and in quotes, because the concept of breaking cycles tends to apply to cycles of trauma, neglect, or abuse. I want to be as clear as I can that I did not, and do not, see my misalignment of fashion sense with my mom as a trauma. Not even in the way it sometimes manifested into arguments. All I mean by “breaking the cycle” in this context is that I wanted to not let my own desires for my daughter interfere with my ability to let her be her authentic self.

So, I made a point of dressing my daughter exactly the way I would have wanted to be dressed as a little girl. I put her in overalls and t-shirts, cotton pants and sneakers. I pulled her hair into a messy bun every day so that it was never in her face or getting in her way. I wanted her to be ready at a moment’s notice to climb a tree, jump in a puddle, or go on an adventure.

When she turned four years old, she started asking if I could buy her some dresses. “Oh honey, no!” I’d tell her. ”You don’t want dresses. They are so uncomfortable and impractical. You’ll be much happier in a nice pair of shorts.”

When she turned five, she asked if I would start curling her hair. ”Sweetie, having your hair down will just make you all sweaty when you play outside. Better to put it in a ponytail.”

As I looked into her sparkling little eyes, filled with a hundred disappointments I’d doled out over the years, an intense shame washed over me.

In my effort to not force my daughter to be a girly-girl, I had failed to notice that she just … was one.

My intent was right, but my application was wrong. The answer to breaking the cycle wasn’t to not make her be a girly-girl. The answer was to not project my ideas of comfort, style, or presentation onto my daughter. I assumed she was just like me—that she would want to dress like a tomboy, and that I was doing her a favor by letting her dress exactly that way. What I didn’t realize was that my daughter was like my mom, and that I was doing to her what my mom did to me. I was doing something for my own inner child, while neglecting hers.

From that day forward, I invested in letting my daughter be precisely who she wanted to be. I bought her dresses, and fancy slippers, and tons of bows, jewelry, and costume makeup. I started styling her hair in elegant curls, just as she’d always asked. I began taking her with me to pick out her clothing instead of leaving her at home (something I’d always done because I assumed she, like me, would hate being dragged along on a chore as boring as clothing shopping). I also got my mom involved, enlisting her help to bring all my daughter’s princess fantasies to life.

And since then, my daughter and my mom have never been happier.

Sometimes, we do the wrong thing for the right reasons. In thinking I was going to break a cycle for my daughter, I ended up leaning into the very cycle I sought to break. I was turning my daughter into myself, rather than letting her shine in all the special, brilliant, and radiant ways that make her unique.

It is hard when we realize we’ve made these mistakes. We can choose to either entrench ourselves further into bad patterns to avoid facing the shame of getting it wrong, or we can choose to acknowledge where we messed up and start over.

For the sake of my daughter, I’m so glad I chose the latter, and while my daughter was still young enough to possibly not remember me trying to mold her into something she’s not. I want her to always remember me as a mom who nudged her ever toward the most authentic version of herself, even when it was at odds with my own feelings or beliefs.

Breaking cycles can be tricky business, but I am so proud of all of us (especially the Millennials) who are doing it anyway. As they say, when you know better, you do better. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch us heal something from our own childhoods by giving our children the things we felt we lacked.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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