how to raise a feminist: the fox in the hen house

 I thought I was doing everything right. 

Our library is stocked with kickass woman picture books about Amelia Earhart, Malala, Lucille Ball, Rosie Revere, and the Paper Bag Princess.

and wonder woman
although it's pretty tough to find a female superhero
that doesn't look like she's wearing
the flirty halloween costume version
of a real superhero outfit

I never force my children to hug or kiss anyone.

I encourage my kids to explore lots of toys, clothes, and interests, not just “boy” things. Buster’s favorite outfit is a jazzy little workout set in pink and turquoise. Chicken gets regular mani-pedis in our home “salon,” complete with cucumber water in a sippy cup.

My husband and I consciously subvert traditional gender roles - he cooks, cleans, kisses boo-boos, and yearns for a room of his own. I sit in an armchair by the fire with a scotch and the evening paper and bark at the children to “Pipe down, ya mongrels.” Because feminism.

I educate myself about how to limit their exposure to dudebro dirtbaggery and magnify feminist heroism. 

Sexist soccer coaches, gendered Legos, parents of other kids who tell their sons that “big boys don’t cry,” I was ready to take on all that BS.

I had great ideas about how to protect my kids against the damage that the world will try to do to them.

But what I didn’t remember, what was far harder and far more painful to consider, was how to protect my kids against the damage that the world has already done to me.


I reminded Buster to grab his water bottle. He shook his head, sighed, and muttered, “so stupid,” on his way back to the counter.

I didn't have to ask where he heard that kind of talk. 

I said it. 

I say it almost every day. 

Not about him, of course. 

About myself.

When I finally get all the kids and backpacks and rain boots out the door to the car, and I reach into my pocket for the keys and realize I left them on the counter…  (sigh) so stupid.

When I leave my sunglasses on the roof of the car. Nice one, dummy.

When I lose my shit and scream at the kids about which color cheese sticks I packed in their lunch. Ugh, I’m crazy.

When I decide to read a book or watch TV instead of matching the kids’ socks and the next day I have to spelunk in the sock hamper for mismatched socks (again). I was lazy last night.

I hear moms everywhere I go using words like this – dumb, silly, crazy, stupid – not about their children (we would never say things like that to our children!) but about themselves.  

The problem is that the words we use around our children become their words, too. The way we talk to them, and to ourselves, is the way they will talk to others. And themselves.


I’ve been a parent for about 5 years. I’ve been a girl for 32.

I am a feminist, but I was born and raised behind enemy lines. My underlying chromosomal makeup can’t compete with 32 years of hardcore, unrelenting conditioning that has taught me that my chromosomal makeup and its physical expression is at best second-class, inconsequential, and strange, and at worst a weapon, a weakness, a tawdry distraction to these good men just trying to do the Lord's work over here.

Equality, respect, and safety for women are in my best interests, yet STILL I catch myself  disliking “abrasive” or “chilly” female CEOs for reasons that I don’t stop to question, and swooning whenever a famous man recites the line fed to him by his publicist, that "women are people too."


My conscious mind wants to smash the patriarchy; my unconscious habits snuggle comfortably at his slippered feet.

The day I heard my not-yet-3-year-old call himself stupid, something he learned by listening to me, was the day I started to notice how much I talk shit about myself.

That was the day I realized there was a fox in my hen house.


Meet The Fox.

He’s been in my head for as long as I can remember.

He told me that I should wear flimsy slick-bottomed ballet flats that looked like Cinderella’s, that made me slip on the hillside when I chased after the boys in their rugged-soled boots.

He crooned, “See? Wasn’t that easier?” when I smiled prettily and agreed with the loudest voice in the room.

He told me I was fat when I was 11.

He shook his head when I lost my temper and everyone said I was crazy or bleeding from wherever.

I live every minute of every day with a fat-mouth, fat-head, bag-a-dicks fox in my hen house, and he never stops telling me that I’m not good enough, and I’ve spent most of my life agreeing with him because he is the loudest voice in that room.

When I veto the Batman DVD for movie night because it’s too violent: You are such a silly little girl.

When I remember to call the cable company: Wow, slow clap for you. It took you a week and a half to make one phone call. Are you even an adult? Would you even have a functioning life if you didn’t have a husband to take care of the REAL stuff?

When I'm white-knuckling the steering wheel as I attempt to negotiate peace between one kid who wants to listen to Disney Storybook Favorites and the other kid who wants Frog and Toad:  Get a grip, crazy lady. It’s not like you’re curing cancer here.

If The Fox had a central thesis, it would look something like this: 

It is important for you to understand that no matter what you do or how hard you work, you can never take pride in your accomplishments or feel valuable or competent. 

I will take every opportunity to remind you that your work doesn't matter; that your mistakes are proof that you will never be a worthwhile person; that your thoughts, opinions, and feelings are less important than mine and based in silly irrational nonsense; that you do not deserve to have time, space, or a voice; and that your only value lies in the pleasant feelings you can give me by being nice and pretty, and the work you can do to support me.


