October 11th is International Day of the Girl Child, one of the newest United Nations days of observance. The Reverend Heather Melton, who serves as the Missioner for the United Thank Offering and is the mother of one-year-old twin girls, reflects on the world she hopes her girls will experience as they grow older. Let us pray for the well-being of all girls this weekend, both in The Episcopal Church and around the world.
Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe,
and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh
Just over a year ago, I gave birth to twin girls. We spent a week in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where the prayer of many was that they would fight: fight to breathe on their own, fight to eat and grow, and fight to get out of the NICU. I remember one of the nurses saying to me that our youngest daughter just had to decide she wanted to do these things on her own and she’d be fine. I watched her decide. I watched them fight. I got to be their cheerleader from the first day of their lives and I will be until their last. That’s what I learned being the mother of tiny babies. What I didn’t know then, was that being their cheerleader would come with some unexpected challenges right out of the gate.
I had never been to a baby clothing store before I had babies. I found that there was no end to the number of items I could purchase for my girls that extolled their physical appearance: from #Princess to Super Cute and Always Adorable, my girls could wear terms praising their looks at night on their pajamas, during the day on their shirts and coats, and even on fancy dresses. My children are always adorable to me, but I also want them to know that their self-worth is not tied to their appearance. Yes, I want them to eat healthy and exercise but I don’t want them to do it obsessively. I do not want them to train their waists, but to train their brains. This is why every time they hold up a square I say, “That’s a square, four equal angles and four equal sides” not, “aren’t you cute holding something.”
If you go to the other side of the store, where the boys clothes are, you’ll find a different set of words. Some shirts did say handsome but the majority said things like: brave little explorer, best friend, and little genius. I want my girls to be brave, to explore, to be a good friend, and to be as smart as they can. There was only one shirt in the girls’ section that referenced being smart, so I took it home with one from the boys side that also talked about being smart. I know that it is a small thing–words on a shirt before they can even make sentences–but words are powerful and can often have lasting effects on those who read them and those who wear them.
Here in the United States, women are still far outnumbered by men in the sciences. In 2013, the New York Times ran a story in which they interviewed women who succeed in tenured academic science positions. What stood out to me in this article was that time and again the women said that when they stopped comparing themselves to others and, when they had a mentor who believed in them, they were able to succeed.
This year, on the International Day of the Girl Child, I want to take this chance to be the cheerleader for all girls, not just mine. It will take all of our voices to help pave the way for girls to live to their full potential. We need to choose the words we use when talking to girls very carefully. As the International Day of the Girl Child webpage says: “If effectively supported during the adolescent years, girls have the potential to change the world – both as empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, household heads, and political leaders.” So let’s support them, encourage them, and love them; from the words on their shirts to the books they read and the toys they play with. Girls can change the world, but we must create safe environments for them to do it.
Back in the NICU so many prayed that my girls would fight; now I think my girls pray that we will fight for them. We need to demand that our society change to offer equal pay and opportunities. We must fight against social plights like human trafficking and child brides, which rob our girl children of the futures they deserve. Fight for our girl children, become a mentor, an advocate, and a friend. Advocate for change to make the world safe for girls and make space for girl children so they can change the world. Join me as we tell all girls, of any age, that they can change the world through their love and bravery, and that we are here to help them do it.