Moms: Untwisting the Sisterhood.
by Leslie Morgan Steiner
1974. Fourth grade. My large, loud family were heading home from a summer weekend at the beach. The station wagon windows were down to catch the breeze, swirling a light layer of sand throughout the car. I had refused to surrender my neon-striped fuzzy one-piece bathing suit for street clothes; the terry cloth was still damp two hours into the drive. I leaned into the front seat to plot my upcoming July birthday party with Mom. We debated different backyard games, cake flavors, whether afternoon or evening was preferable. I floated a trial balloon: I would invite everyone but Dorothy Ellis, an erstwhile friend with whom I’d recently quarreled. At that moment, I hated Dorothy and wished to punish her vociferously for whatever slight she’d delivered during our tiff, which I recall was inviting another girlfriend to see Black Beauty. In the front passenger seat, Mom fell silent. To my surprise, her voice was angry but firm, non-negotiable: “You’ve got two choices, Leslie. You can include all the girls in your class – or there will be no birthday party this year.”
Fifth grade. My mother was late coming home from my elementary school’s PTA meeting, where she was president. The committee was delayed because they’d formed an impromptu search team when my classmate Mercedes de la Cruz had come to them in tears: she couldn’t find her new ballet shoes. Mercedes was the daughter of a Spanish maid and groundskeeper who lived in the back cottage of a fancy Foxhall Road estate. The stiff ballet shoes, pink with long pale silk tie straps, were the young girl’s most prized possession.
So you can imagine my mother’s face when she finally came home and found me, lounging on the couch in our tv room, Mercedes de la Cruz’s ballet slippers proudly on my feet. Shock, fury, shame and disappointment froze Mom’s happy-to-be-home mien. And I had thought snitching my quiet classmate’s beautiful shoes would be a witty canard, sure to win my crew’s opprobrium! I spent that night calling the de la Cruz household, writing an elaborate apology note, and hand-delivering the shoes to Mercedes’ door while my mother waited like a sentinel in the car.
These two lessons, delivered so effectively by a woman who believed fiercely in the power of female friendship, taught me an indelible, non-negotiable lifelong lesson: always treat other girls with respect. Now that all the girls from those days, including myself, are women, the commandment still applies. And I teach it to my two girls, ages 12 and 8, because like me, they make baby-mean-girl mistakes too.
Girls under 13 can be cruel. Sometimes cruelty comes naturally. Girls are trying out new personalities, new methods of expression, learning lessons about friendship, trust and social dynamics. Young girls make mistakes – innocent miscalculations – not because they are inherent bullies but because human beings are competitive and uncivilized by nature. These errant girls should be forgiven – and taught the value of female sisterhood.