What I learned from having daughters

During my first pregnancy I just knew I was having a boy. I referred to my baby as "he", and I had already settled on a name. But the night before my 20-week ultrasound I had a dream that I was carrying a girl. In my dream I was elated and so excited to have a daughter. I felt so happy in fact that when I woke up I cried because I felt guilty for not loving my son as much.

But the real ultrasound results that day confirmed my dream, and I found out that my guilt for my son was unnecessary — I was going to have a daughter. I felt confident about parenting a little girl. I am a girl, for crying out loud, so of course I'd know best how to raise one. But as it turns out, being a girl and raising a girl are two wildly different things. Here are the top things I've learned from having daughters.

Colors don't have genders

I didn't have a gender reveal party, but I was excited to find out if it was a plain or peanut M&M I was hosting in my belly. Looking back I'm not even sure why it mattered. Even once I knew it was a girl, I bought "gender-neutral" baby gear in case my second child was a boy. I have seen some baby brothers rock some amazing pink cloth diaper hand-me-downs, so I'm not even sure what gender-specific baby gear would be. Other than maybe a Pee Pee Teepee.

My daughters have two very frilly grandmothers, so there was never a shortage of fancy dresses and lace. But I didn't want my girls to feel like they had to like pink in order to fit the mold of society. I was almost obsessed with keeping their color options open until I realized I was overcompensating by keeping all things pink out of the house. I was so worried my girls would feel like they had to like pink that I wasn't even really giving them a choice anymore. That's the opposite of feminism.

For Father's Day, my oldest asked to pick out a nice dress shirt for my husband. We perused the store shelves, and when she came around the corner holding the shirt she described as "the one" I just smiled. She picked a soft baby pink button-down shirt for her daddy, and she just knew he'd love it. My girls don't like pink because it's for girls. They like pink because it's a beautiful color. They also love brown mud, blue berries, purple flowers, yellow paint, green lizards and red lipstick. My husband wears the pink shirt every week. He's also added some pastel blue, purple and turquoise shirts to his wardrobe. My girls know for sure that colors didn't have genders. All this time, I think I've been trying to convince myself.

Glitter is everything

We not only made peace with the color pink, but we are now welcoming all things that sparkle and shine. I've noticed that when little toddler boys come to our house, they are absolutely drawn to all the shiny crowns and sparkling wands we have in the toy room. It's only as they get older that they seem to shy away from glitter. And after talking to a mother of a boy, I realized how lucky girls are that glitter is socially acceptable for them.

My mom friends with boys constantly tell me that they have a really hard time finding fun, colorful clothes for their sons. The "girls" section is a rainbow of bright colors and sparkles, but the boys' section is often a sea of brown, navy and grey. I have a lot of black in my wardrobe, so there's nothing saying that brown, grey and navy don't have a place. But what I hear from the boy moms is that as sad as it is that girls are expected to like glitter, it's also sad that boys are expected not to.

It might be the herpes of craft supplies, but glitter is fun. It's sparkly, and fancy, and visually stimulating. I don't know why it's reserved for people with little tiny uteruses. Glitter should be for anyone who likes a little pizzazz in their life! So I'm glad to see that my daughter's new favorite movie character is Guy Diamond, a boy troll who is completely covered in sparkles head to toe, and who blows glitter out of his naked behind. Glitter fart jokes are a manly segue for the gentleman who wants to get in on the glitz game. And it's high time that boys got to enjoy some bedazzles too.

I am stronger than I thought

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that before my girls were born, I thought that girls were physically inferior to boys. It wasn't a dig at female athletes or anything like that, but I rationalized that biologically it was necessary for men to be able to haul giant boulders in front of the cave to protect us from tigers.

Then I gave birth to my second daughter. I expelled a human being from my body without so much as a Tylenol. The sheer physics of what happens when a baby leaves a woman's body does not add up, which is why I asked for the epidural with my first birth in my second trimester. But there was no time for drugs with my second child, so it was au naturel baby. I've seen the video footage, and there's no way I should have survived that. But I not only survived, I felt empowered. My husband was weak in the knees just watching the whole thing go down. And I was ready to do it again just 15 minutes after she was born. After her birth I realized my own strength. I might not be able to move a boulder, but neither can my husband. And I am the only one in the house who can open the pickle jars.

Girls can be Batman

When my oldest daughter was 3 years old we were at a playground, and I walked around the corner to find her standing next to a 6-year-old little boy who was crying so hard he couldn't breathe. The little boy screeched that my daughter had pulled his pants down. Her little toddler friend Gracie confirmed that yes, my daughter had pulled down this boy's pants.

