Letter to Our Daughters: Do Not Be Good

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photo of women marching for the right to vote

Dear Girls,

I’ve come to believe that an author’s material arrives in the form of obsession, a need for the close and uncomfortable scrutiny of an idea. Last year I finished writing a book about women who weren’t traditionally “good.” I dedicated it to you. You might wonder why.

I’ve spent far too much energy in my life being “good.” Seeking approval and validation outside of my own gut, criticizing myself for failing an image. If you pursue the prescribed perfection of womanhood, you’ll find it can be a demeaning, exhausting endeavor.

You’re four and six as I’m writing this note, so it’s best if I don’t burden you with the nuances of “goodness” until we’re past the basics of discipline, e.g. it’s rarely okay to beat a friend with a pool noodle, ride the goats without shoes, write your sister’s name on the wall in crayon, steal sparkly nail polish from the grocery store, or tell an adult they have “weird teeth.”

These days it’s convenient for me to be in charge and almighty, but eventually you’re going to figure out that my authority is not absolute. I do not define what it means for you to be “good” in this world.


Right now we live in a time when Madonna still looks good in a leotard (and she may well into her seventies) and where people use the internet to post motivational and slightly offbeat messages written in cute calligraphy, and I have taken my fair dose of inspiration from those looping words, but here’s the thing: you’ll see a lot of vanilla people posting radical messages, a lot of vulgar people posting about kindness, and a lot of cowards posting about courage.

Humans like me are prone to making noise not about what they have, but about what they want.

Everyone has advice about how to be “good,” and though I hope you’ve developed the skill of close listening, I hope you also know how to hone in on what feels true. It seems to me that what should feel most true is closing the distance between who you are and who you want to be. If it’s a vision worthy of you, it will take nail-biting, soul-searching work.

I remember the middle-school year–I must have been fourteen–when I realized the world was complicated, and that there were obstacles, decades, and genuinely hard work between the awkward teenager I was then and the woman I wanted to become. Petrified and humbled, I started writing awful poetry about sadness and the moon.

(God, I can’t wait to read your bad moon poetry. No one will love your bad moon poetry the way I will. I promise. And if I’m gone, just leave it by that big tree I like near Lake Shaftsbury. That can be where our worlds collide, right there in the low branches.)

You are entitled to the Dark Poetry Stage, and although it’s going to hurt like hell when you push me away, it’s necessary. (I hope I’m there to be pushed, and return doggedly.) I’m raising you to be independent beings, not fleshy basement-dwellers who play video games and pound energy drinks while the sunny world goes by. Or girls who try to appease my ego by being conventionally “good” and who then have to forge a secret rebellion. No! Rebel in the open.

I want you out in the world getting the good stuff. I want sun on your skin and banned books in your backpack, and when I’m old and diapered I want you to walk into my house, turn down the George Michael songs, and tell me about all the incredible discoveries you’ve made about the planet and yourself. I want you to tell me about your mistakes, heartbreaks, dreams, and plans. Those things are your engine.

In my life, failure has been a much better engine than success. Artistic and personal.

Here’s the other thing: I want you to be decent human beings who think about others’ feelings. But I don’t want you to think too much about them, to the point where you’re consumed with other people’s happiness and not your own. The world is going to try to sell you the Good Woman as Martyr myth (just watch the commercials around Mother’s Day, or don’t)–how you’re supposed to be selfless and giving and lay down and let your children and men feed off your body and energy–but proceed carefully into that world of sacrifice.


What if you woke up one morning and told yourself: “Starting today, you no longer have to be good.”

Starting today, you can do what you want to do, not what you ought to do.

Today, you can tell people exactly how you feel, especially the pious ones (Watch out for the pious!). There may be consequences, but you can do it, and you won’t necessarily end up living without friends and teeth behind a grocery store off a New York highway.

Today, you can live where you want to live. (This is a hypothetical, girls, because right now you’re just out of pre-school and you would choose to live in a castle and eat cookies all day while listening to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack.)

You can work toward the job you want to have. I sort of hope you’re both still making art as interesting as the drawings you make now, these elongated, armless Cleopatras and the vicious, black-eyed Medusas.

You can surround yourself with the people you enjoy and who enjoy you. The people who make you feel good and worthy. The people who make you feel fascinating, worth listening to. The people who accept your eccentricities.

Let your freedom bewilder you. That is a better problem to have than ideological shackles, unhappy relationships, a case of the “shoulds” and “oughts.” Guilt, a friend once told me, is often unreleased anger. No, girls. Do not suffer people quietly or life bitterly in the name of goodness. Do not be gently unhappy for years at a time.

A a friend undergoing cancer treatment friend turned to me at dinner this winter and recited a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” She said: “you do not have to walk on your knees.”

You don’t.

You can be vulnerable. You can ask for help. You can improve your life and mind through failure. You can have dark thoughts.

But you don’t have to be “good.” Not good by anyone else’s definition but your own.

A therapist friend, listening to my woes last week, said: “Find a pack of bad, feral women, and run with them for a while.”

Girls, if you can’t find any, you can start by reading the book I dedicated to you.