- Jackie Nagtegaal
A Letter to My Child on International Women's Day 2021
When I close my eyes, I see you all grown up. Twenty-something, leaning against a wall in an unfamiliar city. I picture you in a leather jacket with your soulful eyes. Your hair, the familiar scent of rain. Golden. When I think of you, I float through time. I see my mom, I see me, I see you. All the generations before, flowing like streams into the same river. My mom's hair had the same scent, her crown in the same spot as yours. We’re threaded together by the dimples on all our cheeks – eyes closed, we feel like one.
Are you in Niamey, New York or New Delhi? The world feels like its shrinking, and the smaller it gets, the faster it spins. And you, my darling, keep moving at a constant velocity, with youthful certainty. I struggle to keep pace. I remember my mom looking at you years ago, as you ran into the ocean on a winter’s morning, "Finn is going to live fast. You better buckle up baby!" She laughed, her eyes alive with love.
You've always been eager for life, hungry for all of it. As a baby, you used to finish your bottles in one gulp. Now you take big bites, talking with excitement, hands animating your story. Everything about you screams the future. Everything about you advertises hope.
Sometimes when I hold you, cuddling you in my lap with your pre-teen limbs that hardly fit, I wish I could keep you till the end of time, but I know you need to be looser so that you can be yourself sooner. Your own observer. I often wonder if we can set the limits to our love? Keep spaces and boundaries without intertwining? When my mom died, I slipped into an unknown abyss. It felt like I had lost my watch. For most of my life, I lived purely in relation to her. We bled into each other. She was my first and favourite observer. If you take the observer away, what's the point of Schrödinger's cat, right? Now when I look at you, I wonder how much we need each other? You and I? Could we break the cycle of dependence? Stop the river from flowing?
I often hang out in your room; we sit for hours joking around while we weave through the meaning of life. You show me your art and tell me about the stories you're writing - my little artist, with the ability to create your own world.
"I can sit here all night," you say, looking out at the city, falling asleep.
"I know, sweetheart."
"I have so many worlds in my head," you say with a crooked smile.
"You are a universe within yourself," and I pray that you will always know you are enough so that you choose the right world to live in. I don't utter the last part. You have taught me to edit the feminist-factor. When I get riled up by stories and cases where women have been pushed into the shadows, you say it’s a problem for humanity, and not only for feminists.
When I was pregnant with you, they told me you’re biologically a girl. I wanted to cry. Part joy, part dread. Womanhood had become increasingly complex to me with age, and it got worse after your birth. You see, my mom was a fist-in-the-air kind of woman - a feminist before it was in vogue. Our home was a haven for blue-battered women and her newly disposed or divorced friends - women whose youth had withered, and had run out of options.
"Your brain. That's all you need! And you always need your own bank account," she drilled into me weekly. Her other favourite advice: "You don't need bigger boobs; you need to read better books!"
I couldn't really give a damn. I was nonplussed. I had the privilege of freedom, and my mom was fighting for everything I enjoyed. She had created a world of equality for me; I hardly noticed my sex. But as I started working, I saw how skew the world still tilted. And then there was you. Your birth screamed the unfairness at me, and I found myself suddenly a fist-in-the-air-like-my-mom kind of woman. The more people commented on your beauty while they praised your brother's brain, the higher my fists shot up.
Instead of being adolescent and nonplussed like I was, you took it to a new paradigm. You're non-binary, your gender is neither masculine or feminine. You walk around with your dirty sneakers and cool swag, reshaping my social constructs of the world. As my tongue gets used to referring to you as "they and them", your preferred pronouns, I smile in moments to myself and wonder if my mom sees you. For you are everything that the future should be. You are everything she ever fought for.
As International Women's Day rolls around, I am honoured to be amongst amazing women in my life, present and past; strong women in all their splendour. Later today I am joining a panel discussion with leaders, passionate pioneers, people shaping an equal future. But I can’t stop thinking about you. I find myself wishing that the future was non-binary. That it drifted and shifted beyond the paradigm of gender. Neither here nor there. A space for people who make rules for themselves and express them beyond a category of just this or that. It is a future set on finding its own vocabulary and traditions that could set us free from our past traumas.
I know my mom would have loved you more every year. She was like our Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Growing up in the seventies, killing the dogma to save us its shackles. She gave us the luxury of freedom - the privilege of ideas that can run into eternity. It is in that ever-unfolding eternity where you found comfort in ambiguity and where you are learning to define yourself in terms of yourself and only yourself.
"May you always live with sisu," I say while we sit drawing in your room.
"What does that mean?" you ask.
"Well, it's special to you because it's a Finnish word. It means one is brave and strong. Resilient. A way to see waves as something to surf, rather than a threat of drowning."
"Sisu," you sound it with your lazy tongue and lisp.
"You, my dearest Finn, have sisu. An excess of it." I watch as you gently repeat it to yourself to commit it to memory.
You are possibility. You find comfort in abstract thoughts, exuding an endearing blend of confidence and awkwardness. You, who notices everything with your dark sense of humour and big heart. You, a brave ten year old pushing paradigms with sisu. Where are you going? Eyes closed, I see you, twenty-something. Where are you? Nairobi, Naples or Nam Dinh?
When I look at you, I remember the way my mom looked at me. The love for a life so tightly stitched to your own. I watch you trying to compute it all. The histories that haunt us. The poverty that plagues us. The most beautiful country in the world, rated junk. The women less free. The girls married off before they know themselves. I watch you run across a dry field in a neighbourhood that still feels like apartheid. I see you see it all. Will the future be free of the challenges of gender? Will pay scales stop noticing too? Will parenthood rest not only on the parent who gives birth? Will you be able to walk down a street without the fear of sexual violence lurking around a corner? Will women be free of a thousand micro-aggressions they face every day?
You look up, the sun on your face, and I see optimism and spirit of hope. May the world catch up, and be more like you. May we transcend our current notion of gender.
Do you remember the story my mom used to tell you over and over again about all the evil that escaped Pandora's jar? The last thing to escape was hope. I think hope made itself a home on your shoulder.
"I am," said my mom.
"Am I?" I ask.
And you, my dear Finn, shout: "I am that I am."
I salute you little one!