In the last few months, Girly no1 (age 2 and a half) has started to talk about boys and girls and he’s and she’s. It’s a very confusing time and I’m not sure she’s grasped it yet. She knows Daddy is a boy and Mummy is a girl, but she also thinks Auntie is a boy. I suppose she can be a bit boy-ish….if there’s such a thing. We’ll get there. Understanding the concept of boys and girls is one of those things we all learn as children, and important to understand biologically and grammatically. Socially however, the gender concept is one that is increasingly fluid. And in the same way race was tackled when we were children, I suspect gender is next to be tackled with our offspring.
We were reading Biff, Chip and Kipper Go for Haircuts the other day. You remember them – the ones that do very mundane activities and make them last ten pages during which time your mind starts to drift. “I wonder whether your eyebrows would get caught in your pubic hair if the eyebrow hairs carried on growing and never fell out? How different would the air smell if we all breathed out a little bit of burp with every breath all the time? Focus Mummy!” It’s not immediately obvious in those books who is a boy and who is a girl as they’re all named after dogs. No1 was asking who each one was and I found it really hard to identify which was a boy and which was a girl without resorting to stereotypes like hair length, outfits or make up. The only other thing I could think of was going back to biology, but it didn’t seem an appropriate time to talk about willies and vajayjays. I am very conscious though that stereotypes driving the girlies’ self-concept and their view of others are formed at this age, so while we’re trying not to drive the boy-girl thing too hard, it’s very difficult to distinguish between man and woman without using some more traditional references.
We ways hoped that we could bring the girlies up to be as gender neutral as is realistic in our life, releasing them from stereotypes we have felt constrained by and making sure they are understanding of others’ choices. If Grandad, the 6ft 4 house-building rugby player ever decides to arrive at our house in a dress, I would like it if they said “you look nice Grandad”. Equally if one of them wants to be an international cricket player, I would like it if they had the same visibility, standing and earning prospects as the men’s team. Sadly these are unlikely scenarios, maybe not in Grandads case, who knows, but I would like them to believe in todays gender spectrum rather than the binary view of the 1950’s. And as stereotypes are embedded from an early age, I want to tackle it from day one. Day to day it’s fairly straightforward. I change up pretty with handsome. I like to think that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether our playroom has a male or female inhabitant. I dress both girls in lots of navy and green; there is pink but it’s not the dominant wardrobe colour. In fact I dressed Girly no1 in so much navy when she was little she was often mistaken for a boy. I would tell people “Mark is 3 months, and yes a very bonny lad, thank you”. It was often easier than embarrassing them by throwing their assumptions back in their face. What we didn’t account for though, was other people’s contributions. We didn’t expressly state no pink, no dolls and no fairy princesses to everyone around us. And consequently have been bombarded with all of them! Girly no1 has 5 dolls already and all the accessories (including a bath with an operating shower!). She has fairy princesses coming out of her ears. She has books that glitter and sparkle. And an illuminous pink trampoline! I need to pause here and say the girls are not quite as spoiled brats as they sound. Husband and I both have divorced parents so she has four sets of Grandparents – as opposed to two – who don’t listen; as is a grandparents’ prerogative I guess! They are very lucky girls. I’m aware of sounding like a horribly ungrateful wench here, which I’m not. I just don’t want my daughters growing up to be Miss Piggy. We discretely combat the fluff and glitter in the best way we can. For everything traditionally girly, she had something traditionally boyie, if that’s the vernacular we’re using. For Christmas, she got a kitchen and a workbench (£30 from IKEA and second hand for £15 – FYI!). She has a fairy outfit and a Scooby Doo costume. A pram and a car mat. I am all the more committed to this balance since speaking to a Teacher friend the other day who reinforced our thinking and confirmed that the toys we play with as children influence our future choices. The reason there are so many male engineers? Because boys play with Lego and Mechano. Female nurses? Girls play with dollies. I’m grossly over-simplifying, but this has been proven time and time again and I don’t want my daughters’ future considerations to be limited because they only played with toasters, hoovers and ironing boards. I want them to build skyscrapers, be the future master of micro biology or uncover the history of dinosaurs, if that’s what they want to do.
