It is impossible to avoid.
It starts as soon as the hospital staff hand you the pink hat, or the blue boots. The message is clear: this defines your child.
Should we brush it off as harmless? Or should we fight it?
I fight it. I fight it because I believe this is the beginning of the same forces that trap boys in displays of toxic masculinity, bottling up emotion, at best leaving them unhappy, at worst leaving them prey to mental illness, or alt-right chat boards. Our daughters fare worse, at best trapped under glass ceilings or, at worst, victims of gender-based violence.
It creeps in though, it’s unavoidable.
The girl at my son’s kindergarten, who asks why his sister in dressed in a skirt with pirates on it? Pirates are for boys.
Or the books we love despite their depressingly dated sexism. Richard Scarry is a repeat offender. I give radical feminist interpretations of classic books like Dear Zoo, making half the animals ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. Even new books fall into this trap, like the current favourite about a boy and a dragon- a male dragon, of course. I call the dragon ‘she’ and ‘her’ and guess what? The book still makes sense.
MJ whispers, he wants to wear his ‘dancing skirt’, a pink tutu we were handed down. He spins and pirouettes on our bed, dancing even when the radio is between songs. Once wearing the skirt he loses any inhibitions but I wonder, where did he learn that we might not like him dressing in it? I cheer him enthusiastically, trying to chase any doubts away.
Yesterday MJ made a bracelet at kindergarten. Silver and white and brown and pink plastic beads on a piece of elastic. He was so pleased with it. Silver is my new favourite colour. He runs his finger over the beads, leans against me, tells me something his best friend said
“He didn’t like it, but then he said he didn’t mean it.”
Head bowed, I can hear the hurt in his voice.
“Even if he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t a kind thing to say, was it?”
He sighs, wounded. I kiss his cheek. He leans in further
“Vank you for my lovely kiss.”
I breathe him in, my boy who can roll out a danish ‘soft d’ like a native speaker but can’t always manage ‘th’. He might be my big boy, but he is small and needs me still.
“Would you like another kiss?”
I ask hopefully.
I am disappointed, but I respect his boundaries, and don’t kiss him. And there you have it, teaching consent to 4 year olds is really not that hard.
Buy boys dolls they say. MJ likes to play knights with his sword and shield. Not just knights, his interests are diverse, he likes to play vikings too. He doesn’t have a doll. Have I failed? Am I inadvertently entrenching the idea that nurturing is a female occupation? I take AJ into a toy shop and she reaches for all the dolls, grabs at the soft toys. This is something MJ never did. He has a monkey he loves, and he adores his cuski, a flannel baby comforter with a squishy ball shaped head. Cuski baby, he calls it. It is cuski he cuddles at night, and cuski who sits on cushions next to the table at breakfast, and cuski he pretended to feed while I fed AJ. He might not have a doll but his devotion to cuski shows his nurturing capabilities are intact.
I think back to when he was his sister’s age. He liked Maisy, and running to the window whenever he heard a plane, which was often because we lived under the flight path, and picking flowers. AJ likes Maisy, and running to the window whenever we hear sirens, which is often because we live near the fire station, and doing whatever her brother is doing. Their interests seem to have more to do with environment than any in-built gender differences. But what do I know, I’m a parent, not in marketing for toy companies.
I want the world to be a better place for both my children. I want their futures to be open, not confined by arbitrary roles. Gender stereotyping affects boys and girls. I want my son to imagine being a stay at home Dad, and my daughter to imagine working in STEM.
We’ve come a long way since my mother was told she could be a teacher or a nurse. Times change. Feminism has won, they say, you can do anything. At my intermediate school there was an extension math group, for ‘students’ who were good at maths. There were no girls in this group. I was sat next to a boy who was struggling in math class, expected to help. When I was asked why, they said because you are good at maths. Feminism has won, they say.
“Lets play Frozen” MJ says “I’ll be…” He leans in close, whispers “Elsa.” As though there is something transgressive about this idea. I marvel at him pretending to blast out ice. I usually play the ice monster. Roaring and chasing two giggling kids around the house. Why does he think I would mind?
My last conversation at the hospital with my mother, I don’t know how we got there, but I remember her saying girls can do anything.
“Yes” I replied “I’ll make sure I teach MJ that.”
She smiled, coughed, raised her index finger in agreement, “make sure you do.”
It is a promise I intend to keep.
There is just one thing wrong with that, I realise now. To teach him this, I need to teach him something else too. Boys can do anything.