My ex-husband called our daughter a bitch. My suspicions that he harbored misogynistic tendencies were confirmed. Confirmed because calling one’s ex a bitch, while unnecessary and immature, does not a full-on jerk make. Calling a 14-year-old girl a bitch? That, a jerk makes.
Name calling is a parenting no-no.I am sure that before our daughter turned the corner from little girl to young woman, he never would have called her a bitch. So, the disdain for his use of bitch comes from the same place our slut conversation comes from: There are so many words designed to quiet girls and women, either literally or figuratively.
Both men and women in our culture participate in putting girls and women in their place with these words. Because of years spent being a therapist and thinking about language in relationships, I’m a touch hyper-sensitive about word choices.
As parents we make choices about how far we allow our children to push us (and children require something to push against to grow). The parenting job description is something about letting kids push and grow without reacting poorly or unjustly or reprehensibly… parents make choices about how they will respond. Right, right, right. We can all agree intellectually.
Except parenting has moments that are not intellectual. Parenting is filled with reflex moments. Like having your knee hit with a rubber hammer? Before you know what’s happened, you’ve kicked. Just like that.
My ex-husband loves our children. He loves them with every cell in his body. Am I trying to excuse his enormous mis-step? No. I ‘m trying to understand it. A few years ago I called my ex husband to confess that I had shouted at our daughter to please shut-up. She had been appropriately shocked and indignant and fittingly dejected. I was sure I’d scarred her for life. Had I? I don’t know. I hope not.
I hope my apologies and underscoring of how unacceptable it was for me to speak to her like that, I hope that kept her from scarring. I have not told her again to shut up — but I have been frustrated enough to eat my own fist. And while I’ve gnawed my knuckles, I’ve known for sure that telling my daughter to please shut up felt worse than any amount of frustration.
So, I called to ask my ex-husband if he had indeed called our daughter a bitch. He said he had. But he had been kidding…his voice trailed off. But there was a question like it had occurred to him for the first time that she hadn’t known? Or was it that his default postition of just-kidding, wasn’t going to work? Either way, he knew he’d made a huge mistake. He knew it, I knew it. I handed the phone to our daughter. They spoke. She told him he hadn’t sounded like he was kidding. She told it wasn’t okay to call her a bitch. She cried. I cried. Cut to messy crying on phone in car scene.
A few weeks have passed. The first version of this post was reactive and angry. That approach was easier. Now I’ve stepped back and admitted that we will continue to parent together so I best figure out how to put the bitch comment down.
I know that my ex would guffaw at my hypothesis that calling a young woman a bitch is patriarchal trickle down; a leak that pervades every corner of our culture including relationships between fathers and daughters. In a broader cultural conversation we’d never agree about the gender specifics of the word choice.
He would shake his head at the idea that he has no such put-you-in-your-place word for our son. He’d never acknowledge that he wouldn’t have used the word bitch when our daughter was eight. He would say I was overreacting and over analysing.
But in a conversation about our children and whether or not they should be called names? We’d agree that they should not be called names. That’s all we have to agree on.
Parenting requires that we love carefully and with respect. For twenty-four hours a day until we die. So, we have meltdowns. We fuck-up and we regret. We see our least desirable selves when we parent. The mirror to our faces and the mic to our mouths–sometimes it ‘ain’t pretty. As parents we have the opportunity to self-correct. I’d aruge, the obligation to self-correct. The first part of self-correction begins with a good old fashioned apology. A gracious, heart-felt I’m sorry. My mother always said sorry doesn’t make it okay. She’s right. But sometimes it’s the best we’ve got.
We have a daughter who can cry and rant and campaign for what she believes is just. She was able to tell her father that under no circumstance was it okay to call her a bitch. I heard her. She told me, a few years ago, not to ever, ever tell her to shut up, even if I did use please, again.
I don’t know how my ex missed the no name calling rule. He doesn’t know how I missed the importance of adherence to consequences. We both suck in our own special ways. As parents we are colossally disappointing to our children just because. That’s before our glaring deficits are factored in. In order to have children who know how to love and be loved, parents must admit when there is mud on their face or garbage spilling out of their mouth. It’s hard for my ex to admit he’s wrong. It’s hard for me to recall the rule I inacted an hour earlier. But for our kids, we do our best. Our flawed and ugly best.