Mortified, I apologized to the boy's mother, and I scolded my daughter as we walked away. I asked her why on earth she would pull down a boy's pants. With her little arms folded she stopped dead in her tracks, looked me square in the eye and told me that the little boy had Gracie pinned in a corner and was kicking her. She screamed for him to stop, but when he didn't, my vigilante daughter took the law into her own hands and pantsed the boy into submission. She's basically Batman.

The world won't always see their value

We were walking through a Lego store once when my daughter stopped to admire a Star Wars set. I've done my best to teach her the ways of The Force, but one little boy almost tripped me right over to the Dark Side. A boy no older than 5 was shopping in the same aisle, and when he saw my girl looking at the Star Wars set he loudly told her that her Lego section was two aisle over.

She looked at him confused and went on examining the TIE fighter, but again the "helpful" little boy piped up and said, "These are boy Legos. You can't play with these. Your Legos are pink." She looked at me a little embarrassed and started to head out of the Star Wars section. His father must have seen the look on my face because he quickly tried to usher the boy to safety. I knelt down laughing, and I asked the little boy how he knew they were boy Legos. He said because Star Wars is for boys. I asked if he wanted to call and tell General Leia that Star Wars is for boys. He did not.

The mama bear in me wanted to wash those words right out of that little boy's mouth. But I realized that I'm not going to turn anyone's heart with brute force. All I can do is show my girls the strong women in the world, highlight the value they bring, and hope that they'll drop some knowledge the next time someone tries to "help" them back into their place.

All moms are working moms

When my oldest was born, I made the decision to quit my job. I was lucky that it was a choice, since some moms are forced to quit because childcare is too expensive. And some women are forced to work just to make ends meet. But mine was a choice, and as my pregnancy came to an end I was counting down the days until I could sleep in, and go to Target in the middle of the day. I love wearing pajama pants until noon, but one of the real reasons I chose to stay home is actually because I love working. I love it so much that I've been known to throw myself completely into my job to the point that my work-life balance is completely jacked.

I've had a job since I was 15 years old, but I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn't be able to effectively balance caring for my child with caring for my job. So I took some time off to focus on the one that needed me most. My baby never slept, and I was a walking zombie even without punching a clock in the morning. But there are women who get up and save lives in the emergency room after nursing their baby at 3 a.m. I tip my hat to them, and I'm especially grateful for what they do. They are out there showing my girls that they can be engineers, and doctors, and teachers, and CEOs. And I was home, available to plan our Girl Scout meetings or pick up their kid from school, if their mother were stuck at the office. It takes a village, and we are all working in it together.

The work-life struggle is real

The plan for our family was always for me to go back to work when my youngest was in school. That looked to be about seven years, but I couldn't stay away from work that long. I started freelancing when my oldest was about 6 months old, and just before my youngest turned 5 I got the chance to go back part-time. Again, I lucked out because the boss was a single mom who was totally fine with me working whatever schedule worked for my family. I can work remotely and come into the office just a few days a week. I say I "lucked out," because my boss's views on balancing family and work are far from what is currently, a disheartening norm.

I love my job so much, and it gives me a renewed sense of purpose in the world. But even now I find it hard to balance my career with my kids. The world is fine with my husband going into work in the morning and coming home in the evening. It's actually expected of him. If he travels for weeks on business, he's hailed as a hero for providing for his family. But when I went back to work, I got a different response.

One mom asked with pity if my children were doing okay since I'd made the choice to leave them. I hustle to find childcare for them if I need to work outside of their school hours, and when the school nurse calls, she calls me first. It's not that my husband refuses to help. He's picked up the slack at home since I went back without so much as a conversation about it. He's actually the one who cooks dinner most nights, and always sweeps the floor without a parade in his honor. But our culture is still designed for women to be the primary caregivers. Both of our phone numbers are on my daughter's emergency contact card at school, but the nurse always calls mom first. I realized that it's even more important for me to show my girls that a working woman doesn't need to apologize for her career. I'm sure my brilliant little girls will make a difference in the world and have amazingly successful careers. Being their mother gave me the strength not to apologize for mine.

I began to love my own body

I remember one of the reasons I felt ready to have a baby was that I was tired of trying to be skinny. Yes that's an insane reason to bring a child into the world, and I did have a whole list of other valid reasons. But it was liberating to finally stop holding my stomach in all the time. It was ok to have a round belly as long as I was growing a person. However, all those fantasies of cupcakes and pizza were soon stamped out when people constantly told me how huge I was. "Are you sure there aren't twins in there?" "Whoa you've got to be ready to pop any day right?" Comments like that when I was still two months from delivering didn't do much for my self esteem. But my mom had always told me how beautiful she felt during pregnancy, and it stuck. I felt like a glowing earth goddess, even if I looked like more of a greased pig.

