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Protect and Empower

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 10/25/2016 | General

Parenting is a constant pull between protecting and empowering. Just like our program teaches, I want our daughter to be confident (but not too), competent (in things that matter), caring (but have boundaries), connected (to good and supportive people), show character (especially when it’s hard) and above all live a life that contributes to the world in a meaningful positive way. She’s 3½. Yes, a tall order.

I never thought I would be a mother. I was a teacher and always viewed my students as my children. Plus my own childhood was a commercial in how not to parent. I was SURE I wouldn’t know how or in any way be good at it. Then in my 40th year, I earned my PhD, got a great job, met the love of my life and became pregnant. While I think my life experience is helpful, I envy the 20-something moms at my child’s daycare. Not that they haven’t had experiences, but I feel like I come with a U-Haul of life experiences that I have to unpack and sort out before passing it (or not) on to my daughter. 

I am white and my husband is black. And our daughter calls herself “both”. I’m a former educator, a social justice advocate, and now I work for a girl empowerment nonprofit. I talk way too much about the world in a very passionate way. So while I can connect with growing up female, I can never truly understand growing up a woman of color. I know (from that U-Haul of experience) that she will be faced with both racism and sexism - separate, together, veiled and obvious. 

I wonder how we both protect her from what will come her way and empower her to face it when it does. Because the world is starting to highlight difference in ways it’s hard to ignore. What can we say?

In the line at superstore/grocery store/mall and the women behind says, “What a sweet girl! Is she yours/is she adopted/where is she from?” 

a. My womb

b. Thank you (keep walking)

c. She’s my daughter

We are watching the movie Frozen for the 27th time and my daughter turns to me and says, “Mommy, there’s no brown or black people in this movie! Did God forget to put them in?”

a. No, God didn’t forget. Hollywood did.

b. There were no brown people in Iceland (or wherever it takes place), even though there are talking snowmen.

c. You’re so observant, honey. That’s true.

We are eating at a booth in a fast food place and two men in their 80s wearing overalls, hands dirty from real farming work. They are talking politics. They glance over at my daughter and myself several times. On their way out, one of the men stops, pats my daughter’s hair (which is a fairly robust afro) and says, “Where she’d get hair like that?” 

a. Get your hands off my daughter.

b. From her daddy who’s black.

c. Dropped jaw no response. 

Walking through the mall. Person after person genuinely and without a negative tone, says, “She is SO beautiful.”

a. Thank you.

b. Thank you, but beauty fades. 

c. Thank you, and she’s very smart and funny.

She is watching me. Listening to me. Seeing what confidence looks like, what standing up for myself and others sounds like, what caring means in the world and how we are all connected. 

And I will mother her—in my imperfection, in my whiteness, with love and grace and wisdom that comes in waves. Everyday.

Heather Pressley, PhD


As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley continues to educate the world through consulting and writing. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather navigates the world as a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her daughter. 

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