I pulled the stiff, floral-patterned polyester dress over my head, the crinoline skirt underneath already making me want to scratch.
“Hurry up, Brianna! The car is waiting,” my dad hollered, as I tried my best to hide my incessant itching. We were getting ready to go to “Convention,” where we’d sleep in tents and worship alongside others who also followed “The Truth,” a controversial home-based Christian sect. This was a group of people that took pride in looking different from mainstream culture — with hundreds of us gathered we could have easily been mistaken for a “Little House on The Prairie” fan club, right down to the old-fashioned way that we spoke. The women dressed in modest homemade dresses and wore their hair pulled back in severe buns, and the men wore vintage trousers with pressed shirts and suspenders.
While the preachers droned on about the evils of the world in a stuffy canvas tent, I quietly snuck away to play in a field of corn, waiting for it all to be over.
Afterward we drove home in tense silence — because the radio was the work of the devil — and I waited patiently by the door for my mother to pick me up from my father’s house. Leaving behind my dad and his warped beliefs would be a relief, but nothing compared to the freedom I felt peeling off the sticky dress that belonged in 1880. As an adult I would learn that my father’s religion was considered a cult. Outsiders referred to the sect as the “Two-By-Twos,” referencing the itinerant preachers who traveled in twos. Former members spoke out against the rampant sexual and emotional abuse within the church, particularly the abuse of young girls and women.
When my mother picked me up from my father’s home I felt safe again. I cranked up the radio as soon as the car door snapped shut, ’90s pop hits drowning out my troubling thoughts. I’d hid in the cornfield that day, but my mind had wandered back to the tent, where I could hear toneless singing. I wondered, how did the women feel about their constricting dresses, and impossibly tight buns? Next to me, my mother tapped along to Ace of Base, her short haircut framing her smiling face, her toned legs bare in shorts. I had always been in awe of my mother, who quietly left my dad when she was seven months pregnant with me. It was never said aloud, but I knew she loved him, and it seemed to me like their divorce had done something irreparable to her. It felt like my mother sacrificed a piece of herself to free me from this life.
My mother’s belly was swollen when she rapped on the door of her parents’ bungalow. They welcomed her without questions, because that’s what our family does. My grandparents are hard-working Maltese immigrants whose education ended before eighth grade. I grew up surrounded by the Maltese language and culture. While I narrowly escaped being raised in a cult that wouldn’t have allowed me to cut my hair, my mother’s side of the family required women to be meek and subservient. My grandmother was a workhorse — she spent her days scrubbing dishes until her skin was raw, cooking mouthwatering and time-intensive meals, and cleaning her house until it shone. Like my grandfather, she also worked a full-time job. But I’d never seen my grandpa contribute to the household labor.
It was challenging to be surrounded by people who thought women weren’t as valuable as men, because I was raised solely by a woman. I spent my childhood watching others devalue my mother for being single. My grandparents wanted her to have a nice husband to take care of us financially, friends didn’t invite her out because she wasn’t appropriately partnered and everyone wanted her to find her perfect match. None of them wanted her to be alone — because for whatever reason, being single was the most abhorrent way to live.
This ghost of a man followed us wherever we went, and I became obsessed with the idea of marriage. When I was 19, I met a man my age and fell in love. By 21 I was married, and gave birth to my first child at 22 — now I would never be alone.
My first baby was a girl, and I felt a pang of sadness when I found out. I wasn’t going to have a firstborn boy, and something felt wrong about that. My second baby was a girl too; this time I felt prepared, and mostly okay with it. But by the time I was pregnant with my third I was ready to bargain with God for a boy, believing that a son would put me in my family’s good graces and make them proud of me. The sonogram technician was a father of four girls, and I felt the most imperceptible hint of sadness for him. That wouldn’t be me, was my silent whisper. I was right, it wouldn’t be, because I wouldn’t have four girls — I’d have three. I wept in the bathroom, while scraping cool gel from my round belly, my healthy daughter kicking inside of me.
I kept my feelings about my children secret, because I was ashamed and knew that I was wrong. As soon as I became a mother I had started paying more attention to the imbalance between men and women.
I’d discovered the answer to my questions by the cornfield years ago: No, women of the Two-By-Twos do not like being treated like voiceless pieces of meat, as evidenced by the mass exile of my generation from this religious sect. I’d started experiencing my own internal stirrings too, recognizing that my efforts to be a “good girl” and please men would never amount to enough.
By the time my third daughter was born I could no longer ignore the roar of misogyny all around me. It was 2017, and this just didn’t fly anymore. But what I found most troubling wasn’t the sexism of my surroundings, but the deeply rooted misogyny inside of me. As a child I didn’t think that my father or his religion meant much to me. But as an adult I realized why I hated jewelry (a sin!), thought makeup was trashy and didn’t have any piercings or tattoos (all an abomination). I started identifying pieces of myself that bought into misogynistic culture, like the fact that I considered it my duty to clean and cook, and looked at almost everything through a gendered lens.
But nothing has challenged me more than my firstborn daughter. She is everything I wanted to be as a little girl, and everything I thought I wasn’t allowed to embrace. She loves math and science, refuses to wear dresses and is more rough and tumble than any of my friends’ sons. As my children have grown, their own individual personalities have emerged. I don’t have three daughters; I have a Penelope, Georgia and Eloise.
Motherhood has pushed me to explore a new way of thinking, and helped me to identify the rampant sexism alive in my own mind. I don’t want my kids to absorb the messaging I had, that women are less-than, that our voices don’t matter and that our job is to shut up and make sandwiches for our (better and male) partner. I still catch myself saying problematic things, like pointing out how pretty my daughter’s outfit is, or expecting my kids to conform and be “seen and not heard” during family gatherings.
It is a continual unraveling of misogyny — a word I had never heard until I was an adult. My daughters are growing up with a “work in progress” mother, a woman who was raised to believe that she couldn’t amount to much because she is a woman, and who thought that her life’s purpose was to please men. Instead, I’m embracing intersectional feminism, and am thankful that my husband has, too. We’re raising our daughters to believe in their value and worth, and I’m showing them how.