But after delivery, it was even harder to love my body. The first time I looked in the mirror, I cried. My mother-in-law told me she wore her pre-baby jeans home from the hospital. I was a busted can of biscuits with deep purple scars staring at me in my fat swollen face. My husband tried to reassure me that I was even more beautiful because my body had done something so amazing. But I didn't see it that way at all. All I saw were stretch marks, flabby skin, and fat chunks where there used to be none. I never realized how much value I put in my outer appearance until my body was mangled by motherhood.

But having a newborn didn't leave much time for wallowing. My body needed extra calories to produce a substance that was single-handedly sustaining human life. My fat thighs paced the floor to soothe a crying baby. My tired arms held the power to comfort another human being — and were sometimes the only thing that could switch her from being scared and sad, to safe and secure. I still don't like the way my body looks, but my daughters taught me to love what my body can do.

Periods aren't taboo

Speaking of bodies, I've learned to be honest about mine, and about theirs. One night we took the girls to dinner at our favorite burger joint. We decided to try the bathroom trick while waiting for our food, so I hauled my girls with me into the single stall bathroom to kill some time before the fresh cut fries were delivered. While the youngest was going potty, my oldest noticed a basket over the toilet with some feminine products on display. When she asked what they were my initial response was to avoid the question. But I paused and thought about why I was so embarrassed to tell her. I looked in the basket and casually said, "Oh those are pads and tampons." Her obvious follow-up question? "What are they for?"

I'd been breastfeeding or pregnant for close to 5 years, so I'd only recently gotten my period back. I explained that they were products that women used when they were on their period. And in the time it took for my youngest to pull up her pants, flush and wash her hands, I'd explained the female menstrual cycle to my 4 and 6-year-old girls. They knew there was blood involved. They knew the blood didn't hurt, but sometimes the cramps did. And they knew that it was just a way to flush out an egg that they weren't using to make a baby. Luckily no one asked what happens if you want to use the egg to make a baby. I'm not sure the kindergartener was ready for that story. But when she is, I'll answer her with age-appropriate honesty. There's nothing dirty or wrong with having your period. In fact, it's a super great sign that your body is functioning exactly as it should. And if they become the kids who help accurately explain the female menstrual cycle to the other students in their classes, then I just hope those moms will be glad their kids are bringing them chocolate once a month.

The value of confidence

One day my kindergartener asked me if she was fat. I was shocked not only because she was a little on the skinny side, but also because a 5-year-old has no business worrying about being "too fat." I asked her what it meant to be fat and she said a friend told her that her mom hated her fat butt. I realized then that I had to be vigilant about keeping the negative self talk to a minimum. Most people probably have some feature they wish they could change, but I think my girls are beautiful and perfect. And if I want them to see what I see, I have to teach them to love themselves.

I've always had a hard time accepting compliments, and self-deprecating humor is my go-to defense mechanism. But I've made it a point to learn. When my husband tells me I look beautiful, I smile and proudly say, "Thank you." I own my beauty, not because I want to raise little narcissists, but I want my girls to know it's good to have confidence. I don't ever want my child to worry about having a fat butt, or a chubby gut. Marie Curie didn't pioneer her way to a Nobel Prize by worrying about a thigh gap.

Girls are just people

I have two daughters. They both have the same biological parents. They're being raised in the same house with the same set of rules, and yet their similarities end there. They might come from the exact same gene pool, but the genetics that came together to form those little embryos might as well be from different planets.

Having two children of the same gender who are so different, made me realize how true it is that girls are individuals. Being a female is no more a personality trait than having brown hair or blue eyes. The idea that there's a universal recipe for a girl involving sugar and spice, simply can't be true — I followed the same mixing instructions, and ended up with one cupcake, and one loaf of whole wheat bread.

If there was a set recipe then I wouldn't have a 5-year-old who won't leave the house without a matching outfit and her curls bouncing just so, and a 7-year-old who wears the same pair of stained, ripped leggings to school everyday, with a rocket T-shirt that says "Give Me Space." And it wouldn't explain why the 5-year-old princess absolutely loves scaly reptiles, and the 7-year-old begs to wear bright red lipstick to school. They are definitely their own people, and it has nothing to do with being a girl or a boy. They are just little human beings, and they've already taught me more than they realize.