There’s a fine line we have to be aware of – the line between inviting women to recognize that they deserve good treatment, and blaming women for their own poor treatment.

I am doing the first one. Not the second one.

I am saying that when I called myself stupid, lazy, or worthless, I was talking to myself in a voice that was not my own.

I’m not telling you how to be or how to talk. You are already great.

I am telling The Fox, the one who calls you a stupid, lazy, dumb, crazy, inconsequential, worthless, silly, hot mess, train wreck, boring, pathetic loser, to sit down and shut up.

It's our turn to talk.


I began to practice positive self-talk in front of my kids. 

You might hear me walking the canned bean aisle at the grocery store, declaring in the voice of the Yia-Yia Sisterhood, "I MAKE THOUGHTFUL CHOICES ABOUT NUTRITION BECAUSE I AM SMART AND STRONG. THIS WEEK, WE BUY KIDNEY BEANS."

You might see me screech to a stop in the parking lot, get out of the car, and pull down my iced coffee from where I left it on the roof, and pronounce in a voice stentorian with years of theatre training, "I REMEMBERED MY ICED COFFEE. I REMEMBER MANY IMPORTANT THINGS."

I say good things about myself.

Because before I do anything else to raise my kids to be feminists, I have to identify and address the way The Fox demands that I try to reach unreachable standards for women's beauty, silence, and virtue, and then makes me feel shitty for falling short, being too loud or messy or ambitious or mean, demanding more space, wearing clunky sneakers, or chewing my hair.*

I have to see how the world has damaged me first.

Because I don't hear women say good things about themselves very much. Because a child could take that to mean that women can't think of anything good to say about themselves.

Because the voice we use to talk to our kids (and to ourselves) will become the voice in their heads.

Because I wouldn’t let a sexist soccer coach talk like that to my kids. I wouldn’t let a teacher, babysitter, uncle, or friend talk like that to my kids.

Because I won't let my sons learn how to talk to themselves, or to any person, like a Fox.


The Fox tells you that you can’t do anything right.

Let me flip a switch for you.

Every day you pick up 400 objects from where you left them the night before, and you start to juggle them again.

All of the objects are different sizes, shapes, weights. They all require your constant touch to keep them in motion. They all require a different touch.

You juggle a feather, a soup pot, and a belt.

You juggle nutrition, empathy, and trash day.

You juggle a single piece of paper that you need to sign and return today, that flutters and swoops unpredictably, that falls to the ground.

The Fox says, “You are so stupid.”

I say, “Look at you. You are a marvel, an athlete, an X-woman. Look at the way you keep the world spinning for your family. Look at the way you can pick that up again. It shouldn’t be possible for a person to do all that at the same time, but you do it, and you make it look easy. You are amazing."

You are amazing. Tell your kids. Tell yourself. You are amazing.



OK, The Fox, well played. 
You get that one. 

Chewing my hair WAS super gross. 
I can’t even defend it by saying I was trying to subvert misogynistic standards of female beauty. 

I had a single damp, shiny dreadlock that smelled like Johnson's baby shampoo and morning breath. It hung next to my right ear until my mother cut my hair so short I couldn't chew it anymore. 

I can still remember the way single strands of hair would get stuck between my teeth as I bit the clump of hair flat, gnawing on it as happily and absently as a puppy on a rope knot. 


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  1. This is beautiful, Katie. I have found that one of the best things about parenting is the opportunity to re-parent oneself. After a setback I so often feel like I am stupid, a failure, and unworthy of love or respect. It doesn't matter if it's getting an article rejected or taking the kids on a disastrous camping trip or to the grocery store by myself (shudder). With my children, and now with myself, I try to give credit for what we can control: effort/perseverance/taking-on-challenges instead of outcome. Article rejected? Instead of saying "I'm stupid", now it's "Good for me for trying for a difficult journal, I'm challenging myself and growing into a better scholar in the process." Same for the camping trip--instead of "I can't do anything right. Other people go camping with kids" it's now "I'm persevering in the face of setbacks and stretching what is possible for us as a family and me as a mother." (Carol Dwerk's book Growth Mindset figures prominently in my new self-talk). And you're right, it's totally gendered how we take failures small or large. For me, it's all failures not just failure to be pleasing or pretty or warm or demure. It's everything from breaking a plate to not getting job I applied for. As a woman, I feel that every mistake, every rejection is a reflection on my innate inadequacies. I've noticed that for my husband, it's easier to believe that no one failure reflects on his essential worth as a human being.

    1. For what it's worth, my friend, our first camping effort was a full-on failure. We camped for 4 hours, packed up the site at midnight and drove home again. My husband often doesn't understand why I take those kinds of things personally, why I volunteer to apply them to my self-worth. It's hard to explain why what I do is the same as who I am, this is so internalized and largely subconscious. How lovely to be a woman, amIrite??