Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 1

[The following is a transcription of a lay sermon delivered at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, SC on February 22, 1976. This was during the height of state efforts to ratify the ERA, and I was actively in support of it.

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At the time, I was an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and very pregnant with my third child. This is another meditation requiring more than one blog post. Let me know if you think things have changed. For the better? For the worse?]


I have a confession to make. It’s really something I’m ashamed to admit and something I cannot undo. But I can confess and “sin no more.” When I was pregnant with my first child, and again with the second, I wanted them to be boys. Why did I want boys? For a lot of reasons, most of them senseless.

With the first child, the underlying reasons were probably something like these:

  1. A boy can grow up and be somebody, can do something with his life. (I would be proud of a son who accomplished something.)
  2. My husband probably wanted a boy, and it would have been an act of submission to have had a boy (That was at a time when I was still submitting.)
  3. It somehow seemed more feminine to be the mother of a boy than of a girl. (Don’t ask me where I got that notion.)

With the second child, my reasoning probably went something like this:

  1. I’ve already had a girl, so now I should have a boy, just to make things even. (Why things should be even, I didn’t even consider.)
  2. The whole family has its heart set on having a boy. My husband would like a boy because all men think they want a son, and my daughter, perhaps, thinks a brother would be less competition for her. (And I should somehow comply with their wishes to make the family happy.)

In fact, I wished so hard for boys that I could hardly believe that the babies were girls when they came out. If I hadn’t actually been awake and watched them being born, I might have suspected that somebody had switched babies when they handed me a girl. (This was back before routine ultrasound.)

Does all this seem exaggerated to you? Grotesque, even? Ladies, look into yourselves. Mothers, does your own self-hatred or self-contempt reflect itself in an unwitting rejection of your daughters?

Much has been made by psychologists and psychiatrists of the effects of a mother’s behavior and attitudes toward her son. Does she reject him? Does she keep him dependent? Tied to her apron strings? Does she love him enough? Too much? Does she foist her unfulfilled dreams of success and romance upon her son? What does all this do to his manhood?

The effects of a mother’s attitudes and behavior upon her daughters have infrequently been examined in any depth until very recently. It is understood that one’s relationship with the parent of the opposite sex may condition other relationships with members of the opposite sex. It’s also important to realize that one’s relationship with the parent of the same sex conditions one’s relationship with oneself. This is the parent from whom one learns personhood or selfhood. Who am I? What is expected? What is desirable? What is necessary? What is possible?


See next installment here/.

About joannevalentinesimson

Scientist, traveler, woman, writer, spiritual explorer, mother, grandmother, fascinated with the world, appalled by deliberate human ignorance. Blogs include:
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9 Responses to Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 1

  1. Joanne, thank you for posting such an honest and open meditation. Strangely, I have always struggled with exactly the opposite problem: wanting only daughters!

    • Thanks, Meghan. Have you asked yourself why you only wanted daughters? I eventually had three, and was very grateful, in retrospect. Somehow, they were easier and more obedient than the boys of some of my friends.

  2. I LOVE this post. Can’t wait to read the next two! I have always considered myself to be a feminist: social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. No brainer. Imagine my disbelief years later when my college age daughter and her cousin said they were not feminists, that feminists were somehow “too extreme” and that women already had equal rights and therefore we didn’t need feminists. Ouch! I suggested some readings to at least give her background knowledge on the long, continuing battle for equal rights, and she had the opportunity to personally meet Gloria Steinem at a university luncheon. These past few years have seen shocking step backs in many areas of women’s rights, especially in other countries. The fight continues!

    • Thanks! We still are on the journey to social and economic equality for women. We have come some way but certainly aren’t there yet! And it’s appalling what’s happening to women in other cultures! Somehow, the social value of nurturing needs to be increased and the value given to force diminished. How could/can we make this value shift?

  3. Thank you for your honest thoughts!

    I didn’t think I cared whether I had a boy or a girl, but when I learned I was carrying a girl, I was so happy that I thought, “Maybe I did care after all.”

    I know I would have adored a son or transgender child just as much, and that there is no reason to feel sorry for women who have two or more boys, no daughters, and a husband, but–I have never admitted this publicly–sometimes I do anyway. They look so outnumbered.😉 I know my dad, married to a woman and with two daughters, no sons, felt that way sometimes when the three of us started talking about girl stuff.

    The idea that “all men want a son” would not be so appalling if we heard its counterpart as well, “All women want a daughter.” There is definitely a current in our culture that still assumes a man wants a son and his female partner should want to give him one. Also, I haven’t seen recent studies, but 20 years ago it was clearly the case that more American families thought of a son as indispensable (methodology: compare how many couples stop having children after their first boy, and how many stop after their first girl. If there’s no preference, it should be 50/50, but it turned out the former was more common). And sexism is self-sustaining: ask people why they want boys, and one of the things you hear is “I just want someone to carry on my name.” Um, your daughter could do that, you know! (Gotta hand it to my dad: he was a little disappointed when I changed my name upon marriage. My sister didn’t change hers, but her kids have her husband’s last name, so neither of us passed along the family name.)

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. And I apologize for not finishing this thread sooner! I was on a wilderness vacation for two months and had almost no internet connection, so the blogging was put on hold. I’m back home now and will post again soon!

  4. Pingback: Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 2 | joannevalentinesimson

  5. Pingback: Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 3 | joannevalentinesimson

  6. Pingback: Mother to Daughter: A Questional Legacy – Part 4 | joannevalentinesimson

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