What It's Like To Be Raised By a Feminist Mom

Editor’s note: Because one day just isn’t enough, Bustle will be posting essays every day this week about our mothers. Hey, it’s the least we can do. Happy Mother’s Week!


I am four years old, sitting underneath the kitchen counter. My mom is down on the floor with me. She asks me, curious, what I want to be when I grow up. I shrug, looking down at my crayons, say I don't know. She catches a crayon as it rolls away, and tells me, "That's okay. You can be whatever you want."


In kindergarten, my classroom holds a mock presidential election.

"Have there been any girl presidents?" I ask my mother that night. I'm pretty sure I know the answer.

"Not yet,"my mother says in a tone that reveals she resents being kept waiting.

In our kindergarten election, Bob Dole beats Bill Clinton, 18 votes to three. Mom laughs and tells me not to worry about it.


In first grade, the girl who sits behind me tells me I'm weird and calls my hair a mess. On the walk home, I cry to my mother. Although she's spent every morning begging me to please brush my hair, in that moment, she hugs me and tells me that I'm beautiful. No matter what my hair looks like.


During dinner one night when I'm about eight, I get up for a second helping of dessert. "Careful," my grandmother warns me. "You'll wind up putting fat on that little butt."

Before I can react, my mother says sharply, "Mom!"

I glance over just in time to see her; lips pursed, eyebrows displeased, shaking her head at her mother, my grandmother.

I am too young to know about the troubled relationship with food my grandmother has passed down to my mother, but I understand enough to know that my mom thinks it's fine if I have more dessert. So I do.


I am 11 the first time I remember hearing the word feminism from someone besides my mother. "Feminism?" someone else in the group of middle school girls asks. "What's that?"

I realize then that feminism is just one of those words I understand, even though I've never heard a definition. My mother has told me "Because we're feminists" enough times that I've sort of figured it out. It has something to do with not letting anyone treat you badly.

I can feel what it means, but I don't yet know how to explain it.


It's unclear when exactly my mother and I start taking walks together. But by middle school, they've become a lifeline. We go on walks, and I talk and talk and talk about my day, my friends, the books I read, the thoughts I have. My mother listens. Sometimes, she offers advice. But mostly, she just listens.


A few days after my mother's 41st birthday, we are driving home from the bookstore. My little sister and I are bickering in the back seat when she spots a tattoo parlor and puts her blinker on.

"What are you doing?" we want to know.

"I'm getting a tattoo," she says matter-of-factly.

"But you can't do that," we say. "Moms don't get tattoos. Does Dad know about this?"

"Why should he?" Mom replies. "I'll tell him later."


At 12, my mother takes me to visit her alma mater.

She tells me the story of the time she snuck into the movie theater through the steam tunnel that led into the men's restroom.

"There was a poster in there, too," she says. "It said 'Never trust anything that bleeds for five days and refuses to die.'" It takes me a minute to get it, and then I just laugh and laugh.

I'm not sure what I like best: the image of my mother popping out of some sort of hole in the ground into the men's restroom, or the thought of my mother — young and fearless — reading that poster and laughing too.


In high school, when I'm insecure, my mother tells me that everything will be fine. "You're so smart," she says, over and over. "And so creative and beautiful and amazing."

It is the fact that she never leads with "beautiful" that turns out to make all the difference.