And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear

It’s true that nowadays people are more accepting of the wide breadth of gender expression that people feel, rather than the strict gender binaries of yore. And while I fit into a fairly conventional gender role myself, I think it is really important that people have these freedoms. But I worry that our kids are being forced to define themselves much more narrowly than us adults. That while we dream about every colour of the rainbow, big business seems determined to tell how children how they should look.

Have you been into a kids clothing store recently? Where is the green? Red? Orange?

It’s pink. It’s blue.

And it isn’t that I think there is anything wrong with blue or pink. Or boys who like trucks, and girls who like ponies. My son has a very healthy obsession with various modes of transport. When M was born I quite happily stocked up on baby clothes from the boy section, mostly in blue, lots of cute puppies and robots. I love blue! I love robots! But as my son has grown I find the clothes are less cute puppies, more Angry Birds. I bought him a Batman t-shirt, but Batman looks quite frowny. My son loves flowers and cooking, and cuddling his little sister; he worries about growing up and being old enough to go for walks on his own because he will be ‘alonely’. It seems crazy to dress him as though his default emotion is rage.

Now I have a daughter, and my eye wanders over to the girl department, and they glaze over. I find myself frightened to enter. I swear those sparkly ponies are waiting for a chance to stampede. I swear if I squeeze through the aisle of pink frilly skirts I’ll get lost and end up in Narnia.

But what about when she is older? I want her to dress to please herself, not other people. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted. That she doesn’t have to look a certain way to have her bodily autonomy respected. I don’t want her to think she should look like a Disney princess. Or that looking like a Disney princess is somehow a reflection of inner character, and that all the baddies she meets in life will look like Ursula. That looking like Ursula means you are bad. Though tentacles would be unfortunate…

I want my children to know they are loved however they express themselves. I want them to wear a riot of colour, or black from top to toe. They can be as conservative or not as they like. But the messages all around them are so strong. The boys’ side, and the girls’ side of the clothes store. The shoe shop. The toy store.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to swim against the flow of that message.

And before you say, it’s just clothes, don’t you have bigger things to care about? The answer to that is ‘Yes’. I do have bigger things to care about than if dressing my daughter in too many of her older brother’s hand me downs confuses people. I have more important things to do than to shop once for a boy, and then do the same thing three years later when I already bought clothes that size, just because of a double X chromosome. I have more important worries than if a stranger thinks dressing my son in floral t-shirts because he loves flowers is ‘a bit gay’. Because frankly if he decided he was gay that wouldn’t worry me in the least. And also, that’s not how it works.

The wonderful thing about small children is how accepting they are. They are so curious, and can ask awkward questions, but when we show them things are normal, acceptable, they accept it. But they also take small samples to representative of the whole; my son saw one train driver, and since then every duplo train has a female duplo figure driving it. We need to stop dividing our children into dichotomies of girl/boy, beautiful/boisterous, nurturers/adventurers. Because if we teach them that this is how it should be, how can we expect true equality for them when they are adults? If we teach them these rules matter, how can we expect them not to conform?

I could choose to push hard myself against it. Choose to dress them defiantly. But them I’m forcing that. It has to come from them. I think living as immigrants makes it harder. M is the foreign kid at daycare; with foreign parents who, as one child charmingly put it, understand nothing (but I understood that!). He is a foreign language speaker, and although he is pretty fluent, danish is still his second language, and he has a slight accent. He gleefully wears his pink Hello Kitty glasses; even on dark winter mornings because actually they are eyeglasses, and ‘oh-oh everything is blurry.’ He wears t-shirts with dandelions and other flowers on them, because he loves them. How much more do we let him stand out before the wolves start circling?

It’s too early to know who my kids will be when they grow up. A is only eight months and her preferences are pretty limited so far. Three year olds change so quickly too. Every winter I quietly worry over how much my boy will change. So far each spring when the buds break through the soil my little florist returns to me. He wants to pick every flower. We are barely able to go for walks we spend so long collecting dandelions.

And this is how I want to parent. I don’t want to tell my children how to be. I want them to be. I want to nurture the best of them. To embrace and cherish what makes them unique. To keep it safe. Not in a glasshouse. Not dried between pages of a book. But wild, fresh and blooming for all the world to see.

New Zealanders – looking for gender neutral clothes for kids? This online store Freedom Kids is awesome.

Forgive me for my sinny sin sins

The night after my mother’s funeral my son discovered potato chips with dip. He stood at the coffee table absolutely devouring them. He was so full of junk food, he barely touched a more nutritious dinner later, and I could not have cared less. Quite frankly after the week we’d had, certainly the most stressful week of his life, if not mine as well, I thought the fact that he wouldn’t go to bed hungry was good enough. My extended family were still around; if any of them thought I should find the energy to instil good eating habits in my nearly-two-year-old they knew better to say anything. They joked about it with me, while playing games to keep him entertained.