What we didn’t account for, however, was personal choice. And I’m pretty amazed at this. We bought our house and moved in just two weeks before Girly no2 was due and we wanted to make sure no1’s bedroom was perfect, so she had a little haven to run to when the baby crying got too much. That and somewhere she was happy to sleep so we didn’t end up with two crying children in our bedroom. I dutifully produced the Dulux colour chart offering every colour in the rainbow and asked her to pick some she liked. Her top three were Fondant Fancy, Waterlily Blush and Russian Velvet. Gleaming bright shades of pink! I did my best to push some other colours but it wasn’t happening. Much as it hurt, we had to stick by our offering and so gave her one pink bedroom wall. She’s naturally drawn to long hair, pink lips and glittery nails. She loves the Little Mermaid and Frozen. Ana, Elsa and that goofy snowman have hit our house as much as the next family. She’ll always opt for a bright pink dress over denim dungarees. I’m baffled! With all of our anti-pink efforts, it’s so unexpected. I’m not the girliest of girls. I do my hair, wear a bit of make up and am interested in, but not ruled by, fashion. I’m definitely not little-dogs-in-handbags, all-day-shopping and hair extensions girly. In fact Sister calls me a Hair Dyslexic. It makes me wonder how much of this whole gender identity is natural inclination.
Despite our best efforts, some traditional views have snuck through too. Yesterday, we drove up to London to visit Sister. As traffic slowed to 5mph I announced our arrival in London. Girly no1 shouted in glee “Daddy’s office! Yaaay! See Daddy!” Well, that was after she argued with me that we weren’t in London because we weren’t in an office. Obviously the diverse range of people, tall buildings and ludicrous number of bikes was not how she pictured our great capital. As she nattered away (constantly for the hour and 40 minutes it took for us to drive into East London), she told me when she’s bigger, she will work in an office on the computer. I told her she could fly to the moon; be a doctor and look after people; tend to lions if she wanted; she could be anything she liked. She said yes. Then “when Mummy is bigger, Mummy can be home with the kids”. I was so appalled I nearly knocked a Lycra-clad-skinny-legged bearded man off of his bike. I have no idea where this came from. It hit me in my deepest core. Besides the fact I have some weird thing about use of the term “the kids” (I just hate it, I don’t know why, I just find it derogatory), I’ve worked since I was 16 and have a very successful career. So I wonder who has been telling her that I’m staying at home with these “kids” and is that all she thinks of me? I accept that she is only two and a half and cannot remember 6 months ago when I was working 4 days a week, but I don’t think I am OK with her only ambition for me as “being home with the kids”. As usual this is not a slur on anyone else’s choices, it’s just not reflective of who I am. I have taken time off to be with her and her sister but I want her to aspire to be like Mummy because she is independent, confident, earns her own money, and gave her and her sister a happy life, not because she stayed home with the kids. I took solace in the fact she still had ambition and wanted to be like Daddy and resisted the urge to try and explain work and maternity leave. But what it did remind me of was the importance of me being a strong female role model and figuring out the best way to do it. Particularly as I’m not currently working and am at home with the kids!
In the end, I’ve decided she’s probably a little young to talk to about gender specifically. At the age of two, there isn’t really a difference between sex and gender but when we get to a point when there is, we’ll tackle it then. We can talk boy and girl, but we’ll do it in loose terms without restriction and minimise the stereotypes as best we can. How we react in situations when the topic of gender arises is also important. The next time we’re in Clapham and the crazy man in a dress donning a red handbag and cowboy boots cycles by, we won’t point or laugh, we’ll just nod and let her ask questions. And when she asks, I’ll do what I do at work and ask her “what do you think? Why?” and hope her views are more like mine than my Nana’s.
In researching this I came across this tip sheet that I thought was quite interesting and worth a read in case anyone is encountering the same conundrums.