Raising Girls and Boys in a Gendered World
You know, it’s weird. I started this pregnancy with a feeling I was incubating a boy. I was excited about that…though also excited about the idea of having another girl! I felt sure that no matter what the ultrasound technician told me down the line, that I’d be both thrilled and a tiny bit disappointed that I got what I got and not the other. And I figured that was a pretty good mindset to be in, being soooooo excited about either sex that I’d find myself bummed that I only got one (not that I wanted twins, because. gawd no…ADD mom + twins = disaster waiting to happen). But as 18 weeks and the second ultrasound approached I found myself feeling more and more anxiety, and even some depression at the nagging feeling that MicroDork was not a girl. I’m sure with deep psychoanalysis, a psychiatrist could list a whole host of reasons for my growing enui. I imagine it may have had something to do with a subconscious sense that MiniDork is no longer, and will never again be, my baby girl. It also probably stemmed somewhat from fearing that I just won’t be able to stumble my way into being a good parent to a boy with a boy’s needs. And I am fairly certain it also grew from the deep fear (that I still have) that extended family, friends, strangers, and the whole world really, will treat my son differently than my daughter (a fear I’ve already started to see confirmed as people enforce arbitrary ideas about gender and what “boys do” verses what “girls do” when talking to MiniDork about her coming brother). I cannot bear the thought that one of my children will grow up in a place of privilege that my other will not, based on nothing but their genitals and archaic notions about gender. But I also cannot bear the thought that my son will receive messages from society that any “feminine” traits or interests he may have make him less a man. I know that things are getting better, over time, but change comes far too slowly for my taste. The deep-rooted ideas about what is OK for boys to like and what is OK for girls to like is so insidiously pervasive that the conditioning starts before our babies are even born.
Immediately after the ultrasound, I was a bit depressed. I hid it best as I could as I called to tell my mother she’d have a grandson, but inside I was disappointed to say the words. Granted, MiniDork had to be woken early that morning because the appointment was first thing…and this is not a kid who handles being tired well. She was a bit of a rude terror the entire time. I had to lie still, covered in goo, listening to the sounds of poor ManDork try to contain her – which does not lend itself to a special, bonding experience with one’s growing baby. But, and I won’t lie,* I was sad I wasn’t going to birth a new daughter for myself and a sister for MiniDork. By day’s end I was just as ecstatic as I’d been in early pregnancy (a feeling that couldn’t have been hurt by going out and buying the very first “boy clothing” for MicroDork – an incredibly discounted, orange plaid, button-down shirt from the Old Navy clearance rack). In fact, I’m falling so deeply in love with my son now that I can hardly understand or remember feeling how I felt just a week ago. I love my baby boy, and now the idea that our family could ever have been anything but ManDork, me, MiniDork, and baby brother MicroDork seems so nonsensical that it almost makes me laugh to think I once wanted it differently.
However, not all is well. As I said, I do still feel concern about the messages the world will teach my children about who they are based on what’s between their legs instead of in their heart and in their head. Just as I felt righteous outrage during MiniDork’s infancy that the boys’ department sold onesies that said things like “Future Artist,” “Future Doctor,” and “Future Engineer” while the girls’ section was hawking onesies that said “Princess” and “Adorable” and “Pretty,” I am filled with indignation at the sense that retailers feel my son is somehow obligated to develop an interest in football, tools, and every vehicle known to man (cars, trains, planes, boats, helicopters, motorcycles, and on…and on…and on…). We teach our children, by the way we segregate toys in the toy store, to the way we totally lose our shit when a mom paints her son’s toe nails, that this, but not that is OK for boys.
Now, there is a growing acceptance for girls to like so called “boy” things. It’s not universal by any stretch of the imagination. Last year Uncle Dork overheard a father telling his daughter that “helicopters are for boys” when she asked if she could please have a toy helicopter. Before that we saw the story of the little girl who loves Star Wars (a story with an end equally as heart-warming as it’s beginning was depressing). And I have been unusually blessed to have the sorts of parents, who, even two decades ago, had enough love and common sense to accept and encourage my own interests in “boy” things, from dinosaurs to, yup, a deep obsession with Star Wars. Heck, despite my own lack of interest in the boring sport of tee-ball, they signed me up repeatedly to be one of the only girls on the little league team. They never taught me that my sex automatically prescribed me to accept society’s gender expectations. I’m so grateful to them for it, and it warms my heart to see more and more parents encouraging their girls to pursue anything and everything (including engineering!) in whatever ways work for their family. Sure, there’s some simple “pink-washing” involved, but it’s a step in the right direction.
But the subconscious zeitgeist still seems to hold the notion that “girl” things, are less worthy than “boy” things. It’s growing increasingly OK for girls to want to do “boy” things…but the reverse just isn’t happening at the same rate. Attribute that to sexism, homophobia, unwillingness to change, or some mix of all of the above. The practical matter is that the problem exists. I can dress my MiniDork in blue and no-one bats an eye. I promise, if I ever put MicroDork in pink, somebody will raise a stink. MiniDork wants to choose pee-wee hockey over figure skating? No biggie to most people. After all…hockey is Canada’s most beloved sport. But the fuss people would make over MicroDork doing figure skating (despite it being a difficult and demanding physical pastime)? Oh geeze. And the things people will say about me, the mom who’s going to give her son his own dolls to play with, sign him up for dance (provided he enjoys it), teach him to bake, and raise him to be every bit the feminist as his sister? I can only imagine the reactions I’ll get.
But I’m deciding here and now that I refuse to give a damn. I will not compromise my children’s futures and happiness to appease the mass of strangers clamoring for them to conform. I will make sure they both know they are fully supported in their interests (whether MiniDork likes fashion or fencing and whether MicroDork likes tee-ball or tea parties). I will not allow my own anxieties about approval from others impact my children. I will not raise them with the same insecurities. The greatest gift I can give them is the deeply rooted belief that it only matters what YOU and the people you value think. My own childhood, one filled with bullies, would have been far easier if I had learned that lesson better from the wonderful parents who always supported my uniqueness.
I won’t ask anyone to parent exactly like I do (though I do hope my words will inspire some people to at least think about what they’ll teach their kids about gender roles), but I will ask this:
Please don’t tell my kids what they should and shouldn’t like, and should and shouldn’t do based on their sex. Aside from it being bad for them, and bad for society…it’s not your place. You are not their family. And if I catch you giving them messages, explicit or otherwise, that teach them that being a boy means being a certain way and being a girl means being a certain way I promise, to you, to myself, and to them, not to let it slide. I will, if I like you, take them aside and teach them better, and I may, if you deserve it, call you out on your bullshit. I’m not going to sit by and let you tell my daughter that “she’ll have a husband who buys her things some day because men like pretty girls” (YES! That really happened!). Nor will I let you say in front of my son that “dolls are for girls” or that he can’t wear any color he likes (including pink). And if you don’t like the way I’m raising my kids, then you can kindly go take a long walk off a short pier.
*I won’t deny it, because I think it’s important for people to know that it happens, and it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad mom. I think a lot of moms feel that society expects them to be glowingly happy their entire pregnancy, no matter what, but that’s not fair and it’s never true. Big life changes + hormones + fear of the unknown = pregnancy freak outs.