Dear Imaginary Daughter...

by Lindsay Merbaum

Dear Imaginary Daughter: You don't exist, but sometimes I like to pretend you do. In my mind, you're smart and precocious, a sly troublemaker with verve. You have a thirst for knowledge and crazy curly hair. You love books, exotic animals, and adventures involving forts and elaborate dances. In short, you're a combination of the girl I actually was growing up and the one I wish I could’ve been.

The exercise of conjuring you, my make-believe daughter, is a revisionist one. Thinking of you while imagining all the advice and education I would bestow upon my offspring is a means of rewriting my own experience growing up. I came of age in a community where the word “feminist” was rarely uttered, where sex was shrouded in secrecy and taboo, where I was taught that my body was an obstacle course. It took me years to find out where unfertilized eggs go; that you actually don't have to shave your legs; that someone will fall in love with you even if you aren't thin and perfect. I think of you and imagine a girl who didn't have to learn these things on her own.

I think of you when I read articles about body image or a workplace boys' club. I think of you when my husband and I talk about our future, about whether or not we'll actually have children and what that means for me — to be a woman whose legacy is her writing, not her offspring. As a writer, I'm well aware that every character I create is a version of myself, including you. I imagine you into being, a girl who never has to apologize for who she is, and when I'm talking to you, I realize that I'm talking to myself, too.

So let me sit you down, my unreal daughter, and give you some advice...

Me, around age 7

1. Being “Nice” Isn't The Most Important Thing A Girl Can Be

Empathy is an extremely important trait, of course, but it can be taken too far. I was bullied a lot growing up, and was encouraged by well-intentioned adults

to imagine things from my tormentors' perspective, like "poor Tiffany is really just lashing out because of her parents' divorce." I ended up identifying with the very people who made my grammar school life hell, and therefore joined them in thinking less of myself. It took many years to repair the damage to my self-esteem and self-image.

I would prefer to raise a child who got called into the principal’s office because she stood up for herself and mouthed off to some brat, rather than a child with a perfect school record but very low self-esteem.

Show them you’re strong, little daughter, and that you don’t take crap from anyone. Even if it doesn’t make them stop, at least you don’t have to feel like a doormat. Then I’ll go call those kids’ fictional mothers and give them hell.

2. It Doesn't Matter If Everyone Likes You

Since I was bullied as a kid, I grew into an adolescent with an edge. A lot of people thought I was arrogant or that I had an "attitude." This was an unacceptable thing — a total defiance of the "nice girl" role I was pressured to fulfill. I was told by a lot of people that being liked by everyone was the only way to avoid becoming some kind of outcast living alone in a box with a pack of stray cats as my only friends.

The truth is, though, no matter what you do, there will be people who like you and people who don’t. People not liking you will not ruin your life. The sooner you accept that and stop trying to win everyone’s approval, the happier you’ll be.

3. You Have A Clitoris

I was informed very matter-of-factly, and at a relatively young age, about the mechanics of sex. My response was, Why would people do that? Though my mother’s simple reply intimated that pleasure was involved, I had no idea that there was actually a part of the female body whose sole purpose was pleasure. In middle school, I checked out a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves from the school library and figured out from pencil drawings what the clitoris was and where it was located. The fact that I had to discover this for myself made it seem like a secret I couldn't tell — as if, in my library sleuthing, I had found out something I wasn't supposed to know.

One step at a time, I'll teach you about your anatomy, daughter. When you're older (if you ever age in my mind), I may buy you a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, but we will go through it together. There’s nothing secret or shameful about a woman’s body. In fact…

4. Your Body Is Precious

I can remember hating my body even as a second grader. I thought turtlenecks made me look fat, worried when we marched single-file through the halls that the kid behind me was snickering at my giant butt. I don't ever want you to feel that way.

Let me tell you something, make-believe daughter: your body is amazing. It can run, jump, sing, dance. It is the vehicle for you soul. You should cherish it, nurture it, love it deeply and respect it. It’s not for others to decide how you should feel about your physical self. That is an intimate relationship in which no one else can share.

And I swear to God, despite all my insecurities, I will never utter the word “diet” in front of you because “diet” is a four-letter word.

5. Honor Thy Girlfriends … But Don’t Worship Them

As a kid, I read too many novels about the perfect pair of best friends who are always there for each other, no matter what, and never grow apart or squabble over mutual love interests. You're going to read those books too, no doubt. The thing is, though, in real life, my friendships looked nothing like this fantasy, which set me up for disappointment. Friends aren't always there for you when you need them. They may have their own interests, agendas, and hang-ups that prevent them from truly giving to another. Sometimes a friend is just someone with whom you watch TV and eat gummy bears.

I want you to know that friendship is a gift, but not necessarily one that lasts forever. Cherish your friends. Share your snacks, keep secrets, hold hands and make up your own language. But if your best friends separate from you, move away or betray you or otherwise fail to live up to your expectations, it's OK to be hurt. Remember: more friends will come along. Lifelong friends are achievable, but they're rare. That's what makes them so special. Not every girl you get along with is going to turn into your friendship soulmate.

6. Anyone Can Be Pretty — But Being Smart, Talented, And Educated Takes Work

Our culture insists that our worth as women is defined by our appearance -- being smart is a bonus, but being attractive a must. No matter what I do, you will still absorb this message. So, I'll be honest with you: it really does feel good to be called pretty. But mastering the art of polished make-up does not have the same value as an actual Master's degree. Looks fade, but your intellect is forever. You, my imaginary daughter, have more to offer the world than just your beauty. You have talent and ideas. (Of course you do! I made you up).

Of course, all this advice is easy for me to dole out as I’m not an actual mom and you aren't an actual kid. In reality, parents often can't live up to the ideals they set for themselves. Parenting is too hard, real-life children too complex and variable to fit into a preconceived fantasy. Still, this advice is about what I hope for you to know and achieve, even though you'll probably never exist, because it's what I still hope for myself.

My tendency to think up advice for my made-up daughter has less to do with any longing to become a parent than it does with learning the hard way how to cut through the sugar-and-spice BS and be your authentic self. You, my imaginary daughter, are a reminder of where I started and how far I've come. You're the culmination of all the stuff I wish I'd known, the things no one told me, and many of the reasons why I am a feminist today. I tell you what I want every girl to know, as if in mothering none, I wish to mother all — including myself.

Images: Giphy (6)