How lucky I was that in a difficult time, experiencing a ‘parent fail’, I was surrounded by kindness.

Sometimes I wonder why kindness is hard to come by.

Online can be this amazing place where we share or get support, and I love it. Except for when it goes wrong, and then I hate it. Someone makes a joke, or has a bit of a whinge, and so often someone has to come along and throw in their expert ‘advice’, and all of a sudden people are made to feel shit about perfectly normal things that happen.

Here’s a test. A friend posts: So tired, the baby cries for hours and I just want it to sleep. Do you comment:

 A) That sucks. Hugs.
B) Feel for you. Bob used to do that. We ended up using a white noise machine. Do you want me to drop ours off for you to try?
C)We had a good bedtime routine and never had any problems getting Bob to sleep. He learnt it was bedtime, and always slept fine. You should read all the baby books.
D)I knew someone whose baby cried. It had this really awful disease, and they had to pay a doctor a million dollars to rub coconut oil on them and wave crystals around.

Congrats if you chose A or B. If you chose C or D, you actually get a big fat F for Fail. Generic advice that is actually criticism, or diagnoses for perfectly normal baby behaviour are never, ever helpful. Why is this so hard?

And then you get offline, and out in public. Oh boy. That’s when the real evil-eye, sledge hammer judging comes along. Obviously it is all our fault – can’t we all just control our children?! People look askance at the parents of the tantruming toddler, forgetting that tantrums are completely age-appropriate behaviour and not a sign of poor parenting. If we give in to get out of a humiliating situation then it’s our fault, because we are teaching them ‘to get their way’. Or people think we should be prepared to pack up and go home. But once I have dressed two kids in snowsuits, mittens, hats & boots and gone out, maybe, just maybe, I would prefer to arrive home with the food I wanted to cook for dinner tonight. And if we ride it out it can be terribly embarrassing. Like the time M had a meltdown over wanting to ‘choose’ the bottle of coke, and I’m standing there like ‘I swear he doesn’t know what it is!’ but everyone is watching…I felt slightly better when the next time it was a 2kg pack of birdseed. Slightly.

The other day I found myself in town, with A asleep in the pram and a bit of time to spare before I needed to collect M from daycare. I decided to try clothes shopping. And of course I manage one shop before A wakes up; while I’m trying on a t-shirt. And you can’t pick up a baby while wearing a top you aren’t going to buy, so I have to change quickly, while she cries in the pram and everyone is staring, and I’m pretty sure the guy talking to his girlfriend in the changing rooms copped an eyeful of my stretchmarks and feeding-bra while I scrabbled to get clothes on and comfort A in her pram parked outside the inadequate curtain. And of course A doesn’t stop crying even when I pick her up. But I did like a cardigan, so I push the pram one-handed over to the counter and wait, and everyone is staring and going ‘aww’ at the poor baby. Because of course I am just a shopping obsessed woman who cares more about clothes than making sure her child’s basic needs are met. And this is why my wardrobe is entirely made-up of maternity clothes or clothes that don’t quite fit. Apart from one nice new cardigan. And how often do you see or hear snarky jokes about how Mums with babies don’t dress nicely?

Then people judge the parent who over-reacts at naughty behaviour. Without asking if that was the first or the millionth infringement of the day or week. Children are experts at winding their parents up, and sometimes even the best parent loses their cool. That doesn’t make them bad. Or their kids bad.

Or we judge them for ignoring something that we think should be stopped. I know I ignore some behaviour that other parents wouldn’t. But there are only so many boundaries I can enforce each day; and only so many times I can tell him off before we get into a negative spiral, that leaves me feeling like a nag, and my son feeling picked on. So sometimes, when it doesn’t matter, we turn a blind eye. Less ‘No jumping on furniture’, more ‘No jumping on the furniture near the full length glass windows please’. We’re not the only parents who do this. It’s not ill-discipline. It’s just that we expect our three year old to get carried away, to forget himself, to be over-exuberant, and we save our energy for the times we think discipline really matters.

And then, oh god, feeding a baby in public. Breastfeeding = bad. Bottlefeeding = bad. Solids = messy and gross to watch. Then you have a small child, and if you give them a treat then the wrath of god falls upon you. Don’t you realise you are setting them up for modern ‘lifestyle’ diseases? Because people can make an accurate judgement of your child’s actual diet based on one that one time (ok, more than once) you bought them a cake.

We spend our lives around people we don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know who’s sick. Who’s grieving. Who has just lost a job. Who is celebrating a new one. Whose kids have genuine behavioural disorders and special needs. Who was up consoling and comforting a loved one when they desperately needed a sleep.

And it can be hard to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s really going on. It can be hard to know the right thing to say, or how to help. And sometimes we say or do the wrong thing. I know I’ve done it.

Try not to judge me too harshly for it, please?